In Zorba’s playground
Over the years Lawrence Schaffler has chartered yachts in various parts of the Mediterranean – Croatia, Turkey, Greece – and in each case the lack of wind has left us motoring for 90% of the time. For 2018, I thought, we’ll go somewhere where we can hoist some canvas and actually sail. All my research pointed to the Cyclades. Sundrenched islands, friendly Greeks, history – and steady winds.
As the old adage goes – be careful of what you wish for… The Cyclades are synonymous with the meltemi, blowing consistently from the north at 20-25 knots. But it’s an unpredictable wind that can quickly morph into a hellish vixen whistling at 35-40 knots (and more!) for days at a time, particularly in the peak summer season (July-August). It often forces charterers to hole up in a marina/anchorage. If you’re on a deadline, needing to get the boat back to base, this can be a tad awkward.
More on this in a moment.
We joined our boat – a 2015 Lagoon 450 catamaran – at Lavrion on the south-eastern tip of the mainland. Lavrion is a convenient launch point to the Cyclades, and it’s only a 40-minute taxi ride from the Athens airport.
Numerous charter companies operate from Lavrion – we used Istion (www.istion.com) – and our cat – Maria, was a superb choice for our party of seven. Equipped with four double cabins (each with en suite), airconditioning, three fridges and a generator, she provided all we could want – and more. Everything worked flawlessly – a rare treat on a charter boat!
My research suggested the optimum route for a two-week charter was sailing clockwise, south-east through the northern Cyclades (wind on the beam) to Naxos, and then, for the trip back to base, islandhopping north-west, through the southern Cyclades. See Istion’s suggested itinerary. None of the legs between islands is very long – particularly as Maria cruised effortlessly at 7–8 knots.
Week 1 was tremendous – glorious beam/broad reaching in 20–25 knots, with stops at Kea, Syros, Tinos, Mykonos and Naxos. As is common in the Mediterranean, mooring in the village marinas involves reversing into a berth. Some marinas are equipped with lazy lines, but we were advised not to use them as they are poorly maintained. Instead, we dropped the pick and reversed in.
Again, as is common, dropping the pick in a crowded marina can result in ‘anchor rage’ – when multiple chains become entangled. I’ve dived to liberate our boat’s anchor (and others) on many occasions – but am happy to say our record on this charter was blemish-free.
Mooring in a marina isn’t compulsory – many crews prefer to anchor in bays dotted around the islands – but being able to step off the back of the boat makes life a lot easier for everyone, especially when restaurants and shops are beckoning.
One slightly unpleasant aspect of the marinas is ‘ferry surge’. Large ferries connect many of the islands – a useful transport option for visiting other islands if you’re holed up in a marina. But the ferries’ coming and going can create a serious wash, and it’s best to keep the boat’s stern well off the quay. Fortunately, Maria’s very flash, electro-hydraulic passerelle easily extended over the extra distance.
STUCK IN NAXOS
If you’ve read this far, you might have guessed that in Week 2 things changed somewhat.
I specifically opted to charter in September because the European holidays have ended (so things are quieter) and the boats are cheaper. And, supposedly, the meltemi goes to sleep. But it seems she’s a restless lady.
Our arrival in Naxos (the turnaround point) coincided with a significant increase in wind strength – 30–35 knots, gusting 40. And the forecasts weren’t encouraging: the invigorated meltemi would be around for the entire week…
Generally speaking, while cats are fabulous cruising vessels they don’t go upwind particularly well, and things are compounded when the vessel presents lots of windage – like the Lagoon. I didn’t fancy the prospect of beating north-west back to base in those conditions, and after much discussion with the crew we opted to remain in Naxos. There are worse places to be holed up!
So, I contacted the Istion base and suggested that, to get the boat back in time for the next charter party, they send a crew down to deliver the boat back to Lavrion. This it did – effectively turning our voyage into a one-way charter – and we paid an extra delivery fee. Two gents arrived looking forlorn and left the following morning for the long slog (under engines) home. They arrived battle-weary but safe.
For anyone who’s experienced Greece’s Ionian Islands – the enormously popular cruising ground on the other (western) side of the mainland – the Cyclades couldn’t be a starker contrast. Where the Ionians are relatively lush with pastelshaded villages (Italian influence), the Cyclades offer barren landscapes, white-washed houses and blue domes, doors and shutters. A more ‘classical’ Greek setting.
Civilisation owes Greece for many wonderful concepts – democracy, geometry, logic – but the latter two seem to have escaped the town planners in the Cyclades. Each village is an unimaginably convoluted maze of alleys all jammed with galleries and shops – and scores of tavernas. At night, particularly, there’s an irresistible vibe – especially through the lens of the fabled Mythos beer. It is all wonderfully charming.
The barren landscape also raises an intriguing question: the tavernas serve up the most sumptuous food – where does it come from? Not only the sun-kissed tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, olives, onions and large blocks of feta cheese – but also the seafood: squid, sardines, clams, crayfish, shrimps and bream. I thought the Med was sterile? Completely fished out?
Each island has its attractions. Naxos – perhaps because we spent more time there – was our favourite. Hiring scooters for an island tour was great fun. Tinos presented the oddest ‘religious’ event I’ve ever encountered. The island’s famous for its annual pilgrimage, centred around the celebrated Church of Panagia Evangelistria dominating the main town.
The church hosts an icon of the Virgin Mary – believed to have healing powers. Every year it’s visited by some 50,000 pilgrims who crawl on hands and knees to the church – about a kilometre uphill. A hellish challenge – and not a Mythos in sight.
Mykonos and Santorini are the most popular islands in all of Greece. Both, sadly, are tourist traps – prices for meals are literally double what they are in other islands. Both are on the cruise ship itinerary – massive vessels carrying 3000-4000 passengers apiece – so when four pull into port, things become a little claustrophobic. I didn’t care much for Mykonos, but Santorini, with its towering volcanic cliffs, has the most majestic views. The island’s part of a caldera, the remains of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption sometime around 1600BC.
As any rational thinker will appreciate, weather is always a bit of a ‘stab in the dark’ for charterers. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes not. The Cyclades is a wonderful cruising destination – but the meltemi makes your charter a little more unpredictable.
If I were to do this again, I’d opt for a one-way trip – picking up the boat at Lavrion and leaving it for collection at Amorgas or Santorini. That way, you can afford to visit more islands – and spend longer on them – without having to worry about beating back to base against a tight deadline.
You pay a bit more, but it’s definitely worth it.