Prudent fellow that I am, I checked the rigging thoroughly before we pulled
away from the dock at Kalamaki, just outside of downtown Athens. I examined the halyards, the boom vang, made sure I followed the logic of jib sheets as they looped through blocks and leads. I was off to sail the fabled waters of the Aegean Sea, and, to put it candidly, I didn't want to screw up.
Not that our 56-foot Jeanneau sloop was mainly in my hands. Onboard was a professional skipper, whose name, George, seems to be the name of every skipper in Greece. George would bear the final responsibility for the health of the ship and its crew. George would also provide that crucial element known to sailors as "local knowledge"--an awareness of such things as uncharted rocks and which tavernas served the crispest rose straight out of the barrel and the freshest mullet. Still, the boat was ours to sail, and we intended to sail it.
We did not, however, sail it out of the harbor. We motored. This, I admit, was slightly deflating, but what the heck--we had a week to find the wind, and besides, the view of the receding Acropolis, even haloed as it was in the prodigious Athens smog, was sublime.
For an hour, we putt-putted along. The water went from turquoise to indigo, the Parthenon faded in the haze, our naked mast remained a futile appendage against the cloudless October sky. Finally, very mildly--who wants to establish himself as the resident pain-in-the-neck on the first day of a voyage?--I asked George if we might hoist some canvas. He frowned. "Is not much wind," he said.
I'd noticed that. But sailing in light airs is part of sailing. I said nothing.
George felt the pressure of my silence. "We have far to go," he added.
I did not ask what the hurry was.
"Hokay," our skipper said without enthusiasm. "We can try."
So our languorous crew sprang to life. Marilyn took the wheel. George and I raised the mainsail. Ed and Carol prepared the lines that would liberate the furled jib.
And we sailed, very slowly, for half an hour, until the wind died altogether. George cast a tragic look at our flaccid canvas. "I think we need the motor," he said, and this time, I could not disagree.
DOLPHIN DELIGHT. So we dieseled through the flat, dark water--and were rewarded with a splendid sight. A pod of dolphins--the same inspiring creatures that the ancients celebrated in art and myth--came gamboling around our bows. We hung over the sides to watch them, and they swam alongside us, zigzagging, backs arched gorgeously, so close we could see their blowholes and the velvety nap of their glistening skin.
The steep, sheep-dotted island of Aegina was off our starboard bow. Our first night's destination--Poros--was dead ahead. Beyond lay the stark promontories of Peloponnisos. The weather was perfect, and we were surrounded by dolphins in Greece. It was marvelous--and if it wasn't exactly sailing, well, we had time enough for that.
On the pellucid morning of Day 2, I carried my sailing gloves--fingerless jobs with tough suede palms for hauling lines--up on deck. I needn't have bothered. Winds were light, and we had 42 miles to cover. We motored for a hot, sunny 7 1/2 hours, until we reached the little-visited mainland town of Yerakas.
There, we swam in crystalline green water amazing for its buoyancy, then dinghied to a grotto whose entrance was just wide enough for our bows and whose sugar-like stalactites were turned a spooky mauve by the last light of the day. We strolled the quay where old Greek women wore black shawls and fishermen sat with big baskets on their laps, untangling fishing lines and sewing nets. That night, we dined on fresh-killed goat and homemade cheese. This was deep Greece--accessible, for all practical purposes, only by private boat. We felt privileged to be there.
A night or so later, with many more hours on the engine and virtually no wear on the halyards, my old friend Ed, a far more diplomatic fellow than I will ever be, said: "So George, what are the best months for sailing in Greece?"
Our skipper took a pull of what he referred to as "beer juice" and pondered. "May is good," he said. "Except very dangerous. Many storms, sudden. They say May makes widows. June is beautiful, but many days no wind. July, August, many people come, but it is the time of the meltemi."
BEST OF TIMES. The meltemi is the Greek version of the French mistral, except that it comes up more abruptly, and it blows harder for longer. Three weeks of unremitting 35-knot wind is not uncommon.
"What about the fall?" asked Ed.
"September, very good," said George. "But like May, storms. October, you see for yourself. Sometimes beautiful. But many days, no wind, nothing."
"So George," said Ed. "What would you say the best month is?"
George, a professional captain and a patriotic Greek, thought. "I would say," he said, "they are all very good."
The fifth day was a Friday, and it so happened that Athens was under a smog alert. Private cars were banned from the center city, and people were advised not to breathe more than they had to.
How, you may wonder, would a smog alert in Athens affect us, placidly motoring through the unsullied air and sapphire water of the Saronic Gulf?
Well, the islands on our itinerary for the weekend--Spetses and Hydra--are sometimes referred to as the Hamptons of Athens. Fashionable places, they are close enough to the capital that well-to-do Athenians can hop in their motorboats and get there fast enough to make it worthwhile as a weekend jaunt. For the less affluent, commercial hydrofoil service is available. So if the air back home is pestilential, why not leave?
DISCO ROUTE. In short, the islands were mobbed. To escape the crush of downtown Spetses, we rented bikes and pedaled beyond the paved part of the road, climbing to the craggy interior, where the smell of the ocean yielded to the resinous tang of sun-baked pines, and the occasional mansion was discreetly tucked away among the cliffs. We were exhausted after the trek, but we had tied up to a quay that also served as a thoroughfare for scooters en route to a nearby disco. It was not a placid night.
The next day, we dieseled on to the island of Hydra--which allows no motor vehicles on land. We roamed the terraced streets, marveling at the saturated brightness of the bougainvillea that festooned the whitewashed houses with their shutters of electric blue. Now and then, we pressed ourselves against the cool walls to make way for donkeys carrying luggage, groceries, and straw-covered hogsheads of wine. Once again, we had earned a good night's sleep. But the problem this time was boatloads of yodeling Germans and partying Greeks who used our craft as a bridge to shore, since we were rafted up three-deep in the tiny harbor.
I asked George why we were in the tiny harbor in the first place, when there appeared to be plenty of quiet, cliff-ringed coves where we might have dropped anchored. We were in the harbor, he explained, because tying up was better for his "psychological health." Anchoring made him nervous because the bottom was weedy, and winds sometimes came up in the night. Besides, in the harbors, he was sure to meet up with various other Georges, whose company over beer juice he found soothing.
Suddenly, it came clear to me. Naively, I had started with the notion that our skipper was aboard to make us happy. If our preference was to sail, we would sail; if our desire was to anchor out in silence underneath the storied constellations, we would anchor out. But now, I realized I had had the whole thing backward. The captain wasn't there to make us happy; we were there to make him happy. It was his boat, his country. Our job as good guests was to make his job easier.
I realized something else as well. This trip was supposed to be about sailing in Greece. But in my hell-bent passion for the sailing part, I had been slow to make accommodation to the Greek part. Greece is a place where boats are used less for sport than for transportation. It is a place where life has always hugged the shore, where the most beautiful and stirring approaches have always been by water. The pristine, precarious houses clinging to the rocks, the old men with fishing poles and worry beads, the goats and donkeys and chickens and cats that clamber around the edge of town--these things are wonderful to see. And if one doesn't often have the luck to be under sail while seeing them, it only proves what Odysseus learned: The winds of the Aegean don't always take you where you want