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Return to Greece - sailing charter yacht 2010, by Neil Armitage


Soon after returning home from a wonderful 6-week adventure in the North and South Ionian last year Yvonne and I started planning a trip to the Dodecanese and southeast Cyclades....

By Neil & Yvonne Armitage, New Zealand.


The 2009 Bareboat Yacht Charter was a test of our planning and coping with a cruise much longer than our previous 2-week flotilla cruises. We knew the Dodecanese and southeastern Cyclades would present greater challenges as the daily sailing distances would be longer and we could expect more wind.

Vangelis at Sailing in Blue almost said as much when all he could offer was a Beneteau Oceanis 34 as this was the smallest yacht he had available in the area.

At first we thought that a cruise through the Dodecanese to Samos might take 4 weeks. When it became clear that we could do all this in much less time than we had set aside the temptation to sail west to the southeast Cyclades was irresistible. So our final plan for 2010 was to leave Rhodes in late May sailing northwards to Samos then begin our journey to the Cyclades heading south to Patmos and Levitha then west to Amorgos. From Amorgos we planned to visit Naxos and Paros then start our return to Rhodes sailing eastwards through the southern Cyclades. Our planned route did depend on the weather. We knew our route northwards through the Dodecanese would most likely be against the wind but hoped the route out to the Cyclades and back would be mainly off the wind.

In Rhodes we checked into a hotel and spent a day recovering after traveling 2 days from New Zealand. The center of Rhodes was a bustling place, cars and motor scooters winding their way through narrow one-way streets, the castle and its lively pedestrian malls of restaurants, cafes and boutiques a buzz with people. At Mandraki Harbour we located Fotis, our Sailing in Blue contact and arranged to meet at the yacht the next morning. We then had to chase up one lost bag that became mislaid during the flight transfer in Beijing.


Mandraki (Rhodes Island)

On the 22nd April we boarded Mamma Mia, a Beneteau Oceanis 34 and our home for the next 4 weeks. Fotis and his band of associates took us through the check-in and yacht briefing procedures, sorted out our needs and introduced us to Vassilli, owner of one of the mini-markets on the quay who couldn’t have been more helpful. In his small van Vassilli delivered supplies from his mini-market to yachts and in our case also insisted on picking up our luggage from the hotel and bringing it to the yacht. Sunday the 23rd our missing bag caught up with us and was delivered to the quay, we provisioned Mamma Mia but had to wait till after mid-day before our papers were cleared and we could depart. Marianna, the charming owner of Mamma Mia (Beneteau Oceanis 34) had spent the morning with the Port police facilitating the clearance and brought the papers to the yacht. After arranging to meet Marianna again at the end of our cruise, we dropped the lazy line and motored out of the harbour into a fresh breeze and 2 metre seas.

That first sail in Mamma Mia was a good trial and a learning curve. We set a reefed mainsail and the headsail with 3 rolls. This was a bit conservative so after a while we pulled out the full headsail; Mamma Mia stood up in the breeze and romped along hard on the wind. We approached the Turkish coast in a single tack, tacked away several times but eventually doused sail off Cape Karaburum and motored the last 8 miles into a picturesque Symi, mooring stern to at about 6:30pm.

Clustered against a stark rocky background, the symmetry of the pastel-coloured houses of Symi appeared like a painted stage backdrop. The wind subsided, newly arrived yachts milled around in the harbour and eventually found moorings, the warmth of the evening, cooking smells wafting from tavernas, a buzz of people on the quay, Symi was welcoming and delightful. We slipped easily into our previously developed routine of a welcome coffee and biscuit after mooring, a quick reconnoiter of the immediate town, a shower followed by a brandy and nibbles in the cockpit then to find a taverna for dinner. We were back in the Greece we had known from previous years, the Greece that had drawn us back again.


