September 2014 : The Peloponnese and Crete

We started this month with a rather more purposeful air than our gentle meander around the Ionian during August. Our basic objective was to get ourselves and Aremiti to Crete - about 250 miles as the crow flies - in time to settle her in for the winter and to catch our flights home by the end of the month. However, we also wanted to see as much as we could of the Peloponnese - the southern part of mainland Greece and location of much of its history. We knew that this part of our voyage would be more rugged and remote - the area is not a busy cruising ground for yachts, no doubt because of its forbidding geography - particularly the capes at the southern end which have a notorious reputation for strong winds.

Mostly all went according to (the very flexible) plan, though there were a couple of glitches along the way. At the start of the month a pump in the engine developed a leak - the first problem we have had with the new engine. We were somewhat reassured by advice from the manufacturers in the UK that it was probably OK to continue - for a while - but it created an underlying anxiety we could have done without. We also experienced our first ever blocked heads issue, which turned out to be a massive lime-scale build up in the pipework. Chris, in hero mode, got to grips with the problem dismantling much of the plumbing to unblock pipes. Finding a product to deal with lime-scale was not easy in Greek!

We left the Ionian Islands from Zakynthos with a forecast of perfect northerlies for the eastward passage. What we got was 25 miles of flat calm - all the way to Katakolon on mainland Greece. This was a strange little town whose sole raison d’etre appeared to be catering to the huge cruise ships berthing there every day, disgorging their passengers to visit Olympia - home to the ancient Olympic Games for over a thousand years. This enormous site of rambling ruins set in a shady valley was magnificent and atmospheric - extraordinary to stroll around where the athletes trained in ancient times and to view the original Olympic stadium.

Next to Pylos - 52 miles down the west coast of the Peloponnese. This delightful little town is situated at southern end of the great bay of Navarino which has seen various significant naval battles from ancient times to the battle of Navarino in 1827 - the last major battle between wooden sailing ships and decisive in the Greek war of independence from Turkey. We took to Pylos in a big way - from its mighty Venetian/Turkish castle dominating the entrance to the bay, to the shady town square surrounded by elegant shuttered buildings built by the French - and decided to stay on longer than planned. After a couple of days in the ‘marina’ - apparently ownerless and devoid of facilities, but secure and free - we ventured up into the bay to anchor off a beach in glorious turquoise water, complete with a nearby wreck.

But we needed to keep moving, so next was the short passage to Methoni, situated on the south-western tip of the Peloponnese behind a headland, dominated by another mighty Venetian fortress - in fact a whole enclosed town with streets, a church, mosques and other buildings – as well as some mighty walls and, across a causeway, an octagonal Turkish fortress. Methoni In medieval times this was one of the 'Eyes of the Serene Republic'. The other ‘eye’ was Koroni, around on the eastern side of the cape - sleepy, atmospheric and run-down with numbers of grand but almost derelict houses - and of course, the inevitable Venetian fortress. Lest we were getting bored with Venetian fortresses, this one was different, the buildings within its great ruined walls now occupied by a convent. We were welcomed by a very friendly nun and invited to look around the site which included several chapels, orchards, outbuildings and a flock of sheep – all extremely ramshackle - chaotic but tranquil. By now, as we approached the more unforgiving territory of the southern Peloponnese with fiercer conditions and fewer safe havens, we were checking forecasts regularly, looking ahead to the final leg across to Crete. Crete is not the easiest of locations for a yacht, not least because of potentially difficult passages to/from each end of the island. We had become somewhat spooked by a couple from a British yacht, authors of a cruising guide to Crete, who advised us in no uncertain terms to pick a period of complete calm for the 66 mile passage, warning of 4-5 metre seas building up in any wind at all. This rather conflicted with our desire to sail, not least to save the engine in view of the leaky pump.

