July 2017 : Back to Greece

Yassas from Chris, Julia and Aremiti

Well, so much for being gently wafted downwind – buffeted would better describe the travels of Aremiti during July. The Meltemi winds – always prevalent in July and August - have been even stronger and more persistent than usual – and certainly featured far more strongly than our previous experience of Greek waters. These winds usually last around three days, but this month have continued to blow hard for six days or more and never entirely to die away. There have been no days of calm, though the wind occasionally dropped to around 15 knots. This has given us some great sailing – and we have been forever washing salt off the boat, but made the choice of ports of call more problematic. Our plans have had to keep flexible as we have left some islands earlier than planned to get to somewhere safe and interesting ahead of forecast strong winds, but stayed longer on other islands than originally planned. Upsides have been that we have not felt as swelteringly hot as usual in July – and an absence of mosquitos! We have pursued a zig-zagging course, visiting eight very different islands and progressed 175 miles.

We cleared out of Turkey at Cesme with far less stress than the formalities we ‘enjoyed’ last year, though the process still laboriously involved visiting three different authorities to get our Transit Log stamped, then returning to each to distribute the stamped copies. The process was completed by the Customs Officer who told us we must leave within the hour. The passage across to the island of Chios was only eight miles, but having calculated the right time to leave – just ahead of a forecast Meltemi - we immediately found ourselves plunging straight into a 25 knot headwind! Still – it wasn’t for long and we were soon ensconced in a safe haven.

Strong winds in the right direction are obviously not a problem and we have enjoyed some fantastic passages. However, it can sometimes be a problem to find somewhere safe at the end of a passage. Our preferred option is always to anchor, but this is not always feasible. Turkey was very easy, in that failing a safe anchorage, there is a series of conveniently spaced welcoming marinas - albeit prohibitively expensive. Greece can be a little edgy. There are fewer marinas, and though most ports have a town quay where yachts can anchor-moor stern or bows to, these are not always well protected from the wind and suffer the disadvantage of crossed anchors leading to all sorts of mayhem – particularly in strong winds. What Greece does have is a number of unfinished ‘unofficial’ marinas. Bizarre that a marina should be built all the way to the stage of pontoons and cleats and then just left. We have been to a number of these during our time in Greece – and they are ideal! They provide excellent protection and while they do not supply electricity or water, they are free! However, they tend to become full of all manner of boats and it is difficult to get information about them – whether they actually exist, whether they are full, whether they are silted up, etc.

There was one such marina in Chios which we thought we’d investigate, given negative reports of the protection offered by the port. The sight of yacht masts was a good sign and once through the scarily rock-strewn entrance we were relieved to squeeze ourselves into the last space left alongside the outer wall, behind an underwater services vessel and ahead of a tiny motor-boat and huge rusty barge. The wind really started blowing overnight and didn’t let up for the next six days.

Chios is the fourth largest Greek island (after Crete, Evia, Lesbos) and was an excellent place to be ‘trapped’ by the Meltemi. We hired a car for a couple of days to explore the island. Its main claim to fame is the production of mastic – the resin of the mastic tree which though prevalent throughout the Mediterranean, has in Chios been cultivated and bred since Roman times for medicinal and culinary use. Production is centred in the south west of the island – the ‘Mastichohoria’ - around a number of fortified medieval villages. The architecture of these villages is rather idiosyncratic – severe square grey stone houses with tiny windows – in alleyways with tunnels and archways. The island has an unhappy history. In 1822 as a reprisal for its support of Greek independence, the Ottoman regime sent in 40,000 troops resulting in the massacre of 52,000 inhabitants, the enslavement of a similar number, leaving 21,000 to flee. We visited the abandoned village of Anavatos where the terrified population had been chased through the streets by the troops and leapt to their deaths by jumping off the cliff at the top of the village to avoid capture. Then in 1881 an earthquake killed 3,500 people. In the past ten years the island has suffered from two devastating forest fires – the smoke reaching Crete 350 miles south. Our abiding memory of Chios will be of the exceptionally loud cicadas, shrieking their eternal outrage at these tragic events.

