The dreaded Bucket List keeps raising its ugly head and when it aligns with Fate’s fickle finger you’ve no choice but to submit. Story by Col Bell.

For many years my wife Caroline and I have threatened to return her dad’s ashes to his old home town of Urmston in Manchester, to be with her mum who is resting in peace in Saint Clement’s Church.

Now to travel all that way we needed an added excuse to make it worthwhile and that’s where the Bucket List comes in. We’re both sailors and the dream of sailing around the Greek Islands has always been right up there.

Thanks to my daughter Samantha’s connection with an English charter company, we chose to go with Sailing Holidays – a week’s flotilla sailing from the island of Corfu. Being completely ignorant about flotilla sailing, the charter was booked for mid-October.

The good news about it being late in the season was the cheaper cost – the risk is unpredictable weather. We reckoned we had a good connection with the weather gods, so arrangements were made and paid.

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I was dreading the long flight to the UK, so two days in Singapore offered some rest and gave me a chance to reminisce about the good old days (50 years previously) when I lived there for two years serving Queen and country.

With the help of an elderly taxi driver we visited my old haunts. Dieppe Barracks still existed but Nee Soon was gone. Much to my surprise the old drinking spot of The Sembawang Strip survived, but the driver assured me that all my favourite bar ladies had retired.

Arriving in Manchester we had three days to kill so we took our time. We placed Bill in the church garden under a rose bush with a blessing from the lovely lady minister. I could see by the look on Caroline’s face that the mission was accomplished – her mum and dad were reunited.

On the Sunday we flew to Corfu and were greeted at the airport by the Sailing Holidays crew. At Gouvia Marina we were escorted to the good ship Natalia – a 32-foot Beneteau – with instructions to assemble at the local bar the next morning.

We were up bright and early and after exploring the marina we located a Mini Mart and stocked up on the necessary vittles for breakfast and lunch. We limited our dining out to the evening meal and, unlike our Pommy friends, we resisted the full English breakfast served at each port.

After a quick change of clothes to accommodate the temperature difference between the Med and the UK we all met at the local bar. Our fellow sailors were a mix of

families and older couples, all from jolly old Britain. As the only crew from downunder we were assumed to be Australians.

Our flotilla chaperones were a captain, a hostess and an engineer. Charlie the captain was a young English boy in his early twenties, Rosie an even younger English lass and Scott was slightly older with no English accent. I asked Scott from whence he came and was surprised at the answer – Waiheke. I was even more surprised to discover he’d been to school with my niece and had later flatted with her.

Charlie explained how the flotilla operated and the trip to that day’s destination. There were 11 yachts in all, ours at 32ft the smallest, with bigger ones up to 46ft – all modern designs with open transoms and furling sails. It was all very casual and once Rosie had outlined dining options/attractions at our destination, Scott explained the ins and outs of operating our boats.

It was interesting to discover just how relaxed Sailing Holidays was in terms of charter experience. We convinced them we knew how to sail but it was hardly an issue. It became obvious on the first day that some of the crews were on a steep learning curve, but it seemed the assumption was if you could drive a car, steering a boat was easy.

We motored out of the marina and headed to our first destination – Plataria, a small port on the Greece mainland. A beautiful sunny day, a lovely little yacht to ourselves, surrounded by scenery totally new to us and the thrill of finding our first port somewhere over the horizon. Bliss.

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The lack of tide simplifies things – only a 300mm fall – and manoeuvring around the marinas and ports was easy. The lack of wind also helped. We’d been given a compass bearing and had a chart on board, but Caroline downloaded a navigation app that became our main source of information.

There was a GPS but it was down below, along with a VHF set to the flotilla’s channel. This became an important tool when approaching harbour, as we liaised with Charlie to find and tie up at each destination.

Plataria was some 35 nautical miles from our departure and with the little Volvo pushing us along at 4–5 knots in no wind, we settled in for a leisurely cruise. Under the shade of the bimini we kept a good lookout for ferries. As warned by Charlie, they sneak up on you from all directions.

We headed straight to port and – one by one – we were ushered in under Charlie’s instructions. Anchors are lowered and the boat reversed back to the wharf, tying up stern first. A gangplank between transom and quay provides easy access to the town. As luck would have it, Plataria has a lovely sandy beach and with the temperature in the mid-20s we had our first swim in beautiful clear water.