From Koroni we set off across Gulf of Messinia towards the forbidding looking mountains of Mani Peninsular to round Cape Tainaron - the second most southerly point of mainland Europe (Tarifa in Spain is 14 miles further south). Having enjoyed gentle conditions for so long, we had forgotten the ‘cape’ effect. Manniot buildingsPorto Kayio We were thoroughly enjoying a perfect sailing breeze on the western side only to be blasted by a furious wind blowing hard off the land on the other side, catching us with too much sail up and bending the bimini. We hectically arrived at the entrance to the little bay of Porto Kayio to anchor in flat water, though still assailed by gusts hurling down from a gap in the encircling hills. This remote spot, at the end of the Mani Peninsular felt a world away from the cushy, pretty western Peloponnese, its ruggedness emphasised by the idiosyncratic Manniote architectural style - little hamlets way up in the hills with houses and mini towers built in grey stone - very square and severe. The locals are tough and rugged too - we woke the next morning to the sound of gunshots reverberating around the hills - bird shooting we were told. This being mid/late September, we can sadly guess what sort of birds these were.

Our next leg took us across the Gulf of Lakonika to the island of Elafonisos, just to the west of Cape Malea - the third and most fearsome of the capes of the Peloponnese. Elafonisos Here we anchored in an idyllic spot off a sandy spit in utterly gorgeous sparkling clear turquoise water. We could only too easily have lingered here indefinitely, but time was pressing with forecasts indicating strong winds due in two or three days. So we set off south to the island of Kythera - just 13 miles, crossing the surprisingly busy shipping lane between the Aegean and Ionian Seas, to the island’s main ferry port of Dhiakofti. We anchored in the bay, though not very convinced by the holding. All seemed well after a couple of hours so we went ashore to explore, keeping the boat in sight. However as a gentle breeze developed into a more purposeful wind, we had our first dread experience of sitting at a beach bar admiring Aremiti at anchor, gradually realising that she was on the move - not fast, but in short steps as the anchor must have been alternately dragging and catching. We hightailed it back in the dinghy and swiftly moved across the bay to moor on the side of the great concrete ferry quay, as the katabatic winds took hold, blowing strongly for several hours.

Next morning we were up before dawn for the anxiously anticipated passage to Crete, with a very satisfactory forecast of light westerlies. However once out of the harbour we found ourselves in an unexpectedly bouncy sea and enthusiastic wind from the east. Adjusting to the idea of a rough trip and recalling all our worst ever passages, both wind and sea soon calmed down and we motored the entire way in a rolly swell. The engine didn’t let us down and we arrived into Chania mid-afternoon and berthed in the wonderful Venetian harbour - outclassed by some rather large craft, beside a gigantic 62 ft catamaran whose beam was almost the same as our length - thrilled and relieved to have arrived in Crete.

Arriving in Crete a little earlier than originally planned gave us plenty of time to explore the magnificent city of Chania. Chania We wandered through enchanting little alleys and squares with great pots of plants, finding a large market hall with excellent food. This town has struck exactly the right balance with its prettification – everywhere nicely paved and clean, but buildings in all states, from perfect restoration to decay and dilapidation. There is lots going on - hundreds of tourists, but the city seemed able to soak us all up and retain its own character. We were particularly fascinated to talk to a guy who runs trips to Santorini in a long super narrow speedboat – 92 miles in 2 hours – top speed 65 knots - one thousand horsepower in 3 engines !

A few days later we set off on the final leg - 32 miles further east to Rethymno where we had arranged a winter berth for Aremiti. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, we were perplexed to receive no response to our VHF call though we were expected. After jilling around the very full marina we eased into a space alongside a quay, helped by a friendly resident English couple. The berth was useful for our preparations for winter - folding sails, woodworking jobs, etc., but not tenable for winter. We are leaving Aremiti in the water this year, and as both northerly and southerly gales can be expected, it was an anxious couple of days while we waited to be allocated a permanent berth. We are finally secured bows-to a pontoon berth which required some diving (more Chris heroics) to tie off four stern lines to laid chains and blocks. We have a friendly Greek neighbour and reassuring words from the security guards and will be kept in touch with how Aremiti is faring in our absence.

Rethymno seems a pleasant and useful town. In addition to the mandatory Venetian/Turkish fort there are supermarkets, hardware stores and a laundry nearby. A spell of excruciatingly hot weather making doing anything difficult and exhausting helped turn our thoughts to home. Aremiti As we leaving Aremiti was about to face her first test with a forecast of strong northerlies, which duly arrived - but we heard that she has weathered that test. And so, after a tricky start we have achieved this year’s goal - and covered a total of 1,389 miles across 5 countries.