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Greek Safari: Leaving Samos and Pythagorion for Agathonisi - Day 1

by Richard Gladwell 31 Jul 02:06 NZST 31 July 2019
Fishing fleet around the quay at Samos town. © Richard Gladwell

This is not the definitive story on cruising in the Greek Islands. That has already been written by a New Zealander, Rod Heikell who cruised in the area for several decades along with his wife Lyn.

Between them, they have produced several cruising guides and kept them updated. Their Greek cruising was all done in small boats, under 30ft and covers many hundreds of harbours.

This series is for those who have a Greek islands cruise on their bucket list and wonder how to begin.

Our group of seven - are all members of the same family, all in our 60's and 70's. While in some families that would have been a recipe for disaster, we all seemed to hang in together, despite being on a 45ft yacht. The beauty of sailing in Greece is that the sailing never has to be more than 2-3 hours a day, and is best done at the start of a day. With Mediterranean mooring, it is easy to step ashore and have a coffee, beer, wine (always served chilled) and wonderful food.

Three options

For those who have not cruised in Greece, there are essentially two good periods - either side of summer - when you miss the strong winds, high temperatures, and tourist season - crowds and high prices.

There are three ways of cruising in Greece.

You can buy a boat, have it stored on the hard, and then serviced and returned to the water when you arrive with your crew. This seemed to work well with multiple owners who had shares in a boat and worked out who had the use and when. There was one big storage yard in Leros, and no doubt plenty of others.

You can bare-boat charter, as we did provided you have a skipper with some form of sailing licence/certificate and be qualified to navigate sail yachts, both coastal and open sea, operate radio communication and read charts - along with practical experience in the same. Fortunately, my brother had these qualifications and had kept them up to date, along with a lifetime of practical experience. He'd also cruised the area in his 20's and knew the lie of the land, so to speak.

You can be part of a flotilla, run by a skipper or cruise manager.

We started from Samos about the same time as a flotilla cruise - which was of ten days duration, had nine boats (mostly 50fters) in the fleet with about six crew on each. They turned out to be a big group of 54 sailors, many of whom had cruised several times with the same company. We were in two ports with this flotilla (all Australians), and it seemed to be a very good option, if you didn't opt for a bare-boat, or owned a boat.

Each flotilla crew seemed to be from the same club/area. We assumed they all knew each other before getting in the boat. It would be an interesting experience to get on board a boat for ten days with people you'd never met before.

The company (Mariner Boating Holidays) offers cruises in eight destinations including Greece, Turkey, Sweden and Spain. Working with a familiar company did have advantages for those who wanted the holiday but lacked the qualifications or experience. Some boats had hired their own skipper. Mariner also had an engineer travelling with the fleet - so all the issues can be resolved, plus this level of support is great for one's peace of mind.

Four other stays

Although we only cruised for a week, we did spend five days on Samos before heading off on the cruise, afterwards on Symi, Rhodes (in the Old Town), Symi and Spetses. We also did a ferry stop at Ydra.

The advantage of staying for 4-5 days on an island is that you immerse yourself in the area, meet and get to know more of the local people. Plus you can get off the beaten tourist track. The accommodation we stayed in varied from a home-swap, Airbnb, and cheap hotels - which were crash pads. Staying ashore wasn't that much different from a boat.

Obviously, if you were cruising alone and stayed in the same port for several days, you'd have a similar experience with the locals. On Samos, we were in the hills at away from the port and staying in a 16th century restored "village" built after the inhabitants retreated to the hills, and invisibility, to could get away from attacks by pirates.

A fast getaway

We picked up our charter boat, a Beneteau 45fter, at Pythagorion (yes it is named after the Pythagoras we all knew in maths class in school). The port is part of the ancient city of Samos before it was renamed in 1955. Samos (the old port), is reputed to be the oldest in the Mediterranean, and according to those who know, reached its peak of affluence around 500BC.

Pythagorion has an airport five minutes from the town, which is handy if you want to fly in. And equally convenient if you do what we did, which is to fly in a week earlier pick up hire cars at the airport relax on some of the beaches for a few days and then return the cars and sail off.

Our yacht was a standard charter layout with four cabins and two heads and showers. "Aeleos" (the Wind God in Greek mythology), was built in 2008, and while well used she was in excellent condition and well maintained. We didn't have any failures during the week, which is quite remarkable.

The handover is always tense as the vitals of the boat were explained by the owner, who had English as a second language - but spoke well. It is a lot to take in - and it was delivered with machine-gun rapidity.

Pythagorion is typical of many Greek towns in what it has a waterfront quay which serves as a road, loading area and outdoor seating area for the cafes/tavernas, which ring every port.

Most craft tie up Mediterranean style (bow anchor out and attached by two stern lines) and a passerelle or gangplank to give access.

The system is only workable in the Mediterranean because of the low rise and fall in tide (about 6" or a few centimetres), because of its very narrow exit to the Atlantic Ocean.

