Friday, September 9, 2011
We just dropped anchor in a rather secluded bay and secured the ship for the night when Captain Jonathan gestured us back to the stern with a secretive air. Casting a darkly suspicious glance at the few other yachts floating nearby, as if they might harbour spies or worse, he lowered his voice. “See that point over there? Just about ten meters off the shore there’s a very plentiful oyster bed on the bottom. If a couple of you will put on your snorkel gear and go get some, we’ll have grilled oysters with our dinner tonight. But most people don’t know about this place, so you mustn’t tell anybody, OK?”
He shared our burst of laughter. Who could we tell? We were on the last day of our week of sailing the Greek islands of the Saronic Gulf, and in a mere 48 hours we’d be back to our ordinary lives an ocean away. Would anyone back home even know where we’d been, let alone comprehend its magic? Greece conjures images of ancient civilizations, modern sophistication, and maritime beauty; and this week had brought all these things and more.
Our vacation began the week before, in Athens, with drivers who appeared right on schedule to bring us from our hotels to our home-away from-home for the week, the Koralia 3. She’s a 57-foot Jeanneau racing ketch with teak decks, cosy staterooms, and an ample galley, all of which promised a week of comfort. Her three cabins would be accommodating just five students: Peggy and Steve, from North Carolina; Rachel and Michael, from New York; and me, Phil, from Texas.
Our Greek-english captain, Jonathan Chandler, greeted us dockside with perfect king’s English, a legacy of his very proper British boarding school education. He’s owner of the Koralia 3, and takes his ship — and his sailing — very seriously indeed. His background includes a couple of years on Dennis Connor’s America’s Cup teams, so it’s not surprising that he’s rigged his ship for speed and safety. A quick stop at the local super market to select wine and beer for the larder, and we were on our way.
Our cruise began due west, and in no time the busy seaport was a smudge on the horizon. The Saronic Gulf is a broad body of water to the south and west of Athens, bordered by the mountainous
Peloponnese’s peninsula and dotted with islands large and small. As a result, the entire week was one breath-taking view after another; broad calm waters were dotted with picturesque islands and charming fishing villages, all set against the backdrop of the towering peninsular mountain scape. Our first stop was the village of Korfos, with its historic domed church and delightful quay dotted with tavernas. We explored the village a bit, then returned to make dinner plans. Jonathan, it seems, had a good friend who knew a friend who had cousin in Korfos who owned a good restaurant, and thence we all went. Nor were we disappointed; the meal was really excellent, and the owner stopped by our table with an extra dessert treat for us from the kitchen. A short time later we were back on the ship, being rocked to sleep by the yacht’s gentle motion.
We arose the next morning rather late. An indolent languor settled on us all, setting the pace for the entire week. Jonathan ran thru the sailing school schedule explain how we would be divided into ‘watches’ and take turns in preparing the yacht for sea each day. ‘Mother’ watch would prepare the interior of the yacht and do the domestic chores as well as prepare breakfast and lunch. ‘Deck’ watch would ready the exterior of the yacht sails, dock lines fenders, hoist sails and put the yacht to bed at the end of the sailing day.
Daily theory classes would run in the morning following breakfast and would encompass practical and book learning. Jonathan’s familiarity with these waters proved invaluable in his choice of routes and anchorages, which permitted us to experience many different aspects of navigation in the first few days.
The next port was certainly one of our more memorable stops: the ancient city of Epidavros. More than three millennia ago the temple of Asclepius was here, god of healing; and, in consequence,
Epidavros was a major centre of health and medicine in ancient Greece. Pilgrims sought relief from illness through prayers, ritual meals, and medicated baths, leading to the night when Asclepius himself visited the patient in sleep to effect a magical cure. In the extensive ruins can still be seen the temples and bath houses, the halls where the sick pilgrims stayed — essentially an early hospital — and the spectacular amphitheatre. The latter is especially noteworthy for being very well-preserved and still acoustically perfect: the softest whisper spoken in the centre can be heard with perfect clarity to the uppermost row of seats. We visited the site in the morning, and consequently we had it all to ourselves. Knowing I’ve had more than a little vocal music training, the others demanded an impromptu recital. To be honest, it didn’t take much persuasion; the chance to sing in a 3000-year-old amphitheatre doesn’t happen along just every day. Nothing too ambitious, just a simple setting of a Robert Burns poem; but what I had failed to notice was the crowd of Italian tourists just beyond the lower platform and immediately behind me.
