Jewels of Greece: Sailing in the Ionian Islands
by Sophia Dembling
"I don't know," a friend said darkly. "I'm not sure I would entrust my life to a redhead named Gigi."
Too late. The yacht was rented, and Gigi was our captain. Her husband Matey Mike was second in command; my husband--call him Cookie--was chef; and I, lacking other useful talents, was Hey You, the scullery maid. And we were going to Greece.
Capt'n Gigi lives in the real world of computers but dreams of a life afloat in exotic places. This was her seventh sailing vacation, her second as captain. It was the maiden voyage for me and Cookie.
Capt'n Gigi charted our course, consulting guides and charts, then measured, calculated and shared details of her planning far beyond our comprehension. She decided the Ionian islands, the uncharacteristically green islands off the west coast, would best suit her sailing skills, and we all agreed Corfu was a perfect centerpiece to the trip.
By the time we were on our way, Capt'n Gigi was dizzy with excitement and the weight of responsibility. She worried a great deal about something called the Mediterranean mooring, also known as "stern-to." This tricky maneuver of mooring the boat is comparable to backing a car into a parking place, but despite our reservations, we were on our way.
Our sail started on the island of Lakka, one of the bases for Sunsail, a Florida-based yacht charter firm. Like many of the towns that grow on pretty inlets, Lakka is a tumble of red-roofed buildings and lazy pleasures catering to yachters. Here, we met our 39-foot Apollo motor sailing yacht, simply named Jason. The vessel had three wedge-shaped bedrooms (we used one for luggage), a kitchen and salon, two heads (bathrooms), and ample deck space.
We bought provisions in Lakka, everything from paper towels to savory local olives and ruby tomatoes, and spent the night aboard Jason, listening to loud yachters ashore getting drunk to a soundtrack of '70s American pop. This, in various guises, is what Cookie came to call "the traditional Greek racket."
By 11 A.M. the next day, I had battened my first hatch (a.k.a. closing the windows), and Capt'n Gigi declared us "good to go." We were off. Not sailing, exactly (the wind was lackadaisical), but motor-sailing with bare poles (engine on, sails furled) on blue sea under a blue sky.
And this is what bareboating the Greek islands is: Cruising among olive-green islands, past fishermen in colorful wooden boats, trying not to get sunburned, and being exceedingly lazy. Sometimes Capt'n Gigi cut the engine and we jumped overboard for a dip. Around lunchtime, Cookie and I would rouse ourselves to whip up lunch, usually a saute of olive oil, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and olives over spaghetti, with a side of chewy fresh bread.
Our first anchorage was a scenic green cove near Mourtos, where Cookie and I were introduced to the art of setting the anchor. First, Capt'n Gigi set a bow anchor, but we found ourselves doing 360s in the currents and nearly bonked a nearby Italian yacht, forcing its owner to get up from his nap and look at us perturbedly. While capt'n and mate debated the merits of setting a stern anchor, too ("It's the sissy way of doing things," said Capt'n Gigi, who wanted to do it), Cookie and I helped by going below and following the lead of the Italian yachtsman. We napped as the episode continued above deck.
This stern anchor debate/nap combination became a vacation ritual. Capt'n Gigi decided to anchor at all our stops rather than enter the yachting metropolis to tie up at the quay. This way, she was able to avoid the dreaded "Mediterranean mooring."
We saw it done once with amazing grace in Lakka. "Don't worry," said the white-maned salt at the stern to Capt'n Gigi, who was poised with a bumper to protect Jason. We watched admiringly as the vintage yacht slipped in next to us, delicately as threading a needle.
On the other hand, we witnessed a nightmare Med mooring involving a loud crunch, a man knocked from his afternoon nap with his head bloodied and his boat damaged, and an embarrassed bunch of Americans. Capt'n Gigi was mortified for them.
We dropped anchor in different ports each night but one. All shared the same liquid light, bougainvillea-draped streets, abundant tavernas, mangy cats, and inviting languidness. Their waters were studded with yachts, from jalopies and lovingly maintained antiques to streamlined luxury vessels.
At anchor, we swam and snorkeled, putt-putted ashore in our inflatable dinghy, wandered streets and hiked through olive groves. We dined on tzaziki (yogurt and cucumber salad), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and calamari (squid) under glorious sunsets, then returned to Jason to sip retsina (Greek wine) on deck and gaze at the Milky Way until we started to nod. But for the smallness of the bed and, on some nights, mosquitoes, sleeping in the gently rocking boat was pleasant.
Mornings, we sipped Nescafe on deck (the kitchen's one lack was a percolator) and planned our day. Sometimes Matey Mike started muttering about "shipshape," and handed Cookie a bucket so the two of them could vigorously swab the decks before we sailed.
We spent two nights an-chored by the wizened Old Fort in Corfu Town, where we were watched over by a white church that glowed in the magic light of late afternoon. (The Old Fort dates to 1546; the New Fort dates to 1576.)
Corfu, a florid and indulgent island, is popular among Europeans. Corfu Town is an exquisite and vital relic, a medieval city with a strong Italian flavor. The first afternoon, we explored the twisting streets and dined al fresco at the Liston, an arcade by the town's busy esplanade. The next day we careened around the island in a rented car. Our afternoon was spent at Sidari, on the island's north coast, relaxing on the long beach and clambering on limestone rocks beaten into fantastic shapes by wind and water. That night, after a lingering dinner in town, we strolled back through the busy streets and chugged along in the dinghy back to Jason, waiting outside the ancient city walls.
"It's the hotel room with the best view in town, " said Capt'n Gigi proudly.
Anchored back in Lakka's harbor on our last night, we listened to the shore racket and wondered wistfully if there was any kind of living to be made on a remote Greek island.
But Gigi hadn't escaped the dreaded Mediterranean mooring. The next morning, a Sunsail employee came aboard and talked Capt'n Gigi through the maneuver. It was a little wobbly, but without mishap. Back where we started, Capt'n Gigi said a sentimental good-bye to Jason.
Capt'n Gigi had stood her post well. Now, like all of us, she looked forward to a long, hot shower and a real bed. She sipped a beer and relaxed as we waited for the ferry that would begin our long journey home.
"I miss Jason already," she said, her attachment to the boat a tribute to her true seamanship. And we all understood.
What You Need to Know About Bareboat Yacht Chartering
A sailing resume will be required. It helps to have taken American Sailing Association certified bareboating classes. A captain may be hired for a per diem of about $100 to $150, plus food. You can also hire a cook.
Provisions for this trip ran roughly $50 per day per couple; they cooked their own breakfasts and lunches on board and ate dinners ashore.
Sunsail has 11 bases in Greece, and also arranges flotillas--groups of boats traveling with a Sunsail-staffed lead boat. Phone: (800) 237-6627.
The Moorings is another charter company with bases in Greece; Phone: (800) 535-7289.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Yacht Charter/Bareboat-Greece."