May 2015 : Crete

The plan: Having arrived in Crete last September we gradually realised that it is not exactly an ideal cruising ground for yachts. The island is subject to very strong winds both summer and winter with briefer interludes of calmer weather in the autumn and spring. There are few safe locations for yachts - the north coast has only 3 ports and one serviced marina, between which there are bays which are often untenable due to the north winds screaming down from the Aegean. The south coast has even fewer harbours with a barren, rugged steep-to coastline prone to fearsome and unpredictable gusts. We were keen to see something of the island, but realised this would be better done by land than by sea. We decided therefore to start our land activities in Crete early enough to allow us to get away from the island before the infamous Meltemi (strong northerly wind which dominates the Aegean from mid June) sets in. We are hoping to reach the far north of the Aegean over the summer, but will need to make a somewhat meandering course in order to avoid these headwinds – which will of course give us a chance to visit lots of islands. The trip as the crow flies would be around 350 miles – not terribly ambitious, but our route will take us considerably further. We may of course also find ourselves having to navigate the collapse of the Greek financial system – whatever that may mean.

We spent the winter in the somewhat DIY marina in the port of Rethymno, about a third of the way from the western end of Crete. As we felt our berth was slightly precarious we paid Aremiti a visit in January to have a look at winter conditions for ourselves. Secretly hoping for calm, clear, sparkling winter weather, the wind started picking up as soon as we arrived. The week threw everything at us – 50 knot winds, torrential rain and snow – the most they have had in Crete for 12 years. Winter in RethymnoIt was very exciting and we were actually quite pleased to have experienced these conditions. We were very snug in the boat (once we'd acquired a cheap fan heater) and later in the week went out for a couple of wonderful drives through the snowy mountain landscape – the sight of trees laden with ripe oranges, in the snow, was quite bizarre. As conditions improved Chris found the resolve to brave the water to check and re-tie some of the under-water stern lines attached to blocks and chain on the sea-bed and even added a 5th line for good luck. There is a small community of liveaboards at the marina. It was good to get to know them and to be reassured that they would keep an eye on Aremiti in our absence – more than the marina would do.

We returned to the boat early in May to hear that Crete had experienced an unusually severe and wet winter, and so were relieved to find Aremiti in great shape. The same could not be said of the fire hydrant positioned on the pontoon just where the bow must have surged in at some stage, even though we were positioned a couple of metres out from the pontoon - Aremiti had definitely come off best. We immediately got down to our pre-cruising preparations, having moved the boat to a rare alongside berth. Julia set to recoating the teak, re-painting the deck, spring cleaning the interior, doing a major food re-stock, and cleaning dinghy. Chris worked at the routine engine checks, washing the seriously mucky ropes and deck, refitting the deck gear, polishing the coaming, wiring in USB power sockets, diving to scrape weed and barnacles off the propellor and generally getting us set up for the summer.

We had accomplished much of what we needed to do by the time our walking friends arrived four days later, to stay in a villa nearby. We moved into landlubber mode for a week, joining them not only for walking, but for sightseeing and enthusiastic sampling of local delicacies. We visited Minoan Knossos – palace of the staggeringly ancient first European civilisation, with its controversial restorations which we found quite helpful in envisaging the palace. Highlight of the week was walking the awesome Samaria Gorge – 11 miles with 1200 metres of descent– not much less than Ben Nevis. The terrain was difficult – loose rock and pebbles all the way. Were told by a guide that in 26 years of walking the gorge she had never seen so much water, due to the unusually heavy rainfall over winter. While this added to the beauty of the gorge, two days earlier a large number of walkers had been trapped overnight by a flash flood and the walk was made more difficult by the numerous river crossings over precarious stepping stones, rather than the normal stroll along the dry riverbed. The only downside was Julia's painful loss of two big toenails over the following week.