So the surprise was on me when the last note faded and a burst of applause from behind let me know that my “private” recital had been widely broadcast by that acoustically perfect amphitheatre!
After a hasty retreat we were soon back on the yacht making her ready for sea and on our way to the next port of call. As the day warmed, the southerly started to fill in, wind speed hit 12 knts true and the engine was shut down. We quickly went on to a port tack and trimmed in the genoa with the big lewmar 65’s. K3 quickly started to accelerate up to speed. Smiles appeared across every ones face, and Capt. Jonathan called for a tack. It was time to put into practice for real all that training we did at the dock. Deck watch was going be the new sheet and mother watch was releasing the lazy sheet. Ready about…..came the call… ready from deck watch…ready from Mother watch…. ‘Wheels over’ came the call from aft, K3 eased up right and started to turn thru the wind… genoa released… Michael and Steve started grinding and tailing like crazy .. stop came the call from Peggy and the Genoa was home and driving K3 on her new tack.
And then we rounded a point and came upon the lovely town of Poros, situated on either side of a narrow channel between the mainland and an island. We could see the ruins of ancient fortresses which, in bygone eras, guarded both ends of the channel to prevent unwanted invaders from entering — and sometimes to prevent the escape of ships trying to sneak an unauthorized departure. We were eager to dock, and Jonathan decided it was a good time to do an alongside docking practice. With the help of Vangelis the local tavern owner we brought K3 slowly along side the concrete dock. After clearing up and putting the boat to bed, we showered, dressed and spent a delightful hour walking the steep and narrow streets of the town.
Every home was immaculate, and nearly all had some sort of garden ranging from a few potted plants to spectacular displays of bougainvillea and hibiscus. We returned to the ship hungry, and by happy coincidence, Vangelis was there to meet us again. He owned the tavern across from where we docked that afternoon. So with little persuasion we readily agreed to be hosted by him, again we feasted on an excellent meal in authentic local style — expertly prepared seafood including fish and octopus, juicy grilled lamb, superb eggplant and other vegetables, litres of house wine, and hearty ouzo to finish.
Our next port of call was the village of Ermioni, and here our visit was inaugurated with a highly entertaining argument between Jonathan and a pompous mega-yacht captain who seemed intent
on wedging his mammoth boat into the tiny sliver of space next to the Koralia 3.
Nor were we surprised to watch, from a safe distance, as the big boat circled off to find another mooring.
We added olives, crusty bread, and taramosalata to our snack, then explored the narrow picturesque streets and beautiful water vistas of this delightful village. A short while later we returned to our boat,
Jonathan had set out our 101 exam papers and after some question and answers sessions we all sat down and started the grand adventure.
Why is that after a stress full time food and drink seem to be the next logical thing the body desires.
Wouldn’t you know it, Jonathan told us of a cousin whose taverna, just up the street, was really quite excellent, if we cared to go. Cousin Joseph, the only 6 ft ginger haired colour greek in the Peloponnese, just happens to have the oldest Taverna in the Saronic, and the best Pizza. Wood fired oven with olive and apple wood gives the pizza a unique taste and the crust is always perfect.
Jonathan came to dinner with our 101 exam results… all past with flying colours !!! time to celebrate…
The next day was planned as a long day of sailing. We left Ermioni at a suitably indulgent hour of the morning, and soon found ourselves in strong winds from the north. Capt. of the day had input our destination as Leonidio or as Jonathan calls it ‘Plaka” because of the long perfect beach by the harbour.
The trip today was already starting out with a few new twists, Jonathan called for the first reef in the mainsail, we had practiced at the dock but now it was for real, lots of wind and a sail that was not going to co-operate. A little team work from the cockpit and some instruction from Jonathan and we had the first reef in. We rounded the southern tip of Dhokos island and set course for Leonidio, some 30 miles south. It was going to be a good sail, wind was north at 25 knts and we were running south.
Jonathan called for the Mizzen staysail to be hoisted, this sail is a free standing luff sail, small but when hoisted lots of fun… we end up with 4 sails up, all full and drawing… time for a water drink.