Our exit was probably the most dramatic part of the trip, given that the noise of the anchor winch drowns out any communication with the rear of the boat. The noise level created issues with the co-ordination of retrieval of anchor lines, the release of stern lines and getting the boat moving clear of her tightly packed berth - all with a Force 5 breeze blowing hard from astern. Suffice to say the incident underlined the need to have a brief crew talk, particularly when entering and leaving port, and at other times when trying to do manoeuvres when things can potentially go wrong very quickly.

We managed to leave one stern line attached to the dock.

The day turned out to have the strongest breeze of the trip, but really good for sailing, and all from astern or the stern quarter. In three and a half weeks in Greece, the skies were blue every day, no rain, and temperatures in this high 20's (mostly 29 degrees).

We were outside the regular tourist season, so everything was just opening up, prices were cheap to reasonable - a far cry from the gales and horizontal rain that we had left behind in New Zealand.

Different from the Hauraki Gulf

We had a fast and pleasant sail of almost 37nm to Agathonisi - which highlighted a few issues.

First of which is that all the islands in the Aegean look very much the same - rocks thrust up from the deep sea - all of which look very similar - near devoid of vegetation. The reason being the climate and deforestation which has occurred over the centuries for shipbuilding and firewood. As the people have moved out, the islands have regenerated. Now at best they are covered in hardy shrubbery.

That was quite a different situation from the first days when we stayed in the hills of Valeontades, Samos which were heavily forested.

The other issue was water depth - the other significant change from the Hauraki Gulf, with the depth sounder seemingly locked on 100 metres for most of the sailing. One of the locals tried to tell us that once you'd gone 20 metres offshore in Greece - you were clear of all the rocks. That wasn't quite correct, and sailing in the vicinity of a rock, reef or shoal was a fraught exercise as we were to see on the final day.

While the islands appear barren and not particularly inviting, the ports and villages have grown up around hospitable inlets, with the usual stone quay surrounded by taverna and other watering holes.

A navy wedding

Entering Agathonisi, we were greeted with the sight of a Naval Station with a large patrol vessel alongside complete with guns and rocket-launchers.

Several large 40-50ft charter yachts were already anchored in the bay, most flying the German flag.

Later in the evening, it turned out that the real purpose of the patrol boat's visit was not to intercept Syrian refugees, but to celebrate a wedding, which started in the late afternoon at a church overlooking the bay.

Greek wedding celebrations as we found out continue all night and go through various phases including fireworks displays, loud explosions, and accompanied by constant loud Greek music - which sounds great.

A swim to die for

It was here that we discovered one of the real delights of the trip - swimming in the crystal clear Aegean Sea, with its noticeably different salinity (but scientifically apparently the difference is minimal). It was certainly easier to swim in the Aegean with more buoyancy, it tasted saltier, and its temperature was just right to offset the 29-degree heat. Swims of up to 90 minutes became common by someone who only swims a couple of times a year in NZ. The water was just fantastic, and surprising was much less polluted than in the Hauraki Gulf.

We had to anchor in the harbour, due to insufficient water depth off the quay. It was the only time we anchored in a bay and was almost the end of the cruise.

A swim ashore established that the taverna was not opening until 7.30pm or later - for two reasons - the oppressive heat, lack of a cooling breeze and the setting sun beaming straight in on the outdoor tables.

After being anchored for an hour repeated whistling from the navy vessel indicated they wanted us to move - for an incoming ferry, and we shifted further up the bay - anchoring close to the shore on one side, but still in 40 metres of water.

Goat anyone?

Goat was on the menu that night at Georgio's Taverna. A dish that was made all the more poignant by the constant bleating of goats just over the back fence. From hoof to plate

The other choices on the menu were fish or calamari. Fish in Greece is not a great dish in my view. Most of what was eaten was small and would have been used for burley/bait in New Zealand. The other option was calamari or "why would you come to a restaurant like this to eat supermarket food" was the response to a question on any other menu options, from mine host.

The fish was pulled whole out of the deep freeze, scaled and gutted into the harbour, and flipped into the pan. Whether it was fresh into the freezer that day was never disclosed.

It was sundown midway through dinner, accompanied by much whistling from the direction of the navy patrol boat when the barbecue came to a temporary halt, and the matelots stood to attention as the Greek ensigns were lowered.

The breeze which had been light when we came ashore, changed direction and freshened quite dramatically, around sundown. A few minutes later, our sharp-eyed skipper noticed our boat was dragging her anchor and was fast disappearing behind the patrol vessel.

A rapid trip back in the inflatable and raising of the anchor revealed that its flukes were encased in a plastic bag which had been picked up as the anchor dug in. We anchored further out in the bay in deeper water and kept an anchor watch for the rest of the night.

Not that was much of an ordeal - night time temperatures were well into the 20's. We had survived the first day.

Part 2 will cover Agathonisi to Arki.

.

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