From Symi we headed west to Tilos in light head winds that had us tacking most of the day. Tilos to Kos was windless we turned on the autopilot and let Mamma Mia take us to Kos where we found a berth in the town harbour. It was quite beautiful tucked in beneath the castle with the town close by. On from Kos we followed our plan sailing to the islands of Kalimnos, then to Leros and Lipsos. On each of these days we had wonderful force 4/5 northwest breezes on which we would first tack to the west for an hour or so then on changing to port tack we could lay the respective ports in one long beat. This was great sailing. Lipsos to Agathonisi was a short run but in only force 2/3 it took a while. Kalimnos was the larger of the towns with a port busy with ferries and tripper boats. Leros, Lipsos and Agathonisi were smaller towns, quieter, fewer day-trippers and relatively unspoiled.

It was a gusting force 5 northerly when we left Agathonisi and sailed hard on the wind to Pythagorion on the island of Samos. The town quay was crowded with tavernas and cafes all bustling with patrons. It was quiet amusing, we watching the patrons sipping their cocktails and coffee and they watching us sipping ours.


Samos - Pythagorion

On from Pythagorion we sailed west in light winds from mixed directions eventually motoring on a glassy sea to Marathakambos, a small quite delightful off the beaten track village. A very friendly local boat owner offered us his water hose to refill our tanks and wash Mamma Mia, to do so he unrolled a hose about 100 metres long.

We had now gained our most northerly point and, on leaving the island of Samos, began our journey south and west towards the Cyclades. First we had quite a boisterous sail to Fournoi, a quaint little town, not immediately hospitable but this improved after our long walk up the hill and down through the lanes and alleys of the town. The harbour was crowded with fishing boats so we had moored alongside the ferry quay, luckily on the leeside because we were shaken awake in the early hours of the morning with very strong gusts of wind. We spent a busy time putting on extra mooring lines and adjusting fenders, the 3 other yacht owners on the windward side were busy fending their vessels off the quay. The wind had subsided to a force 5/6 by 9:00am so from Fournoi to Patmos we had our first real down wind run. In 20-23 knots of wind it was a thrilling ride often surfing on the 2-3 metre waves.

Patmos was a busy tourist destination. It was a long ribbon of a town from the ferry quay around the waterfront passed tavernas and guesthouses to the marina. High above the town was a large fortified monastery and the chora, a pleasant if not energetic walk on a hot afternoon. Leaving Patmos we faced one of only two southerly winds on the whole cruise. We made three long tacks southwest to the island of Levitha and finally motored into the wonderfully secluded and protected anchorage. The local fisherman cum shepherd whistled us over to one of his laid buoys to which we moored for the night. It was very peaceful save for the tinkling of bells on the flocks of sheep and goats grazing the sparse vegetation on the low hills surrounding the bay.

From Levitha we managed a nice beam reach in another force 3/4 southwest breeze across to Cape Vilakadha at the north of the island of Amorgos. We picked up a few good gusts off the island, which kept us sailing for a while but eventually the wind came in from ahead so we resorted to motoring the rest of the way to Katapola.


Katapola - Amorgos

We were now 2 days ahead of schedule because we missed out Ikaria, battling the strong wind from Fournoi didn’t make sense and we had also by-passed Arkoi. In our original plan we hadn’t set aside any spare days but it was clear that we should have some days in reserve in case the weather held us up and stopped us returning to Rhodes by the 18th June. But, we were now in day 14 of our cruise and we also felt it was time to have a day off. The Monastery on Amorgos was, by all accounts, well worth visiting. The bus stopped a short way from the path that climbed up to the monastery. It was an amazing sight clinging to the side of the cliff. We made the climb but weren’t properly attired however, just inside the door Yvonne found a sarong to wear as a skirt and I found a very large pair of trousers, we put there on and clutching our waists stayed decent for the visit inside the monastery. It was really well worth the visit. To fill in the rest of the afternoon we walked back through the chora then down the hill to the port.

