August 2015 : Sporades and Halkadiki

Greetings from Nea Peramos on the northern coast of the Aegean, where Aremiti will be resting over the winter. This summer we have covered 1,220 miles – not exactly the most direct route from our starting point- only 360 miles south of here as the crow flies – but we have enjoyed a fascinating meander up through the western Aegean with its changing terrain and architectural styles.

Julia arrived back onboard from a visit home at the beginning of the month, together with sailing friends Chris and Ginny – we all enjoyed the view of Chris and Aremiti anchored off Skiathos town as we made our descent on to the runway close by. The plan was to spend a week exploring the southern side of the Sporades Islands before returning Chris and Ginny to Skiathos for their flight home. We wasted no time and set off on the 14 mile hop south-eastwards to a bay on the island of Skopelos later that afternoon, enjoying an delightful sail to start the week. Unfortunately the bay was somewhat plagued by wasps - though luckily the local taverna was free of them - so we did not hang around the following morning, setting off first thing for Skyros. This is the southernmost of the Sporades, remote from the rest of the close knit group, halfway to the Cyclades and off the main yachting track. We had decided to head there first, in order to allow contingency for returning northwards in time for the flight home. Given the complete absence of wind over the previous few weeks, we hadn't really banked on this being needed, but in fact a meltemi struck as soon as we arrived. We sailed the 40 miles in a slightly lumpy sea and anchored (with some difficulty due to thick weed on the seabed) near the main port of Linaria for a night. The wind was beginning to increase and there were several squally gusts overnight, but as Skyros has a reputation as the 'windy island' we didn't think much of it. The following morning we went into the small harbour, hoping berthing wouldn't be too tricky (not wanting to mess up in front of our guests!) though the description in the pilot book was not promising. However, we were delighted to find an exceptional welcome there. The charming and friendly assistant harbour master dinghied out to tell us the options. We could moor fore and aft to buoys just inside the harbour, or come in to the quay where there were laid lines, electricity and water, showers, a 'library' and trolleys for our use. Undreamed of luxury - our lines were taken and we were in! We planned to spend a full day and overnight before moving back north to visit some of the other islands. However, it was just as well that we were so well set up as we ended up staying for a total of 3 days as a full meltemi blasted in, making it impossible to return north.

We spent a couple of lazy days observing goings on in the harbour – along with the select group of 8 or so other visiting yachts also weather-bound. The highlight was the arrival of the huge ferry Achilleas - clearly the most exciting daily event. Before it arrives queues of vehicles form and the police come out in force to direct operations amid much vigorous blowing of whistles. Then as the ship approaches the harbour it is heralded by the fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra blasting out from the hill side – surreal, hilarious and quite marvellous. More sublime was the blue underwater lighting after dark all along the quayside, magically illuminating shoals of tiny fish.

We visited the capital high above the rocky coastline - its narrow winding main street wending its way between the Agora Square up and down to Brooke Square. We visited the bizarre and idiosyncratic Faltaites Folk Museum, and climbed up a winding side alley through a quiet area of white Cycladic style houses and churches to the 13th century square stone Venetian kastro – only to find it closed! The forecast for the third day was still predicting wind and high seas so we used the opportunity to hire a car to explore the whole island. The island is in two distinct halves joined by narrow low lying isthmus. The southern part is rocky with strange stunted trees and scrub and is pretty much deserted, while the northern part, with lusher vegetation, is more like other Sporades islands. Highlight of the trip was the grave of Rupert Brooke who is buried here, having died of septicaemia brought on by a mosquito bite on a troop ship heading for Gallipoli in 1915. The solitary white marble grave in a remote olive grove was strangely affecting with its prophetic inscription: If I should die, think only this of me: that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England....

Eventually wind and seas abated sufficiently for us to leave and we sailed the 27 miles back northwards in very bouncy sea to Skantzoura - an uninhabited rocky island half way between Skyros and Alonnisos, noted for its rare birdlife. We anchored in turquoise water and lovely surroundings in time for lunch – during which an embryonic whirlwind a couple of metres wide blasted across us. It lasted just moments, whipping off Chris' hat, before tranquility returned.

By the following day there was no wind at all, so we had to motor the 40 mile mini cruise of the islands we'd planned to visit with Chris and Ginny. Leaving Skantrouza we passed between rocks and islands, heading towards the western end of Alonnisos, past the port of Patitiri. Then between more rocky red wooded islands for a peek into the harbour of Skopelos, anchoring off the beach just outside for lunch. Then on around the northern end of Skopelos to the port of Loutraki, where we observed a large ferry manoevring with amazing delicacy in the tiny harbour. Finally across back to Skiathos, where we chose an anchorage well away from the nightclubs pumping out techno from midnight to 6am. Wandering through Skiathos town it was remarkable to find how untouristy it is just one street back. After celebratory drinks at the bar on the Bourtzi islet, under pine trees looking out to sea and the old harbour, we climbed to the final taverna of Chris and Ginny's visit where we enjoyed the excellent view, excellent food and excellent company.

