Sailing Greece




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[ The first few chapters of a novel in progress. I welcome comments of all kinds - I would love critical feedback. -Jim ]



The year was 1991. The elder George Bush, as President of the United States, had invaded Iraq. The stated goal was to free Kuwait, but the story of that particular chase for oil has been told many other places.

The Olympic Circle Sailing Club (OCSC) in Berkeley, California, had put together a flotilla of five boats to tour the Greek Islands. The skipper of each boat was an OCSC certified sailor. The rest of the crew could be anyone. The sailing would be straightforward. There would be none of the risky shoals we faced in Tahiti. None of the open water sails offered in the BVIs. Yet, there would be challenges. Each person meets challenges in their own way; each crew in a way that reflects a mix of its members. This is the story of our sail.


The Story

I need a journal and my early morning shopping trip in Athens has produced an elementary school notebook: spiral bound, 20 blue-lined pages. The cover shows the Earth in four positions orbiting the Sun. I can't read Greek, but it looks to be the orbital position for each of the four seasons. Inside, the first page is a gaudy 10 color map of all the Greek states; very similar to the map of the United States that I used to have in third grade. On this particular map the region I know as Turkey is oddly missing any label. I wonder what Greek youngsters think when they eventually find out that the country next door is populated with real people expressing a real national identity. I guess that this map, meant to geographically educate young Athenian minds, in fact teaches them that their government controls what they think. Not a bad lesson to learn early in life. The second page is blank and here I begin the record of our sailing adventure.

"We" are a group of fifty tourists from the U.S. Some are casual sailors; some are weekend racing sailors; some aren't sailors at all. We've chartered six yachts to sail through the upper Cyclades (chick-la-dees) islands between Athens and Crete for the next two weeks. Several days ago we began trickling into Athens from any number of intermediate stops. This will be the first time most of us have met.

We'll sail out of Kalamaki harbor in Piraeus, on the outskirts of Athens. Our first night will be on the southern most tip of the Greek peninsula, Sounion Bay. Second, on the island of Kea. From there we'll hop counter clockwise through the Eastern islands as far south as Ios. We'll stay on Ios for several days and use the ferryboats to visit Santorini Island, perched famously on the side of a caldera, white and pure. Next we'll sail west on to Mykonos where two members of our flotilla have arranged to be married. Sailing north through the East Cyclades will complete the loop and bring us on back to Piraeus. It seems like a solid plan and we're eager to start. We want to put to sea.


Saturday Day: Kalamaki

Our crew is a mixed bag of sailors. I'm traveling with Bob Coulter, an old college buddy. Over the years Bob and I have stayed in touch through different jobs, different cities, and different friends. Now we both work for Hewlett-Packard.

<one vote to remove the next four paragraphs>
Reynold Schweickhardt is our skipper and the only real sailor on our boat. He and I first met eight years ago at HP. We have been on two other sailing vacations, the last one four years ago; for his wife, Lori, this is the first.

Reynold has brought along Debbie Plies and her boyfriend Dennis. Debbie worked with us in the past, but now lives in Colorado. Long ago she sailed with us on another adventure in Tahiti; Dennis has never sailed before.

I've signed up a co-worker, Nancy Moffet, and her husband, Jim. Nancy and Jim have day-sailed off the tip of Florida but this will be their first open water experience.

One trained sailor as skipper, two open water vacation sailors with limited experience, four-day sailors, and two novices. In total our crew is more experienced than the average boat crew in the OCSC flotilla.


Bob and I arrive on the Kalamaki dock just after lunch; the rest of "us" is already there. We've been assigned the 43-foot long, 12-foot wide yacht Shihan. She has two small berths in the back on either side of the engine compartment and two up front under the bow. The center salon is small but serviceable. Up top, the cockpit is in the rear with a steering wheel and tight seating for six. She has a nice bimini cover to keep the sun off the cockpit. There is one mast in the center of the boat. The boom extends back to the forward edge of the cockpit. It will be tight, but comfortable.

The check-in is going well. A charter company representative takes Reynold over the entire boat. Bow to stern, they cover the operation of every winch, line, motor, and gauge. Each of us is instructed how to turn on and off the breakers for lights, radio, engine, instruments (just two: depth and speed). Every through-hull fitting is examined; every deck plate is lifted. Reynold checks the entire ship inventory from linen and plates to safety flares and spare fuses. Operating procedures are reviewed and at-sea repair methods are discussed. As our skipper, Reynold has to know what could go wrong with this boat and how we would go about fixing it.

While all this is happening, Jim Moffett and I make a quick list of needed provisions: beer, soda, food. With a wave to our friends we set off to shop.