Our departure from Chios after a week, with winds down to 20 knots, was a little stressful. We un-moored, turned the boat and headed to the tricky entrance only to find that the engine had no power. After a brief panic attack, we rafted to a barge while Chris dashed to the engine, fearing the worst – but discovering that he had forgotten to turn on the fuel tap after changing a filter – phew! Then as we started making a very tight turn out to avoid rocks, a fisherman on shore started shouting and gesticulating. Julia assumed initially that he was warning us off a danger before realising he was just worried about his line! Wonder how he’d have felt if he’d succeeded in guiding us on to the rocks!

Our next destination was Ikaria, 52 miles south. This has a reputation for strong winds on the best of days - navigational advice is to keep 5 miles off the island unless actually visiting it. We enjoyed an excellent downwind passage culminating, as we reached the eastern tip of the island and turned westwards along the southern coast, in a battering from 30 knot winds screaming off the hills. So much for a lee shore! Other than windiness, Ikaria’s main claim to fame are its radio-active hot springs. The supposedly therapeutic waters can be enjoyed in various spas, but our ’marina’ boasted its own spring under a rock ledge to the side. It was very hot but we have no idea whether it was radio-active – or how that could be considered therapeutic. Julia took a dip – Chris didn’t.

After our extended stay in Chios, we left Ikaria after only a couple days, bound for the Fournoi islands between Ikaria and Samos – with an even great notoriety for wind. The wind generally had calmed significantly and we even had to motor-sail – until we came within a few miles of land, when we were hit by a steady 35-40 knots for the final hour or so. However, this was a short passage and we soon found our anchorage which, though almost as windy, had flat water. It was a delightful spot – with an ancient marble quarry ashore together with some half-made columns and other bits and pieces. However, the gusts coming off the hills in all directions had us violently veering around and the delight wore a bit thin. After an unsettled night we decided to move on.

Given recent experience we had expected a battering during the 27 mile passage to Samos, but the trip was notable for changes in wind strength between 10 and 25 knots about every 15 minutes – necessitating constant sail changing. We anchored off Pythagorio – the second town of the island – a laid back and friendly resort – close to the Mycale Strait only one mile wide, between Samos and the Turkish mainland. The town’s name celebrates the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras who was born on Samos. We hired a car here to explore the very green and mountainous island. Samos reached the peak of its power in the 6th century BC and three major projects from that era are considered the three greatest works of the ancient Greeks: the great mole 360 m. long, creating the harbour, the Great Temple of Hera, and the Eupalinian tunnel - constructed as part of an aqueduct supplying water to the town and particularly notable as the second earliest tunnel in history to be dug from both ends. We found the Temple of Hera – atmospherically overgrown, and the mole – still part of the harbour, but were disappointed to find that the tunnel had closed a couple of hours before we arrived. Greek austerity measures have bitten into opening hours for such sites and museums. With another full scale Meltemi forecast to arrive in 2-3 days, we decided we had time for an idyllic anchorage before moving to the safe harbour of Patmos for the blow. The island of Agathonisi was indeed idyllic – the harbour a charming little place – traditional Greek buildings climbing up the hill, clear turquoise water – and wind not excessive! The perfect place for chilling – the most exciting event being the daily arrival of the ferry. However, we had heard reports from different sources a couple of years ago about unpleasant treatment of refugees on this very tiny island. The ‘problem’ having now disappeared, this was very hard to envisage – but remained an uncomfortable thought.

After a couple of relaxing days we sailed the 23 miles to Patmos, weaving through the islands between Arki and Lipsi. We were not exactly looking forward to stern-to mooring on the town quay here, but as there was no other option we were forced to bite the bullet. This form of mooring is a difficult manoeuvre for two people on a centre cockpit boat and Aremiti is not designed for getting on and off at the bow or stern. However all went well, though Aremiti mischievously prefers sneaking up to the quay in a stealthy zig zag approach rather than just going for it.