The reason we were so enthralled by the port facilities provided by Linaria in Skyros is that they were so unusual - all due to the initiative of one very enterprising individual who has galvanised the authorities to create this yacht friendly port. This summer we have been at anchor for 61 nights, on town quays for 23 nights, and spent 11 nights on alongside berths or rafted to other. We have not been in a properly serviced marina since Crete,where we hauled out in early June, and have only passed one other. Aegean town quays offer few facilities - they might have power and water but showers are unheard of. Mooring is stern or bows to the quay. A few quays, like Linaria, have pick-up lines ready to attach to the far end of the boat, but more often yachts have to use their own anchors (with endless scope for anchors being inadvertantly dropped on those of others, requiring complicated disentangling when time to leave). This manouevre – 'Med mooring' – is quite difficult to achieve in a centre cockpit boat with only two on board. You need someone to drop and pay out the anchor, someone to steer the boat towards the quay, someone to throw lines ashore and ideally someone to fend off other boats. It is quite impossible without help from someone ashore to take lines. We're getting better at this after a number learning experiences! Very occasionally we have been able to berth alongside in the 'British' way. Generally though we far prefer anchoring just offshore where there is more breeze, more privacy, less noise and less hassle.

After Chris and Ginny's departure and a day of domestic chores we left Skiathos to progress north-eastwards through the islands of the Sporades, in a series of very short passages. First back to Loutraki on Skopelos, where we were careful to position ourselves, using the additional kedge anchor, to keep well out of the way of ferries! We walked up to Glossa – a delightful hill-top town of alleys, steps and colourful climbing plants - and church being decorated by a little team of women in preparation for the following day's feast of the Assumption. Next to Skorpelos town, passing a couple of Mama Mia locations en route. The town is charming and inviting, rising up around the semi-circular harbour. The harbour-front is touristy, but more upmarket than Skiathos with a large number of Italian holiday-makers. From the Panagitsa Tou Pirgou church at one end of the harbour we climbed steps and alleys up along the walls of the Venetian fort, passing houses and three more churches en route – quaint and picturesque, painted bright white, steps outlined in white.

Next across to the southern end of Alonnisos to anchor in Ormos Mourtia – a pretty but open bay with clear water, good holding and an enticing path up to the old capital of the island. The only issue was a forecast for lightish southerly winds. We suffered for this decision with a night of ferocious pitching. However, the sea had calmed enough the next morning for us to walk up to the old capital. This was devastated by an earthquake in 1965 when the capital relocated to Patitiri on the coast, but has subsequently been largely rebuilt and restored into what is now a very tasteful mainly residential area, with a large British ex-pat community of a cultural and 'healing' character. Then on along the attractive coastline of Alonnisos with its beaches and pretty pink and red rocky cliffs and outcrops backed by a bright green mix of trees. Our next anchorage was in a deep bay at the southern end of the uninhabited island of Peristera which runs alongside Alonnisos. A beautiful and tranquil spot - not that we had it to ourselves, sharing it with a several other yachts all with lines tied ashore. Next to the little harbour of Steni Vala – now mostly given over to yachts – where we topped up our provisions before heading 11 miles north-east up the channel between Alonnisos and Peristera across to Kira Panayia. Rugged and barren, this is the first of the uninhabited islands and islets forming a nature reserve to the north east of the Sporades. Although only a couple of hours further on, it had a wild and remote feel to it. Approaching our chosen anchorage – another turquoise idyll - we were shooed off by officials in a launch because a controlled explosion was about to take place. However, an hour or so later we were given the all clear, but never discovered what it was all about.

We had planned on a couple more days in the Sporades, but in view of a forecast for a spell of unsettled weather on the way, we made a snap decision to forgo another idyllic Sporades anchorage and to press on the 40 miles to Halkidiki. The wind took a little time to kick in but a dozen visiting dolphins made up for this. Mediterranean dolphins have seemed less interested and playful than those we have seen anywhere else, but these thrilled us for 20 minutes cavorting exuberantly at Aremiti's bow, seemingly with nothing better to do. Gradually the wind kicked in and we enjoyed a boisterous sail north. The three long peninsulars of Halkidiki appeared like islands ahead, in order of height – low lying Kassandra in the west, Sithonia in the middle with some respectably high cliffs and Akti 24 miles to the east, with the disproportionately huge Mount Athos – 'the holy mountain' – 2,033 metres high - at its tip. We arrived into Porto Koufo on the middle peninsular – a magnificent entrance between cliffs into the large natural harbour.