With the weather forecast predicting force 5/6 northerly winds we motored from Amorgos to the Island of Skhinoussa, anchoring in the sheltered Mirsini Bay. This was our ‘stepping-stone’ to reach the islands of Naxos and Paros, our main goals in the central Cyclades. Force 5/6 head winds were again forecast for our trip to Naxos. We left Mirsini Bay punching into a steep chop and 15-18 knots of wind. Soon the wind was up to 23-27 knots and the seas got bigger, this was getting a bit uncomfortable so we decided to run broadside to the wind and sea and head to Ios. Off the northwest of Iraklia the wind was gusting 32-35 knots, the waves were 4 metres and breaking so we abandoned the idea of going anywhere and returned to the anchorage in Mirsini bay, using up our other spare day.

The following day under a clear blue sky in a steady force 4 northerly breeze the sail to Naxos was brilliant. Mamma Mia reveled in the light wind and flat sea and in eight long easy tacks we arrived to within 2-miles of the port of Naxos before running out of wind. Naxos was modern town in a very old setting, shops and boutiques with the latest fashions, cafes and bars, Internet sites, museums and antique shops in the old Venetian castle; the town bustled with tourists.


After Naxos a short 10-mile reach across the channel brought us to Livadhi on Paros, a quiet out-of-the-way village, a small harbour in which there was only 2 other visiting yachts. We were now set for our run to the southern Cyclades then east to the Dodecanese. We were on schedule and probably had 1 or at most 2 destinations in our plan that we could sacrifice if the weather were to hold us up. From Livadhi to Folegandros we had a wonderful broad reach, at times relatively gentle but crossing the Folegandrou-Skinou strait the breeze accelerated and Mamma Mia was flying along at 7+ knots. At the last moment we managed to spot the obscure entrance to Karaovastasi and rounded up in 22 knots of wind to pull in the sails. There was quite a swell in the small harbour so at first we anchored but later moored to the quay when the anchor started dragging. Being well pulled off so that the swell couldn’t push us back onto the quay our boarding plank was too short so we never did step ashore.


Folegandros - Chora and Monastery

For the run across to Thira the forecast predicted a force 6 northerly dropping to force 4 later in the day. Again we had a wonderful broad reach, reducing sail as we closed in on Thira but still romping along at 6-7 knots and at times surfing down the face of 3 metre waves. For our interest we motored through the Caldera and were amazed at the sight of the chora and the myriad of houses lining the brim of this old volcanic crater. Eventually we joined a queue of yachts heading into Vlikadha marina only to be told that it was full. We retired to an anchorage about 2 miles to the west of the marina for an OK night in spite of a few gusts.

Leaving Thira on a flat sea and in a light northerly breeze Mamma Mia was reaching at 6 knots towards Anafi in no time at all. Anafi was the quintessential Greek Island, tall rugged barren and sparsely populated, a small collection of buildings near the ferry quay, and the chora high on the hill overlooking the bay. We took 50 minutes to walk up the road to the chora the views on the way were magnificent. After strolling through the lanes and alleys we waited for the mini-market to re-opened listening to chanting coming from the nearby church. Returning to the bay down the walking path proved to be a much quicker route. Dinner at Poppy’s Taverna was novel, Poppy had no menu but we could have what every we wanted as long as she had it and that it was grilled. For wine, she showed us the refrigerator and told us to pick our colour!


The next 2 days were to be relatively long each at 40+ miles and were critical to our returning to the Dodecanese on schedule. From Anafi to Astypalaia the winds were fickle and we spent most of the day motoring, mooring on the quay at Maltezana. A small quiet village set in the countryside and a very peaceful berth, we both slept in. After a quick breakfast, and a wasted call to the baker who didn’t open until ten o’clock, we were soon reaching for Nisiros on a flat sea in a nice force 4/5 breeze from the northwest. Once clear of Cape Exopetra at the east of the island the seas started to build, the breeze settled at 20+ knots so we put a reef in the mainsail and watched the miles tick over as Mamma Mia romped along for the next 5 hours. The 44 miles from Maltezana to Mandraki harbour on Nisiros took just 6 and a half hours. We were now well on schedule.