As it was the end of the season, towns were starting to close down for winter but still plenty of restaurants were available for dinner. At Rosie’s request we all gathered for a wee drink, getting to know one another over some Greek cuisine.

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Being a meat and three veg man, I’m not a very adventurous diner – the thought of sucking on a squid or looking an anchovy in the eye is not my cup of tea. Caroline likes to try new things but even she was put off by the seafood platter delivered to the lady sitting alongside.

Just about every living thing from the deep was represented. I use the word ‘living’ intentionally since the ‘movement’ of several of these sea creatures added to the ‘not-for-me-thank-you’ feeling.

Our fellow sailors were a jolly bunch and in true British fashion, the volume and frivolity increased as the evening progressed. We aren’t party animals and discovered a simple way to close things down – just introduce the word ‘Brexit’. There would be looks of bewilderment, disgust, anger and sheer frustration, followed by arguments and separation. Teach them for calling us Aussies.

Next morning we met for instructions about our next port of call – a place called Lakka on the island of Paxos. One by one we untied and hauled anchor. As this was a shorter trip we were able to stop for a swim in a bay on the mainland before crossing the channel to our destination. As luck would have it, a nice breeze came up in the afternoon and we shook the wrinkles from the sails. I used a furling mainsail for the first time and am now an enthusiastic convert.

Sadly, it was a head wind so it was late afternoon by the time we arrived. Once ashore we sampled more Greek cuisine, sitting in the warm, fresh air at a table with all the condiments and even an ashtray! I settled for a hamburger while Caroline went vegetarian.

We spent a leisurely evening chatting to three senior dudes who had come all this way to sail in memory of an old friend who had passed away. It was all very relaxed and, after the captain had visited each table outlining the next day’s plans, we returned to Natalia for a good night’s sleep.

Up bright and early for our morning walk, it was back to the boat to set sail for the port of Parga on the mainland. With a fickle following breeze there was no great hurry to reach our destination. Laid back and with sails aloft we went with the flow.

By early afternoon the breeze had strengthened and with our destination in sight we reached across the calm, clear waters to pretty Parga. There was a slight change of plan for the parking in this port – it had a sandy beach with a steep slope – so we set a stern anchor and Charlie took our bow anchors ashore and dug them in.

The boats were rafted side by side and with some amusement I watched the different disembarking techniques devised by the crews. Some hung fenders over the bow as a step, some just jumped or used the anchor chain. I preferred the old rubber ducky and oars.

Parga port and Parga town are on either side of a point which is home to an old fort, and to get to the town from the port, an old open boat taxi ran a service every half an hour. We secured our boat, hailed the water taxi and went to town to stretch our legs. Later that evening we caught up with the crews and the next day’s instructions – a short hop up the coast to Sivota, a small cove with a restaurant and a jetty.

Next morning we scaled the hill to the fort and it was clear OSH had not arrived in Greece. You fend for yourself on the rather wonky marble steps. Mission accomplished, we set sail up the coast for another evening of fun and food with the added attraction of games set up for the children by Charlie.

This included laying all the inflatables upside down in a row and each kid took a turn to see who could get the furthest by running over them – a certain amount of dishwashing liquid may have been applied.

The following day we returned to the island of Corfu and Corfu town. Excitement was mounting, not only because we were coming to the end of our trip but also because Rosie had taken a €200 bet with an Aussie barman on the outcome of the rugby world cup game being played the next morning. Because there was very little rugby coverage in Greece a large crowd gathered around Rosie’s cell phone – and as the game neared the end it was obvious Rosie was on a winner.

Corfu is a lovely town but once the large cruise ships set their passengers free it’s standing room only. So we returned to Natalia for the journey back to Gouvia. As we left port we were overtaken by one of the other 32-footers, not for the first time.

I said to Caroline “that boat’s at full throttle again, I hope he has plenty of fuel.” Well my suspicion was spot-on: about halfway into the trip there was a VHF call from the speedster asking for assistance – his engine had stopped.

Charlie was ready for all emergencies and extra fuel was delivered to the distressed crew, but I couldn’t help thinking that had they been kinder to the engine and used the appropriate revs, they would have been like us at refuelling – half a tank left.

Back at the marina we prepared for our morning flight to Athens, and then it was off to the bar for our last get-together and prizegiving. A great evening was had by all with no-one left out of the prize department and the Sailing Holidays crew applauded for their efforts in making our cruise one to remember.