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Stories from our Travelers

Sailing in Odysseus' Wake

Day 1 - Setting out from Nidri

Anchored at Cliff Bay off the island of Atoko

Kioni's picturesque harbor, on Ithaka
by Elizabeth Bradley

[From Summer 2011] Sailing the wine-dark Ionian Sea in a private yacht, following in Odysseus' wake, docking each night in a different and uniquely charming Greek port, sampling the local delicacies and sipping wine under the stars: who wouldn't thrill to such a voyage through the Greek islands? Unfortunately, I don't own a sailboat in the Mediterranean and I don't know how to sail very well, so accomplishing my dream seemed rather unlikely. Yet, my three sons and I found ourselves sailing a small yacht in the Ionian Sea for a week in the summer of 2010, thanks to Sunvil Sailing.

Operating out of the Greek island of Lefkas (on the western coast of Greece just south of Corfu), with a professional skipper and a 4 to 6-person crew per boat, Sunvil Sailing offers a wonderful experience for those interested in gaining hands-on sailing experience while exploring the lovely Ionian islands of Greece. These islands are the stuff of legends, including Ithaka, where Odysseus once lived, and Skorpios, still owned by the Onassis family. And today, as in Odysseus' day, the quaint ports of these islands are so remote as to be almost unreachable except by boat.

My three sons and I crewed the Artemis, a 3-cabin sailboat, with Alan Boyle as our fearless skipper. Our flotilla consisted of four other yachts, each similarly crewed by families, couples and singles. We were joined by my sister, her husband and twin sons, a family of four who were also friends of my sister's, another family of three from England, and several couples and singles of differing nationalities. Each morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, Greek yogurt and fresh baked bread from the tiny shops in each port, the skippers and crews would meet to discuss the day's schedule, the weather, where we were headed, and other practical information.

We met on the first afternoon at Sunvil's base port of Nidri on the island of Lefkas. Although Lefkas sounds remote, a nearby airport provides direct flights from England; alternatively, we flew into Athens, about 7-hours drive away. Nidri's single main street is lined with yacht provisioning shops and restaurants and we stocked up for the week on essentials for breakfast and lunch. The restaurant we chose for the evening was busy, with long tables under an awning and a view over the many yachts and larger boats in the busy port. The selection of mezes (think Greek tapas) and main courses was so varied that we ended up ordering way too much food, but loving everything we tried. Returning to our boat, we arranged ourselves in the cabins and on the deck under the stars while the boat rocked us to sleep.

Our first day set the standard for the rest of the week: up for a morning briefing, cleaning and prepping the boat for the day, then cruising out of the port between a huge variety of private sailboats and motor yachts, cargo boats and ferries - Greece is still very much a maritime economy. Alan took me aside (so as not to offend the kids) to assure me that in an emergency, he could handle our boat easily by himself - just in case I was worried that our crew of one adult, one teenager and two children, aged 12 and 10, was insufficient. Indeed, we soon discovered that each of the professional skippers was extremely knowledgeable, personable and lots of fun. There were plenty of jobs that the smaller kids were able to do, from taking up the anchor and stowing fenders to steering the boat, while my oldest son, Griffin, and I dealt with more complicated tasks under Alan's calm direction. Griffin was sent up the mast in a bosun's chair on one memorable morning to attach our pirate flag. And in fact, Alan managed to keep his cool remarkably well while dealing with the stress of organizing and maintaining the entire flotilla, keeping all the crews happy, and skippering our boat. With tight quarters on a small boat combined with long periods of time spent together, Alan inevitably experienced our best and worst moments. Yet he tactfully managed not to seem fazed at all even when we resorted to such activities as singing songs to keep the kids amused and stop any bickering. Amazingly, nobody was tossed off the boat, although we certainly thought about it once or twice.

For lunch, we would sail or motor, depending on the weather, to a nearby bay often on a different island, such as the Onassis' private island of Skorpios. Typically, we rafted up our three boats so that we could share a picnic of fresh bread, delicious Greek tomatoes, and sliced meats supplemented with local olives and cheeses. We would swim, jump from the cliffs, explore caves, and once we held a fender rodeo where swimmers were towed on a fender behind the sailboat.

Afternoons were spent sailing among the islands, sometimes powered by a stiff wind, other times just ghosting along with the breeze. Sailing was challenging at times, with great gusts of wind coming down off the islands and heeling the boat over. But the waves were never large, due to the protected nature of the Sea, which is surrounded by islands. No matter what the conditions, the islands around us were beautiful, with steep hillsides, sometimes terraced for olive trees, contrasting with the deep blue of the water broken by turquoise bays. Dolphins occasionally kept us company, jumping in our wake or swimming under our boat.

Each evening, we docked in a little port where we could shower and eat in a restaurant - real cooking on the boat would have been tricky. Each of the ports was charming, some with old fortresses or, in the case of Fiscardo, townhouses painted in a variety of pastel colors with bright bougainvillea growing along the walls. As we docked each night, I would decide that our current port was where I'd like to rent a Greek villa for the entire summer, and then I would change my mind at the next port. We explored each, looking at the shops and their treasures, such as lovely handmade jewelry and clothing; I couldn't resist a pair of gold and silver earrings purchased directly from the artist. After an early dinner (still late by American standards), the kids from our flotilla ran around in a pack while the adults enjoyed a more leisurely dinner of fresh seafood or local delicacies. With the World Cup going on, we sometimes found a bar with a big-screen TV to cheer during important games. Once, we walked through the warm, dark night to a beach with a small thatched-roof bar for an after-dinner drink while the boys lit fireworks over the water. Usually, though, after another excellent dinner, we would retire to our boats and fall quickly asleep, tired out after a wonderful day of sailing.

Sailing back into Nidri on our last day, I was amazed and saddened at how quickly the week on the Artemis had passed. We celebrated our last evening at a group dinner where the skippers presented each of us with appropriate paperwork documenting our progress towards obtaining a captain's license. Aside from learning a lot about sailing, we will always remember plying the waters of the magical Ionian Islands, just like Odysseus.

If You Go:
Contact Allan Gauci at Sunvil Sailing.

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