While Astypalaia is part of the Dodecanese the white houses with blue facings and roofs resemble the villages of the Cyclades. Mandraki was typically Dodecanese with pastel coloured houses and quite a few trees in the village. But we were also back in the tourist zone, harbours busy with tripper boats and ferries, quite different from the more remote islands of the southern Cyclades, except for Thira. From Mandraki we part sailed but largely motored south and back to Tilos where we spent the afternoon exploring the small town that attracts quite a large tourist population. From Tilos we headed southeast to Khalki picking up a light breeze from astern we reached and gybed our way to the south of the island then motoring around to the sheltered harbour to moor alongside the pontoon. The small town looked beautiful, pastel coloured houses surrounding the quay and rising up the slope, the sea lapping the foundations of the lower houses, the quay with a fringe of brightly coloured fishing boats. We walked through the countryside over the hill behind the village to a sandy bay, the water was warm the day was hot and it was great to swim and relax.


In a fickle wind we cast off from Khalki and motored most of the way back to Symi, letting the autopilot do all the work as we sat in the blistering sun watching Symi getting closer. Ironically, Symi turned on a good 10-15 knot breeze as we negotiated the Nimos Passage with stronger gusts as we motored down Symi Bay to moor stern to in a cross wind. The temperature was about 39C we replaced the bimini we had taken down when we were last in Symi and for the first time sat in the shade.

For our last cruising day Symi turned on a beautiful morning there were no clouds or wind and we were in no hurry to get away. Instead we explored the steps and alleys behind the quay and found our way to the hilltop above Symi harbour. We eventually returned to Mamma Mia late morning to motor out to a light breeze that softened as we reached the channel between Symi and Turkey. For an hour we chased light fickle winds eventually motoring to Cape Karaburun where we then picked up a 10-knot northwest breeze as we started to cross the Rhodes Channel. Mamma Mia broad reached for an hour at 5-6 knots, then as the breeze built to 17 knots she romped along at 6-7 knots until we rounded up a mile off Rhodes, took in the sails and motored into port. This last broad reach across was a special treat, bringing to a close a brilliant 4-week cruise.

Rhodes Mandraki harbour was crowded Fotis came out in a runabout and directed us to moor bows to in a crowded quay. We re-fuelled, de-briefed, lowered our flag, and started to pack. Marianna met us later in the evening and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with her.

Over the 4 weeks we traveled 750 nautical miles and achieved most of our ambitious goals. The weather was really good and only prevented us from visiting 2 places; we missed two other destinations because we changed our plan. The winds were typically from the north and northwest so there were no surprises with pleasant on the wind sailing while we were heading north and great reaching and down wind sailing when heading south and eastwards from the Cyclades.

In all we had 6 encounters with dolphins. The first on our way across to Tilos we were entertained by a rather large pod of show-offs, tail-dancing, somersaulting and ping beneath Mamma Mia. Then a pair of dolphins checked us out on the way to Pythagorion and another pair showed up while we were broad reaching down to Patmos. A single dolphin appeared on the trip to Amorgos then a large pod stayed with us for 10 minutes or so on the way to Folegandros. Lastly, sailing down to Khalki we were captivated by a large pod of dolphins that may have been feeding. They weren’t so interested in Mamma Mia but stayed close together with the occasional animal rocketing out of the water as though they were charging through a shoal of fish.

The Beneteau Oceanis 34 handled well; she picked up speed quickly and was steady off the wind. Being a fractional rig she handled quite differently from masthead rigs. She was comfortable with full sail in up to 20 knots of wind beyond which a single reef in the mainsail was all that was needed to take the pressure off and keep her tracking at the same speed. Her cockpit was wide and spacious but not very deep. This was great while in port but in a steep chop with 20-25 knots of wind we felt a bit vulnerable, under these conditions we would climb into safety harnesses and clip on. The bimini, which could not fold away, obscured any view of the sails from the helm so I took it off. This made sail setting so much better but we paid the price when sitting out in the full sun. Down inside she was comfortable. She was a great home for four weeks.

Neil & Yvonne Armitage, Wellington, New Zealand