Our first experience of Halkidiki was marred by the spell of squally and drizzly weather. Anchoring was also somewhat problematic on the steeply shelving shoreline. Our anchor dragged one night where we had anchored in water about 8 metres deep but were swinging through depths between 2 and 19 metres. The highlight of this peninsular was on the western side where there is a wonderfully tranquil mini cruising ground behind the island of Dhiaporos. Once we had navigated our way through some tricky reefs, the climate seemed all at once to revert to summer sunshine and we were back to idyllic bright clear water anchorages.

For our next trick we had decided to 'circumnavigate' the Akti peninsular – in fact we had to get around it in order to make further progress east. The whole of this peninsular is an autonomous religious enclave cut off from, though politically part of Greece. The first hermits gravitated to Mount Athos well over 1,000 years ago and monastic communities developed. In 1060 rules were formulated which denied access to women, female domestic animals, children, beardless persons and eunuchs. These rules have subsequently been marginally relaxed but women are still banned and visits by men are strictly by permit. There are now 20 monasteries which still follow the old Julian calendar and other Byzantine edicts. There is very little modern infrastructure – the whole peninsular is completely unspoiled - a virtual nature reserve. The medieval monasteries are situated in spectacular positions around the coast and therefore best seen from the sea – subject to the 500 metre exclusion zone. We crossed over to the northern end of the Akti peninsular full of anticipation for this adventure. The trip all around the peninsular is about 60 miles, so we wanted to get the weather right, especially in view of notorious seas off the tip at Mount Athos in windy weather. (Persian King Xerxes, en route to invade Greece in 480 BC, built a canal across the northern end of the peninsular to avoid the dangerous seas). Seduced by a forecast for nothing more than Force 4 – but stronger weather over the coming days – we set off at 7am as the sun rose over the peninsular. The first monastery came into view after a couple of hours and from then on it was a thrilling passage down the western side passing 9 in all. They were truly spectacular – vast establishments all very different but each with its medieval water-gate. They looked in excellent condition – many had their own on-site cranes! The wind was gusting off the mountains in all directions as we headed south, but as we approached the tip of the peninsular, passing hermit dwellings on inaccessible looking cliffs and slopes, the water looked reasonably flat. However, as we reached the end we encountered swell to beat all swell. Swell is usually benign, but this was high, steep and nasty and coming directly from where we needed to go. When it became combined with strong gusts off the mountain, we realised we were in for a very rough ride. It was impossible to get round the end of the peninsular without going several miles south and it took us 3 hours to make the five miles to the other side. Aremiti took quite a pounding but never faltered. More monasteries awaited us on the eastern side – as spectacular as ever but it wasn't quite such fun being rolled into the coast, though the wind died away. It was an stunning day in more ways than one – taking us 67 miles to arrive at a point only 8 miles from where we had started. Battered, rolled and salt encrusted, we were very happy to arrive in Ormos Plati to anchor at around 7.30 pm. Technically within the border of the monastic community so out of bounds, but well away from the monasteries, we hoped to get away with it as offering the best protection from swell. We did and it was gloriously peaceful – flat water and complete quiet – apart from the birds. Bliss. We couldn't resist staying another day, relaxing, and enjoying culling the 175 photos taken the previous day!

Sadly, our next and final anchorage of Halkidiki though beautiful, was marred by wasps and jellyfish. Time to move on. Our final passage of the summer was the 30 miles to Nea Peramos. The first half of the passage was a cracking sail on a fine and then a beam reach at around 7 knots. However, the wind dropped off and we got out the cruising chute, managing to keep going at 2 knots for a bit, though not entirely in the right direction, before having to acknowledge the complete absence of wind. Motoring the final miles, the sighting of a solitary turtle was some compensation.

Nea Peramos is a holiday resort situated in a bay near the town of Kavala on the mainland coast of the northern Aegean. Its long beach of sun loungers, umbrellas, bars, and tavernas on an industrial scale caters mainly to Bulgarian holiday makers. At one end of the bay is the base for a large fishing fleet and our boatyard. We are very happy with our choice of boatyard. Stavros the owner is a charming can-do character who speaks fluent American. The place seems well run, there is a free washing machine, use of a car, a chandlery on site, and access to craftsmen of all types. Lucky Aremiti is going to be well titivated and tarted up over the winter.

We have mixed feelings as we prepare to leave. We are longing for some home comforts and seeing family and friends. It will be good to go to bed in the certainty that we won't have to get up in the middle of the night because the anchor is dragging. It will be strange to make plans not contingent on weather forecasts. But we will miss the magic of sitting in the cockpit under big skies in beautiful surroundings watching the sun set and the moon rise, or maybe in a busy port watching the comings and goings of ferries and the fishing boats leaving port in the early evening – and then being gently rocked as they return in the early hours.