There is only one taxi on the dock and we ask him to take us shopping. The driver's hand signals "no"; heís spied another group that is preparing to go back to Athens and they will be a much larger fare than our trip. The dock is a busy place but there are no other taxis around, so we plead and beg until he agrees to help us. Using those primitive hand signals that all tourists and taxi drivers seem to know, we come to understand that he will drop us off at the store, but he won't wait for us to shop - we'll have to find another taxi back. That's good enough for us and we jump in. As the taxi rolls off the dock, we pull up next to the Athens bound group and our driver extracts a promise from them to wait for his return.

As soon as we are off the dock and the other group is out of sight, the driver hand motions that he'll wait for us at the store as long as we're quick about it! Ahhh, our first lesson in Greek business negotiation!

Here in Kalamaki our taxi driver is far from home and has no idea where a food market can be found. He stops to confer out the window with a dockworker and with a finger point we head off. Leaving the main road, we stop every block for more directions from pedestrians. Listening to the discussions the only word we can understand is "supermarket." Each time our driver asks for a market the reply is a head scratch and a finger point in yet another direction. Either the entire area is filled with supermarkets, or no one understands what the hell he's talking about. At one corner we even have two people simultaneously point us in different directions - we drive off in yet a third direction, leaving them to discuss their differences.

Doesn't anyone know how to get to a local market? At last a random woman on the street points definitively down a one-way road. With a command decision, our driver spins the taxi around and speeds off in reverse down the tiny street. Jim and I look wide-eyed at each other and brace ourselves against the doors. We're obviously going backwards so that our driver won't get a traffic ticket for going the wrong way down this one-way road. Hacks are the same everywhere.

The store front is a small door with ďMarketĒ written in big letters above the painted door. It is crowded with wet and dry goods. We donít have any idea where we are and we donít want to be stranded here so we cajole the driver to come in with us. He smokes a cigarette with one eye on us, and one on his watch. Jim and I grab boxes, bottles and cans almost at random. We need to get enough to last us several days until we reach another store.

At last we have as much as we can carry. We pay the bill, stuff the taxi, and suffer another harrowing ride back to the docks. At least this time the driver knows where heís going.


Back aboard Shihan our provisions and gear fill the limited stowage we have. Over the stove, above the bunks, under the sink, on the salon chair seats - every little space we can find is crammed full of stuff. Our crew is now ready to go, if only the boat was.

We still need linens and an outboard motor for our dingy. Delay, delay, delay, and more delay. After an hour of lounging in the cockpit the last of our equipment shows up.

It's now 6 p.m. and with only a few hours of sunlight left we set sail. We won't be able to make Sounion bay today. Scanning the charts, we randomly pick a closer port as our destination. Already we are behind our sailing plan.


Saturday Night: Screw up number one

Vouliagmeni is a two-hour sail South of Piraeus on the Greek coast. Entering the port we find a comfortably small harbor filled with large yachts - very large yachts. Some are four stories tall and large enough to keep Ari Onasis on board. All these ships are parked stern-to the cement quay.

The Book says to not drop an anchor but cruising around this very small harbor we can't find a mooring buoy. We are used to big, round white buoys with a large eyelet on top. They make excellent, easy places to tie up. From what we can see, it looks like all the other yachts have dropped anchors. The sun is going down and we have to resolve this quickly. We can see no other option and we vote to drop our anchor. It only takes a minute for us to swing around and slide in beside a large 75' motor yacht.

By the time Shihan is secured several locals have shown up to complain. Standing on the quay at our stern they point and shake their heads. According to them we should have backed to the quay and picked up small painter lines hanging on neighboring boats. Pulling these thin lines would bring up thicker lines that are secured to the harbor bottom. Those thicker lines are what we thought were anchor lines on the other yachts. The Book was not explicit enough for us.


The Book, as it is known, is officially titled "The Greek Waters Pilot". This one inch thick tome has something to say about every known harbor and anchorage within 500 miles of Athens. When heading for an island, The Book tells us what our anchorage options are; how protected they are; how to navigate to them and in them; what services are available; how good the food is in the immediate area. Itís the Greek sailorsí equivalent of a Lonely Planet travel guide.

The charter company sternly warned to ďgo by The Book." But The Book itself says that it may be out of date; what were we supposed to do? American West-coast sailors have a strong prejudice against touching someone else's boat. All the more so if the boat is a huge, expensive, motor yacht. Yet here in Vouliagmeni we were expected to sidle up to a massive yacht at random and take a line off it. We were set-up to screw up.

We vow to follow The Book's instructions to the letter for the rest of our trip. We will not doubt its wisdom again.


