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Seastruck

By OPHIA DEMBLING

© St. Petersburg Times


Ah, but the die was cast, the yacht was rented and Gigi was to be our captain. Her husband, now to be known as Matey Mike, was second in command. Cookie, my husband, was chef; and I, lacking any other useful talents, was Hey You, the scullery maid. And we were going to Greece.

We couldn't have found a more enthusiastic skipper than Gigi, who lives in the real world of computers but dreams of a life afloat in exotic places. This was her seventh sailing vacation (including sailing school), her second as captain. It was the maiden voyage for Cookie and me.

Gigi charted our course, consulting cruising guides, sailing charts and guidebooks, measuring and calculating. She related to us 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 sporadically exercised sailing skills. We all agreed Corfu would be a perfect centerpiece to the trip.

We planned for months and by the time we were actually on our way, Gigi was dizzy with excitement and the weight of her responsibility. She reviewed all she had learned in sailing school, silently and aloud, and worried a great deal about something called the Mediterranean mooring, also called stern-to, which is like backing into a parking place.

It was quite a sojourn to Lakka, where we would pick up the boat. An airplane from Athens, a ferry to Preveza, a taxi to the bustling resort town of Parga where we spent one night, another ferry to Gaios on the island of Paxos; and a taxi again over the hills and through the tiny island's thick olive groves (Paxos produces some of the best olive oil in Greece) to Lakka.

Like many of the towns that grow on pretty inlets, Lakka is a red-roofed tumble of buildings and lazy pleasures catering to yachters. It has some pretty beaches, more al fresco dining than a sleepy island town needs, a couple of gift ships, and a few mini-markets (the yachters' supermarket).

Lakka is one of four Greek bases for Sunsail, a Florida-based yacht-charter firm. The town is dominated by yachters -- the international staff of Sunsail and a colorful, raucous crowd of British expatriates, all suntanned brown as breakfast toast.

Here we met our 39-foot Apollo motor sailing yacht with the waiterly name of Jason. Jason was clean and pretty and just big enough, with three wedge-shaped bedrooms (we used one for luggage), a kitchen and salon, two heads (bathrooms) and enough deck space for all.

We bought provisions in Lakka, everything from paper towels and bug spray to savory local olives and ruby tomatoes. We spent the night on Jason, listening to the expats getting loudly drunk to a soundtrack of '70s American pop. This, in various guises, is what Cookie came to call "the traditional Greek racket."

The next morning we learned a few ropes from a couple of bronzed Sunsail youths, and our Sunsail hostess presented us with a bon voyage loaf of hot, fresh bread. By 11 a.m., I had battened my first hatch (otherwise known as closing the windows), Cap'n Gigi had declared us "good to go" and we were off ... not sailing, exactly, since the wind was lackadaisical, but motor-sailing with bare poles (engine on, sails furled) on blue sea under blue sky.

And this is what bareboating the Greek islands is: cruising along under all that amazing sky among olive-green islands (we were never out of sight of land), past fishermen in colorful wooden boats, trying not to get sunburned, listening to music (I highly recommend Harry Belafonte) and being exceedingly lazy (except Gigi, of course, who was on duty all the time).

Around lunchtime, Cookie and I would rouse ourselves from a sun-soaked stupor to go below and whip up lunch, usually a saute of olive oil, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and olives over spaghetti with a side of chewy fresh bread. Every now and then Gigi cut the engine and we jumped overboard for a dip.

Our first anchorage was a pretty green cove near Mourtos, where Cookie and I were introduced to the art of setting the anchor. First Gigi set a bow anchor, but we found ourselves doing 360s in the currents, nearly bonking a nearby Italian yacht, forcing its owner to get up from his nap and look at us irritatedly. While the captain and mate argued the relative merits of setting a stern anchor as well ("It's the sissy way of doing things," said Gigi, who wanted to do it), Cookie and I helped by going below and taking naps.

This stern anchor argument/nap combination became a vacation ritual. Gigi decided to anchor off shore at all our stops rather than get into the middle of the yachting metropolis by tying up at the quay. This was a wise plan due to the inevitable, aforementioned port-town racket, which drifted over the water and assaulted us nightly. This way, too, Gigi was able to avoid the dreaded Mediterranean mooring.

We had seen it done once with amazing grace in Lakka. "Don't worry," the white-maned salt at the stern had said to Gigi, poised with a bumper to protect Jason. We watched admiringly as the Brits slipped their vintage wooden yacht in next to us, delicately as threading a needle.

