Aside from travelling, I have a few other pastimes that occupy my time and my mind. One of those is sailing, and as my experience has grown I have been able to enjoy the hobby while travelling. Sailing in picturesque warm locations is a real treat and a reward for the work put in learning the skill. My first sailing experience was as a passenger on an Egyptian felucca, dawdling on the calm waters of the Nile. We admired the great city of Cairo on each side of us, the water shielding us from the mayhem of its streets. Our skipper spoke no English; he scurried about his little wooden boat barefooted, making sure he caught the best of the gentle afternoon breeze. Having just hopped off a taxi in a city that doesn’t stop bustling, this memory has always been coated with a very healthy dusting of romance.
However, it is only now that I have learned enough to go on a sailing holiday rather than go sailing on holiday. Now I am someone who has chartered a yacht! My poor wife has been subjected to varying levels of torture since I’ve taken up this pastime – she’s had to put up with me going off to do courses, she’s had to listen to me talking about it, and now she’s even been dragged along to live on a cramped boat for a week when she could have been staying in a nice hotel. She got just one night in a hotel in Athens before we boarded our vessel in Poros, a small island very close to the Greek mainland.
Our total time in Athens didn’t amount to very long, and we took advantage of the economic situation there, booking into a five star hotel at a very reasonable price. But even taking that into account, it is worth noting that the city that we saw was not bleak in appearance or atmosphere. I’m not commenting on the problems that the Greek people are facing, just saying that there is a busy cosmopolitan centre to Athens that is still quite tourist-friendly. In our short time sightseeing there, we visited the Acropolis and the original Olympic stadium. I even ran a lap on the track! (Athletics is another pastime of mine.) Our visit to the Acropolis was marred by miserable weather, so unfortunately I don’t have an impressive photo of the Parthenon to put up here.
We travelled from Piraeus by hydrofoil to Poros. The town sits on the southern edge of an island and faces the mainland and the town of Galatas just a few hundred metres away. The island is really two islands connected by a small bridge. The mainland, however, is only connected by an overhead power line but is reachable by water-taxi. Our yacht was berthed on the edge of Poros town in this narrow channel separating the island from the mainland.
I began my sailing ‘career’ in a wetsuit sailing small one-man dinghies getting quite wet. Last year, I crewed on a few yachts most of which were about 21-27ft long, quite a modest size for a sailing yacht. Towards the end of the season I successfully completed my ‘Day Skipper’ course on a lovely 36ft boat with a full complement of crew to help handle her. Earlier this year my Dad and I bought an 18ft boat. I have done some sailing in other vessels, but that’s a pretty rough picture of my range of experience prior to this charter. My wife had crewed for me on boats of 10-22ft in length. So, naturally, when choosing our charter boat I looked for something small and easily manageable. But people have to live on charter boats for a week or more, so the minimum size isn’t that small! Eventually I settled on a 29ft Jeanneau Sun Odyssey and booked it with a company called Greek Sails through the Globe Sailor website.
In the months preceding our vacation, I took my wife out sailing on our 18ft boat a number of times in an effort to get some practice in. It was useful, and it was fun but I was still left feeling like a 29ft boat would be a big step up. So when we arrived in Poros and we were told we’d been upgraded to a 31ft boat, I’m not sure it got the expected reaction! I didn’t want to seem incapable or ungrateful, but I suspect my face may not have hidden all my concerns. In hindsight, I’m glad we got the bigger boat – ‘Ellin’, a Sun Odyssey 32. It meant more living space, and from a sailing point of view we were always going to be a bit nervous on our first charter anyway, so it’s better to have come out the other side having overcome the challenge of handling a larger vessel. We got a quick lesson on parking the boat Greek-style before we were let loose and after that it was up to ourselves. Having said that, the guys in Greek Sails were always interested in our plans and I’m sure they would have been quick to tell us if we were being overly ambitious.
Cautious would be a more accurate word for our boating behaviour. On our first outing, we didn’t even hoist the sails. We took a good long look around our locality and got used to the boat. It was a windy afternoon and I think the swell was probably much bigger than we experienced on any subsequent ventures that week. The first time we did hoist the sails, we got a taste of what our boat might be capable of. Just west of Poros, in confined waters with only a light breeze blowing, I raised the canvas with my wife at the helm. With very little persuasion Ellin was already making her diesel engine look like the more ancient technology. Still in the bay, our manoeuvres needed to be timely – this stress combined with her inexperience at the wheel made my wife more than a little uncomfortable so our first sail was quite brief. That afternoon we had another go, with smaller sails. This was more relaxed, a little bit more like what people probably imagine goes on when they see sailboats from a distance.