The locals eventually get tired of berating us and drift off to yammer at another new arrival. As we ponder our situation the Greek skipper of the yacht next to us leans over his railing to offer advice. Heís a handsome, sun browned older gentleman. He has a deeply warm voice and a smile filled with perfect teeth.

This experienced skipper tells us that we did well for our first night out but now we have a problem - our anchor is no doubt tangled in the web of mooring lines that crisscross the bottom of the harbor. He says we there is only one way to clear it. Tomorrow morning we have to float our dinghy out over our anchor and try to raise it directly vertical by hand. Trying a second time will hopelessly entangle the anchor. If we canít do it on the first try, our only hope will be to send a diver to the bottom to free the anchor.

With a contemplative look Reynold points to me and says, "Jim likes to swim."

The crew turns toward me.

"I recommend we hire a professional."


The anchor is a job for tomorrow. Now we must eat. Itís a short walk into town where we go in search of our first taverna. These small outdoor cafes are to be the mainstay of our land based meals. Iím so stressed out over the anchor screw up that the half-mile walk seems much longer than it really is. I'm tired and hungry. I need to eat and sleep.

Reaching town, weíre on one side of the street and two tavernas are on the other. The owner of each taverna stands on the edge of the street yelling for us to come over. We stop to consider our options from afar.

Jim Moffett leaves us and casually strolls across the street. I watch as he approaches the owners. He chats first with one owner and then the other. He shakes their hands; they slap his shoulder. He smiles, they smile. Standing on the far side of the street we talk over the relative merits of the two among ourselves. We have just decided to vote on which taverna to use when Jim yells over, "This way. One free beer for each of us!" Full of sudden smiles, we move off.

This is the first of many times that Jim will save us bucks by negotiating for every single thing we buy in Greece.


We sit in the clean open air outside our taverna at a long wooden table. The table is painted a thick, deep blue. Bare light bulbs glow under the patio cover. The night is comfortably warm.

The food is interesting. Raw octopus marinated in a dark sauce is the best; tender and mild, it has the consistency of firm butter. The fried squid is excellent, but the same can be bought anywhere in San Francisco. We also eat small sardine-like fish, each about 2 inches long. They are lightly battered and deep fried, whole. I've just mustered the courage to eat them like French fries, when Nancy Moffett points out that these fish still have their guts in them. Jesus, now I don't know if I can keep eating them. Facing my dilemma, Debbie decides to eat the bodies and guts, but not the heads. Who knows how she arrived at this accommodation? Debbie makes a neat pile of little fish heads on the edge of her plate.

The beer here is only 130D ($0.80) per half liter bottle. This is quite a deal; in the Athens supermarket we were charged 140D. We decide to supply our boat with 50 bottles from the taverna.

Jim begins his negotiating routine by asking for a good deal, but the waiter can't understand why we should get a special price for just five bottles.

"No", we say, "We want fifty."

"Five?Ē says he, holding up one hand with fingers spread.

I catch his attention and watch his eyes widen as I say "fifty" and flash him all ten fingers, five times in a row.

Bob Coulter holds his hands apart as if telling the biggest fish story ever and says, "Many".

With this gesture we have finally broken the language barrier and Jim is pulled into the kitchen to negotiate a price.

Weíve been drinking a lot, as bare-boaters tend to do, and Lori has been "touched" by the mild quality of this taverna's Retsina wine. The drink is concocted from a cheap white wine base mixed with a special flavoring, best described as the essence of fresh fir 2x4 timbers. Retsina is a Greek specialty, which the locals admit is an acquired taste. We've found that even experienced Retsina drinkers often require a "warm up" glass to reacquire the preference. Retsina can be bought anywhere in a bottle, but the best is made on premises by proud taverna owners. Each taverna takes great pride in the unique qualities of their personal product. Lori heads into the kitchen to see if she can get a bottle to go.

Our taverna owner is clearly both surprised and flattered that we have enjoyed his blend of Retsina so much. With a sweep of his hand, the owner accepts Jim's most recent offer. We get our fifty bottles of beer at 110D each, and Lori gets a 1.5-liter water bottle filled with Retsina for 350D. We all feel great.

The beer is loaded into a fleet of thin plastic supermarket bags. We each take one in hand and head to the street to hail a taxi. It's late, there isn't much traffic and we're a bit tipsy to stand in the street for long. Watching us swaying in the dark is too much for our taverna owner. He runs into his kitchen and returns with the keys to a mini van. We pile into the seatless van and sit on the floor as he speeds us back to Shihan. With all the bouncing around Iím doing, Iím glad I canít see the road.

Thanking him and complimenting both his taverna and Greek hospitality overall, we stroll to Shihan and crash in our bunks.


[ There's certainly more to be had, but this is all for now. You tell me: teaser or sleeper? -Jim ]