June 2016 : Into the Sea of Marmara

Merhaba from Karabiga – a small fishing port just into the Sea of Marmara. We are a little behind our plans, having originally hoped by now to have made it to Istanbul – but we’re well on the way with only about 100 miles to go. The delay is down to taking longer over preparations than expected and also by weather – the Med fully living up to its reputation for all or nothing winds.

Our plans for the summer are to continue northwards into the Black Sea, up the Bulgarian and Romanian coasts and then to cross over to the northern coast of Turkey and from there westwards back to Istanbul.

Having arrived back with Aremiti at the beginning of June, we didn’t actually get moving until the middle of the month. The first two weeks were spent on preparing the boat for cruising - much longer than usual because of work being done on the boat. Our return to Aremiti was tinged with trepidation, because from our spasmodic communications with the boatyard we were not sure that things had gone as hoped. On the evening of our arrival – exhausted after having left Bristol at 2am – our first sight of the boat appeared to confirm our fears. While the soda-blasted hull looked fantastic, the new head-linings (vinyl covering of internal walls and ceilings) and awning/winter cover didn’t look right and weren’t finished. Worse was the removal of the cutlass bearing housing, leaving Chris aghast.

We went off to ensconce ourselves in an Airbnb we had booked for a few days until the boat could become habitable. The owner, Oksana, was from Donetsk in the Ukraine – a Russian, fleeing the fighting she was keen to stress. We didn’t feel this was an issue to be pursued and got on quite happily, later having a meal in her restaurant where we met her baboushka mother.

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep the next day it all looked a lot better. It was hard work sorting out the chaotic mess inside the boat, but Filip arrived to discuss the head-lining and after a few days his jobs were completed to our satisfaction. George the mechanic who had worked on the cutlass bearing turned out not to have been mad after all and got the new cutlass bearing fitted in a morning – though he did have trouble with our feathering propeller which he had dis-assembled. Chris felt sure there was something wrong in how it looked, though George was adamant it was right. However, Chris was right – it would only have propelled us backwards! The UK manufacturer helpfully sent a video guide to re-assembly and all was well – ‘bomba’ as George put it.

Repainting the hull with primer and anti-fouling caused some frustration in that the yard saw no point in ordering the paint until we were actually waiting to apply it, rather having it ready in advance as we had requested a couple of months earlier. Maybe an illustration of the Greek malaise? However, all was well even if the primer is in two colours as there was not enough of one colour. Applying the 3 coats was hard work but will save much time in future years. Also now with a perfectly smooth bottom, the boat will obviously go much faster through the water!

This left us with the routine pre-cruising jobs. After 8 months lay-up in a dusty boat-yard, the boat always needs a lot of titivation and sprucing up – the teak, deck, polishing etc. Putting the sails on checking rigging and instruments, etc. Servicing the outboard engine. Clean teak, deck and hull. Clean the filthy dinghy. Big provisioning trip to nearby Lidl. It is amazing that having owned the boat for 9 years, the first 2 of which involved a major refit, we still dream up minor modifications and improvements to make every year. For example we wired in more charging points for computers, cameras and phones, and fitted extra towing points the dinghy. We were baffled to find when we went to buy rope in the local hardware store for another job that rope is sold by weight!

The boatyard was the busiest we have been in and buzzing with the activity of yacht crews engaged in the same work as ourselves, as well as a couple of fishing boats grinding away at their hulls. The boats were packed in so tightly that a two stage process was required to extricate them for launch – first on to low-loader needing less space – to move them to the travel-lift for putting in the water. There were a couple of British boats being prepared for summer chartering, several Bulgarian yachts, French, Dutch, and Swiss. We made friends with a Greek/Belgian couple lovingly restoring a Contessa 32.

Our time over this two weeks was not entirely devoted to work – we gave ourselves a cultural day off to visit the great ancient site of Philippi, dating from 3rd century BC. A very significant site for several reasons – the Battle of Philippi, where Cassius and Brutus both committed suicide marked a turning point in Roman history from Republic to Empire, and later visitations by Paul establishing the first Christian church in Europe. We also learned the less historically significant fact that in Roman times public toilets were known as ‘vespasians’, after the emperor who levied a tax on them.

Eventually the work was done and it came time to set off sailing. We left the shores of mainland Greece for the island of Thasos – just under 20 miles away – on a gentle beam reach in 10 knot of wind wafting us along at 5 knots. We couldn’t have asked for a more delightful first passage. We spent a lazy day investigating the main town with ancient sites dotted around all over the place. The beautifully sited amphitheatre was sadly closed – as were several others of the sites – victims of austerity no doubt. However, the museum was excellent and extensive. We spent a day exploring the island by car – finding a gentle peaceful place – very traditional inland villages, piecemeal tourist development with little overall infrastructure. An important island in ancient times but no longer. Marble has been quarried here from ancient times and still continues today. Moving on, we motored in absolute calm around to the south of Thasos – taking the opportunity of calibrating the log - which reads the boat’s speed through the water – as opposed to the GPS which gives actual speed over ground. We knew we’d been keen to know how much current was against when we reached the Dardanelles. Aliki was an idyllic spot where we anchored off an ancient marble quarry and settlement in clear turquoise water. This is what all the hard work had been for!