Our trip was most of all a learning experience. For the first few days we never strayed far from our home port, and we always returned to the charter dock at night. We practiced anchoring with little success. We eventually got around to using our gas cooker, starting out with grilled toast and eventually progressing to sausages and potatoes! With a bit of experience under our belt we decided it was time to take on our first passage. We set out early for the mainland town of Methana, roughly six nautical miles from Poros. We motored out of the bay and hoisted the sails. It was a beautiful morning, but not a sailing morning – there wasn’t a breeze in the air. After a while we gave up on sailing and just motored on towards the little town in the distance. It was an enjoyable journey regardless, the sun beat down on us and the tunes of Rihanna and friends blared out from the stereo below.
The wind picked up as we approached our destination giving us some choppy waters to add to the stress of our first time entering an unfamiliar marina. We got the fenders on, got everything ready and slowly made our way through the narrow marina entrance. Methana is a sleepy town, overpowered by a smell of sulphur. The blaring sun, the smell, the quietness, the strange turquoise colour of the water inside the marina all gave the place an eerie feel. The final task of dropping anchor and mooring between the other yachts was always likely to be our biggest challenge. I tried to be calm and methodical, but I let the situation get the better of me and soon our anchor was caught on some ropes beneath the surface and things were getting a bit tense. Fortunately, two sailors ashore helped us out and eventually our anchor was free and we got tied to the marina wall. It turned out there were mooring lines available so we need never have dropped the anchor in the first place. Oh well!
With that drama behind us it was time to get out and explore our new home. Ice cream and cold drinks were necessary to recover from all that hauling of ropes under the Mediterranean sun. Our hosts at the cafe that we chose were very hospitable and pointed us to a great swimming location just north of the town. It was the grandest little cove, picture perfect with crystal clear water. Very cold crystal clear water I might add, but every now and again a warm current would rise up from the rocks giving away the secret of the sulphurous odour in the area. Methana is famous for its thermal springs, health spas and the healing qualities of the water here.
That evening the wind came sweeping in over the hills west of Methana. We secured our warps as best we could and headed into town for dinner rather than sit listening to the boats creaking. We ate well and tried to relax though the wind did not subside at all. When we returned to our boat everything was as we had left it but the wind was getting stronger if anything. We had a game of cards then quickly fell asleep to the rocking of the boat as the wind howled outside. It blew for hours but was pretty calm come morning. We paid our fee to the harbour police (less than €2), then made for Poros. Leaving the marina was simpler and less dramatic than coming in! My poor wife had a migraine so she went down below as soon as we were clear of the harbour and slept while I motored home. Making a passage alone like that was a nice experience – a feeling of freedom or trailblazing might best describe it. Although it would have been nice to sail the return passage if we’d both been well.
The following day we had a pod of dolphins for company. They were in playful mood, darting and jumping and racing alongside us. With the water being so clear you could even see them swimming in under the bow of the boat.
Aside from sailing, we ate in numerous restaurants around Poros but the options were quite limited. There was no shortage of restaurants and the food was fine, but there was little other than Greek, Italian or seafood to be had. There’s a fine clock tower in Poros and we climbed up to it and enjoyed the fantastic view. Downtime was spent drinking coffee with ice-cream in it or eating sweet things. On our last day sailing, we finally anchored in a bay successfully and went for a quick swim. To the typical charterer reading this account it may seem like we wasted our money, but for us it was a holiday of firsts and we achieved nearly all of our goals and gained lots of valuable experience. My poor sailing partner may have had a few too many nervous moments, but hopefully at least one of us will be back in Poros for bigger adventures in the future!
Finally, this blog entry has been quite a while coming. This is because I have recently found out that I am to move to Brussels for a new job. With all the planning to be done and getting things sorted before I go, it took a while to get this post written. I am very excited about this new travel opportunity for me and I hope to use it to see some more of northern Europe as well as experiencing working-life in a foreign country. I have to make a quick trip to Brussels this week but I’m not sure if it will be worthy of a post here!