Patmos is a major spiritual centre of the Greek Orthodox church – and location of the apocalypse being revealed to St John. The sight of the mighty grey stone monastery walls rising dramatically above the white houses of the town up on a hill is awe inspiring. The monastery complex is a labyrinth of niches and passages to chapels and monk’s cells. The treasures displayed in the museum are stunning and priceless – books and manuscripts dating back 1,100 years, and fabulous liturgical silverware and vestments. The island is still owned mainly by the monastery which has kept a check on the tackiest manifestations of tourism and the town is a tasteful maze of alleys and houses painted white with pale blue woodwork – very lovely. Having got the bus up to the town, we walked back down to the port, via the site of the cave where the bizarre revelations took place – surreal. Another morning we walked up to Profitis Ilias – a tiny chapel on the island’s highest hill. The service taking place there was incomprehensible and potentially interminable – but the views were awesome – taking in all the islands we had so far visited, except Chios, and the next two on our agenda.

We were given a reminder of another reason we don’t like anchor-mooring when one afternoon we were watching with fascination and some entertainment as one after another two departing yachts picked up the anchor chains of other moored boats, causing those boats to have to re-anchor and moor – in 25-30 knots of wind. This proved not to be quite so amusing when we in our turn had our anchor yanked up. Somehow we managed to un-tie (thank you passer-by who unplugged the power lead) and repeat the dread manoeuvre.

Our next passage was a short one to the little island of Lipsi – another great sail in strong winds. The main town/port was a delightful, low key spot with houses dotted higgledy piggledy around the large church. Apparently many of the tourist based businesses here are run by returned Aussies and place has an authentically Greek but well maintained look about it. We enjoyed a meal on the quay amid the buzz of the town in little taverna reputed to serve the best grilled octopus in the eastern Aegean.

After a night of snatching in the rather mobile waters of the harbour, we decided to move round to the south of the island to a very pretty anchorage – where we spent a couple of relaxed days – though the wind never dropped below 15 knots. Generally a very quiet anchorage, a couple of our neighbours were peculiarly ugly motor yachts – in the brutalist style of naval architecture - looking as though they had been assembled with components from a cheap DIY store. Very odd.

Our final passage of the month was the 15 miles to the harbour of Lakki in the south west of the island of Leros. The west coast of Leros is dramatically rocky, rugged and unforgiving and it was hard to make out our destination, which turned out to be a gap between cliffs, into the large and protected bay. The town/port of Lakki is most unusual for its idiosyncratic architecture. These islands were in Italian hands from 1921 until 1948 and Mussolini was particularly interested in Lakki – being such a large and well protected bay. A naval base was built here, together with a town entirely in Fascist Italianate Art Deco style.

Our social life has changed out of all recognition from last year’s fascinating but rather solitary experience in the Black Sea and our first month this year when we encountered only Turkish yachts. On arrival in Chios we found a veritable European Community (sob) of cruising yachts – French, Belgian, Italian, German, Austrian and even British. It was wonderful to feel part of a community again and to bond during the adverse weather conditions. Since then we have been bumping into these friends at our various destinations southwards – and have also continued to make new friends.

We have seen little sign of the immigrant crisis which has now largely been controlled by the Turkish-EU agreement. However, we were sobered by the sight of UN refugee camp in Chios – UNHCR tents and awnings, and refugees wandering aimlessly around town. We understand that a few immigrants are still reaching the Greek islands, and also that it is taking an unconscionable time to process everyone. However, the problem is now being handled, at least in the sense of being made invisible to the casual tourist, and the beaches of frolicking holiday-makers right opposite the Turkish coast make it hard to imagine the tragic scenes of a couple of years ago.

Aremiti and Chris are currently in the marina on Leros – with a list of maintenance and repair jobs, while Julia has returned home for a week to visit her Mum. The winds have disappeared – at least for the time being.