And we witnessed a nightmare Med mooring involving a loud crunch, a man knocked from his afternoon nap, his head bloodied and his boat damaged, and an embarrassed bunch of Americans. Gigi was mortified for them.

We dropped anchor in a different port each night but one. All shared the same liquid light, bougainvillea-draped streets, abundant tavernas (with virtually identical menus), mangy cats and inviting languidness. Their waters were studded with yachts, from jalopies and lovingly maintained antiques to streamlined luxury yachts.

Gaios was a happy little holiday town that shared Parga's crowds and was a ferry hub for local beaches. Petriti and Mourtos were tiny outposts that attracted yachters with pretty coves and catered to them with tavernas and mini-markets.

At anchor, we swam and snorkeled, putt-putted to land in our inflatable dinghy to explore, wandered town 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 a lovely experience.

Mornings, we sipped Nescafe on deck (the kitchen's one lack was a percolator) and lazily planned our day. Sometimes Matey Mike would start muttering about "ship-shape," hand Cookie a bucket and the two of them would vigorously swab the decks before we sailed.

Our most spectacular anchorage was just below 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 city's New Fort dates to 1576.)

We spent two nights there and rented a car to explore the island. Corfu Town is an exquisite and vital relic, a medieval city with a strong Italian flavor. The first afternoon we explored the twisting streets, shopping, munching gyros and people-watching. We dined at a cafe at the Liston, an arcade by the town's busy esplanade, the Spianada.

The next day we careened around the island in our rented car. Corfu, a florid and indulgent island, is a popular resort for Brits, Germans and Italians. The Greeks are terrifying, madcap drivers, and tourists all tool around on kamikaze motor scooters. While everyone else oohed and aahed at the views, I kept my eyes locked on the winding road, catching only glimpses of flower-draped villas and rocky coasts over blue seas.

We spent the afternoon 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 evening we all put on bathing suits to shower, using biodegradable soap and the hand-held, cold-water deck shower. Showering is a hassle on a small boat and sometimes it's easier to just let the suntan lotion, salt and sweat form its own ecosystem on your body.

After a lingering dinner in town, we strolled back through the busy streets and putt-putted in the dinghy back to Jason, waiting outside the ancient city walls.

"It's the hotel room with the best view in town," said Cap'n Gigi proudly.

Other anchorages were less divine. At Petriti, we set our anchors and decided not to move when the wind whipped up, though everyone moored near us hastened to tie up at the quay before dark. We spent a restless, uncomfortable night as the boat rolled and creaked on the waves. And the town that had been quaint and charming in the daytime at night catered to hordes of tourists who were ferried in and made loud and stupid on ouzo and Greek music.

And, alas, throughout the week, the winds permitted us to do little actual sailing. They kicked in once, as we sailed from Corfu back to Paxos, where there was nothing but ocean between our boat and Italy. We hoisted the sails and got going at the lively clip of 13 knots per hour. Gigi let me take the helm and feel the powerful thrill of going with the wind. Unfortunately, that was short-lived and we were soon back to the frustrating putter of motor sailing.

We even wore out an alternator belt. Sunsail prefers not to leave charter groups too many tools on board, lest they actually use them, so Mike radioed our friendly Sunsail boys, who were leading a nearby flotilla. In just a few minutes, their boat appeared, a fellow named Graham hopped aboard, put on a new belt, accepted some beers for him and his mates, and hopped off again.

And then it was time to return Jason to Lakka. We spent our last night anchored in Lakka's harbor, listening to the expatriates party and wondering wistfully if there was any kind of living to be made growing olives on a remote Greek island. If you go

To charter a bareboat (no professional crew) ship, you have to know how to sail; you will be asked for your sailing resume. It helps to have taken American Sailing Association-certified bareboating class. You'll also need to list the experience of your crew. It's possible to hire a captain, for a per diem of about $100 to $150, plus food. (You can hire a cook, too, if you want.)

Provisions run roughly $50 per day, per couple. We cooked lunches and many breakfasts but ate most dinners at shoreside tavernas.

The bigger the yacht the more luxurious the experience, but sailing is kind of like camping. It's tight quarters with little storage space. If you're traveling with others, don't count on tons of privacy.

Sunsail has 160 boats based in four locations in Greece. A 39-foot bareboat yacht ranges from $1,540 to $2,400 per week, depending on time of the year; there are four price seasons. Sunsail also arranges flotillas -- groups of boats traveling with a Sunsail-staffed lead boat. Call (800) 237-6627. For more tourist information: Contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022; (212) 421-5777. Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer living in Dallas.

Originally published April 27, 1997



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