The following day we motored south on a glassy sea between mighty Mount Athos (2020 metres) 25 miles away to the west and the island of Samothraki (1611 metres) 25 miles to the east - our destination of low lying Limnos a smudge on the horizon 40 miles away. Ironically this turned out to be the last windless day for some time - the following day the wind starting picking up from the north with a Meltemi forecast. We went through the agonies of indecision typical for yachties (we assume) – whether to leave on our planned next passage earlier than intended to get ahead of the weather, or to bide our time for who knows how long. Difficult, because having taken longer than anticipated over our preparations, we were now keen to get on our way to Istanbul. However, having only just arrived on Limnos and being unprepared for an immediate hard 60 mile slog to windward, we took the prudent option and enjoyed a fast downwind sail around to the south of the island into the great bay of Moudros well protected from the north. Our previous experience of the Meltemi (the seasonal Aegean wind from the north) has been for 2 or 3 days of strong winds before it all calms down again. But this was something different – much stronger winds than usual lasting a full 6 days. However, we fell on our feet in Moudros, berthed alongside a substantial quay in a particularly sheltered spot in the large sheltered bay. Even here we experienced winds gusting to 35 knots and were visited by the coastguard to ensure that we weren’t intending to leave the island in these conditions.

We used our extended stay in Limnos to chill and to explore the island. The little town had everything we needed – especially a delightful taverna right at the head of the quay whose charming proprietor couldn’t have been more helpful with car hire, laundry, etc. A great bonus was that the harbour – unlike most – was clean enough to swim in. The huge bay was an interesting historical location having been the base for the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. We visited the poignant military cemetery just outside town with graves of 900 soldiers and sailors from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Newfoundland – those who had been brought here wounded but not made it. We spent a day exploring the island by car – little touched by tourism and very rural - looking in places almost English with fields and trees. Chris was inexplicably thrilled to see a 1950s combine harvester at work. Ancient sites included late Neolithic Poliochni – founded in 5000-4000BC – the oldest city in Europe. Other highlights were flamingos in a salt lagoon and some bizarre coastal rock formations.

We enjoyed an evening event on the quay connected with St John, involving children leaping over heaps of straw on fire. No one was quite able to explain the reasons for this – just as they weren’t in Galicia in Spain when a few years ago we witnessed an event on the same date also involving fires. All good family fun anyway.

Ironically but coincidentally, we had planned to leave Greece for Turkey on the day of the Referendum. However, unable to Europe leave physically, we had plenty of time to digest the terrible news of Brexit with feelings of disbelief, dismay and despair. We follow news and comment on the internet, so don’t feel too much out of it, and not seeing TV is probably a blessing.

At last we were able to make the passage from Limnos to Turkey – feeling sad to be leaving Greece after 2 summers cruising, heightened on our final night by a live performance of traditional Greek music at the taverna, which in turn exacerbated the huge sadness of leaving the EU.

In true Mediterranean fashion the winds didn’t simply moderate, but turned off completely and we had hardly a breath of wind as we departed at dawn for the 65 mile passage – or for the rest of the day. Our destination was the Dardanelles – the 40 nautical mile long strait linking the Sea of Marmara (which in turn links to Istanbul and the Black Sea) with the Aegean – a challenging prospect. The strait carries a high density of shipping to and from major Black Sea ports – notably Russian, and the prevailing wind blows down the channel, combined with a strong current in the same direction. Our route took us to the northern entrance of the strait thereby avoiding the scary conglomeration of shipping entering and leaving. Motoring in the calm conditions we made good time, despite current against us fanning out from the strait. We decided to continue on up to the marina in Cannakale rather than anchoring in a cove at the northern tip. This involved crossing the shipping – and though the density fluctuated, we fund ourselves crossing ahead of a fleet of half a dozen vessels entering the strait and had to scoot across at break-neck speed.

We arrived safely into Cannakale about 16 miles up on the Asian side of the strait at its narrowest point – 1300 metres – site of the tragedy of Hero and Leander, and also of a swim by Lord Byron in 1810 who was swept 4 miles down by the current.Here we cleared into Turkey where we were required to use an agent for the heavy paperwork involved - our change of country emphasised by the regular calls of the muezzin. We were by far the smallest visiting yacht in the marina and the only British. We encountered here the curious phenomenon of Turkish owned yachts registered in Delaware, USA, which on investigation turns out to be some sort of tax haven providing anonymity.

While in Cannakale we took a tour to the Gallipoli peninsular on the western side of the strait to visit the battle sites and memorials – both Allied and Turkish - of the Gallipoli campaign – finding ourselves 2 of only 3 non-Aussies on the bus.The pretty wooded hills and beaches fringing the bright turquoise sea looked so innocent - hard to imagine the bloody landing of soldiers under heavy fire and gruelling trench warfare. Gallipoli seemed to be more about valour and endurance on both sides than the result – though Attaturk’s success paved the way for the modern Turkish Republic.

Then back to the passage through Dardanelles – another 24 miles. Once the “wow we’re in the Dardanelles” factor had worn off this was just a reasonably pleasant passage under engine – sailing is prohibited in Dardanelles – along an undramatic coastline of low wooded hills, accompanied by a constant stream of shipping. Something more spectacular might have been expected at such a dramatic split in the land with its significance as the boundary between Europe and Asia. We anchored for the night off a scrubby beach at Cardak just short of the northern end of the strait, watching the big ships plying up and down as the sun set, occasionally rocking us with their wash. We’re now 35 miles on, into the Sea of Marmara at the little fishing port of Karabiga. The locals are clearly rarely visited by yachts, or anyone else, and we attract stares – especially from tables of old men sitting glumly around café tables bereft of food or drink – this being Ramadan.

No doubt July will also see us consuming news and comment on the unfolding tumultuous events at home – but hopefully there will also be plenty of wonderful distractions.