We were about 15 miles from the port and the skyline started to fill with massive mountains, a vista of red rock emerged from the north as the sun started to drop low on the horizon.
Leonidio was spectacular, a tiny fishing village lodged below a huge mountain, with a beach just as Jonathan mentioned, 4-5 miles of sand and small pebbles, calm turquoise waters and rocky cliffs. The evening was spent with the ‘Pirate”, Barba-yannis who kept feeding us Greek delicacies one after the other and all as we sat looking out over a magical sea covered in the shimmers of moon light.
The following morning we woke to a spectacular picture of the sun shining on the red cliffs above Leonidio. Breakfast and Capt. day input the next port destination Spetsai island. We clear out of the harbour and set sail, it was not longer before we had visitors “Dolphins!” someone behind me yelled, and immediately all eyes went port side as the yacht was brought around. For the next half hour we admired a pod of at least two dozen dolphins leaping, splashing, and chasing the boat’s bow. The show was as wondrous, as if they had known we were watching, which no doubt they did. And then, tired of the game, they vanished as quickly as they’d appeared. The ghosts of ancient sailors who admired these beautiful creatures thousands of years ago seemed to whisper, and we recalled the lively frescoes and mosaics of dolphins we’d seen dating to the very earliest Greek civilizations.
Soon we found ourselves approaching Spetses. It might be supposed that the parade of quaint Greek fishing villages might have started to blur together. Not so; each one carried a unique charm that rooted them distinctly in our memories.
In Spetses the road from the quay meandered by the harbour and then over the ridge of a short hill to the main part of the town, abounding in notable architectural details, picturesque churches, and amazing views. We explored them all, netting a few noteworthy finds at the artist galleries and, of course, the obligatory ouzo at one of the many delightful tavernas along the dock. Then it was back to the yacht for a hot shower and fresh clothes, followed by our last exam. Jonathan prepped us well and we all sat in the saloon and with heads down ASA103 began.
An hour or so later and after a cocktail or two, we were off to a restaurant owned by yet another of Jonathan’s many culinary cousins.
Alas, we had reached the furthest extent of our travels, and the next day it was time to begin making our way back to Athens. The town of Hydra was our next stop, and it is difficult to say enough about its charms. Nestled in a broad valley near the centre of the island of the same name, Hydra seems carved out of an era now lost. On its steep streets can be found only pedestrians and donkeys; years ago the village outlawed all motorized vehicles except the island’s three garbage trucks. Hydra boasts three small but very interesting museums, a spectacular overlook above the harbour entrance, and an especially vibrant town centre of shops and tavernas. Craft jewellery is a specialty of the local artisans, indeed, we all took advantage of this last chance to find special mementoes of our island holiday, and Hydra did not disappoint. What most captivated us about Hydra were its many quirky surprises, such as the provocatively modern paintings of one local artist in the town’s art gallery. Or the dozing cat curled up on a ledge outside one of the shops, beside a basket containing a few coins and a sign that read, “Pet me, €1.” And, not surprisingly, we were lured by a cosy little restaurant up a steep flight of steps that offered memorable views across the town and the harbour, where we enjoyed delicacies made from fresh local produce and even fresher local seafood.
And then our last full day was upon us; unfurled sails carried us across waters of the deepest blue,
blown by the same winds which have carried adventurers across these waters for uncounted centuries. The magical week which blended past and present counted down its final hours, and Steve and I found ourselves pulling on snorkelling gear to harvest oysters at the secret oyster bed. “Surely they’ve both got sense enough not to haul up more than we can eat,” remarked Jonathan to the others as we swam away, and then a few minutes later rolled his eyes in exasperation as we returned with plastic bags strained to the bursting point. Half went on our grill, and the rest to passengers on one of the nearby boats who, no doubt, still can’t quite figure out what was up with the crazy Americans delivering free seafood. The sun set and the light faded. Food and wine, laughter and stories all flowed freely. Adventures were recounted, plans were made. And overhead,
those same stars and constellations named and admired by the mariners of these islands for millennia gone by gazed down with soothing tranquillity.
There was magic enough yet in Greece to last one more night — or longer.
And that secret oyster bed? Sorry, we promised not to tell. You’ll just have to visit for yourself