When the week was up we reverted to sailing mode and after a day completing our final preparations we set off with walker Bob, for a gentle cruise eastwards along the coast from Rethymno. On the first day, the forecast wind did not materialise, so we motored to Ormos Bali, a resort 17 miles along the coast, where we anchored for the night in slightly rolly conditions. Our progress was not helped by the veritable forest of weed which had sprouted on the hull over the winter. The passage was uneventful, apart from readings of apparently high and fluctuating oil pressure. However, after investigation this turned out to be a fixable problem with the gauge, rather than the engine, so all was well. Light relief was provided by the sighting of three cavorting turtles. The following day a westerly wind gave us good sailing and we goose-winged the 23 miles to Nisos Dhia, a barren island 7 ½ miles off the coast at Heraklion. We anchored in flat water in a deserted bay whose main feature was a curious little shrine situated in a cave at the water's edge.

On Bob's final day we moved across to Heraklion in a rolling sea to deliver him to the airport. We approached the large port of Heraklion with some dread. All the pilot information about berthing there is extremely negative with options ranging from highly unlikely to seriously unsatisfactory/dangerous. Bob was given anchoring training in preparation for mooring stern-to. The harbour was deserted with acres of flat water, despite warnings of hectic shipping movements. Noting the options of the main harbour wall (little to tie to + protruding rebar) and outside the Port Authority offices (very high wall + likelihood of fouling the anchor), we proceeded into the Venetian Harbour, not expecting to find a space but were lucky enough to find about 4 empty berths with alongside pontoons – luxury beyond our wildest dreams! The berth we chose turned out to belong to a yacht currently in the shipyard - perfect! Checking in at the Port Authority – a drab warren of offices where we climbed two flights of stairs to the office to pay our dues - we were charged the grand sum of 8.86 euros. Chris cheekily asked how much the cruise ship Oriana, in port the previous day, had paid. The official obligingly checked in the same receipt book to find that they paid 1500 euros!

The rest of the day was spent checking out Heraklion's two superb museums. The Archeological Museum full of artifacts from Knossos and numerous other ancient sites in Crete – the age, number, quality and beauty of the exhibits was awesome. Then on to the Historical Museum of Crete - much smaller – taking Cretan history through to the hard fight for independence and on to the Second World War which was particularly interesting.

Bob departed for his flight late afternoon – leaving us to set off for a walk around the mighty Venetian walls of the city. Heraklion has a pretty awful reputation. True, it has execrable architecture and, apart from the Venetian harbour with its magnificent arsenals and fortress, only a handful of minor sights. It can only be described as scruffy, dusty and unlovely. However, its bustling and lively friendliness belie its description as 'one of the least pleasant cities of the Mediterranean'. We enjoyed a very good meal out to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Having met when each in our early days of sailing, it is always hard to believe where we have got to in our own boat over the years.

The next day we continued eastwards along the coast motor-sailing without enough wind to make the 40 mile leg in reasonable time. As we puttered along happily observing the barren mountainous coastline and odd coastal resort and feeling grateful for good current going our way, the propellor suddenly started vibrating alarmingly. Stopping the boat, resident hero Chris went into the water to find and remove a large plastic bag caught up in the prop - and we continued on our way. Finally after several hours, the forecast wind piped up and we got sailing on genny and mizzen, encountering the typical wind acceleration effect as we rounded Ak Ioannis.

Finally, into Spinologa Lagoon to anchor in a quiet bay. Here we spent a few supremely relaxing days – reading, swimming, walking ashore, a few minor jobs and mooching around the lagoon anchoring at various locations to visit the pleasant little resort of Elounda, the isthmus forming the southern end of the lagoon and most interestingly the fascinating and picturesque Spinolonga island – iconic Venetian fort and later Leper Colony.

The final leg of the month was 10 miles into the marina at Aghios Nikolaos. Bearing in mind a forecast of strong winds the following day, we set off early into some already ominous looking weather. Berthed safely in the rather tight marina, full of British boats, we spent an afternoon being buffeted by strong winds come early. We arranged a haul-out for the following day (requiring a great deal of information including the full names of both Chris' parents) to carry out the annual hull scrub and re-anti-fouling which hadn't been possible in Rethymno. At this point Julia left the boat to return home for a week of family committments, leaving Chris with the fun of scraping and painting the hull and replacing wind generator bearings.