At the beginning of the year 2020 we delved into boat projects aboard our sailboat Aina. At that point nobody knew that the world was about to turn upside down. Greece went into total lockdown in March, but we just kept on working. Read more about our time during the spring lockdown in Messolonghi!
The sailing season of 2020 was a bit short. But that was the case for many other sailors, with all sorts of restrictions and lock-downs in most parts of the world. But in the Greek waters the summer turned out fine in the end, even though a little later than usual. Our own adventure was delayed, of course, by the corona virus, and we couldn’t leave our winter base until the end of May. Then our boat had a surprise in store for us, which kept us busy at the boatyard until the end of July. And now another lock-down brought our journey to a halt in the harbour of Galaxidi. Well, it is what it is – we’ll try to make the most of it.
At the same time as hurricane Sally was approaching the American coast, a similar storm was brewing in the Mediterranean – medicane Ianos. We woke up in a quiet anchorage in Paxos on Tuesday, the 15th of September, with the intention of sailing to Preveza. We had the wind straight on the nose, and after hours of tacking back and forth we decided to anchor at Two Rock Bay instead, and continue to Preveza the following morning.
Paxos and Antipaxos, together called Paxoi, are the smallest island group in the Ionian, just south of Corfu. On September the 7th we sailed to Lakka, a small village on the northern end of Paxos. We knew Lakka is a popular anchorage, so we wanted to be there early in the afternoon in order to secure a place. We had some mayhem along the way, however, so we didn’t arrive until 7 pm – the bay looked absolutely packed as I was looking through my binoculars, but we sailed closer to have a look. After all, there’s always room for an optimist – and there was! In fact, more than ten boats came after us, and somehow they all managed to squeeze in.
The Ionian islands of Greece were part of the Venetian Republic for more than four hundred years. Venice conquered the islands one by one – Corfu in 1383, Zakynthos about a century later, Kefalonia and Ithaca around 1500 and finally Lefkada in 1718. The Venetians and Ottomans fought over the territory for many centuries, but unlike the rest of Greece, the Ionian islands escaped the Ottoman rule. Corfu, as the bulwark against the Ottoman empire became one of the most fortified places in Europe.
After leaving our winter base, Messolonghi, we rounded the southwestern corner of mainland Greece. Next to a small but very high, rugged island called Oxia we hoisted the sails for the first time. Our destination was a boatyard on the island of Lefkas, to the northwest, where our boat would be lifted out and we would spend a month or so doing boat projects “on the hard”. But before that, we would have a little mini holiday of at least a couple of days, and we planned to use it anchoring in pretty coves and getting a little first glimpse of the Ionian archipelago.
Last time we left our readers hanging on the shore in Itéa, after a wonderful trip to the temples of Delphi. It’s about time to wrap up our October journey on the Bay of Corinth, but before settling down for the winter in Mesolonghi, we still had time to visit the town of Galaxidi. It’s situated opposite Itéa and it took us less than an hour to motor across the bay.
The sun was beaming from a bright blue sky when we began our ”autumn holiday” on the Bay of Corinth. We had our winter base in Mesolongi sorted out, but the winter was still a long way away! The day turned very hot, and a gentle breeze started in the afternoon. We rolled out our big genoa, and let the boat move downwind at her own chosen speed. There was no hurry, but our big lady seemed to be waking up as the wind gradually freshened, and was making good speed. Soon we could see the Rio-Antirrio Bridge looming in the distance. This imposing bridge that opened just before the Olympic Games of Athens in 2004, separates the Bay of Patras from the Bay of Corinth, and connects the Peloponnese to the Greek mainland.
The Straits of Messina was, according to our calculations, the fourth place along our journey, where we had to carefully time our passage with the tides. The others were Alderney Race and Chenal du Four in France, and the Straits of Gibraltar. Messina is the only place in the Mediterranean that has significant tidal currents. The height difference is less than a foot, and it’s really surprising how it can cause such strong currents. In Brittany the tidal range was as much as 12 metres in places, so the currents were understandable. But perhaps the Mediterranean has a logic of its own, when it comes to tides, much as it seems to have its own logic with the winds and weather.
August in the Mediterranean is hot. It makes you understand immediately, why a thing called siesta was invented here. On the northern coast of Sicily there was no wind in August, which made the days even hotter, while we motored from one anchorage to another. But the good thing about no wind was, that we slept our nights in peace – the anchorages in Sicily are not protected. There was always some swell even on a calm night, but at least we didn’t have to worry about our anchor not holding in strong winds. The water is clean and clear, even in front of big cities, so you can always go for a swim to cool down.
As we approached the Sicilian coast on August the 10th, we chose – quite at random, as the sun would go down soon – to stop at the Trapani harbour. We knew nothing about the place, except that there was a free anchorage within the port. But the next morning’s googling revealed an ancient town by the name of Erice on top of a hill close by, and that definitely got us interested! The easiest way to get there would be by a cableway.
We sat under the scorching sun in the Almerimar Marina, waiting for the strong winds to calm down, so we could continue our journey east. In Almerimar there was no sign of any winds, so it felt funny to think there could be 30 knot winds blowing on the other side of the cape. When the forecast showed only 15 knots, gusting to 25, we left.
After leaving Porto, we had two alternatives in mind when trying to decide the next chapter of our journey – to continue south, and spend the winter in the Canary Islands, or to turn left at the corner of Portugal, and sail through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. We had to consider things like finding good anchorages and safe harbours, marina prices, living expenses, places of interest and variety, weather and weather forecasts, and so on. We very nearly had to toss a coin – both have plenty to offer, but both have their own limitations. Now that we’ve made the decision, we can rejoice or regret it every other day, so maybe it’s all in balance. And we can always change our minds later, as the winds surely blow both ways in their turn.
The beautiful Islas Cíes behind us, we crossed the border to Portugal at midnight. The wind was very light at the start of our journey, but there was a big swell. We had the wind with us, a very unusual occurrence indeed. During this year we’ve experienced at least some downwind sailing, but during the first 1700 nautical miles – to our winter base in Brittany – we only sailed downwind for 3 hours. This miracle happened along the inland waterways of Holland, on the lake Markermeer. Now the swell made our boat roll a lot, not very comfortable, but at least we were making good speed.
On the west coast of Galicia, there’s a large national park comprising of many islands and archipelagos, called Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas. The largest of them, starting from the north, are the islands of Sálvora, Ons and Cíes, that provide shelter to the Rías Baixas from the Atlantic wind and swell. Some of the park’s islands can also be found deeper in the rías. To be able to visit any of the islands, you have to apply for a permit through a pretty straight forward online process (form to fill, instructions here). For anchoring, you need an additional anchoring permit – during the high season you can book up to three nights in advance. This is how they keep the number of tourists to a moderate level, so visitors can enjoy the experience in relative peace and quiet – a little bureaucracy is a very reasonable price to pay for a unique experience.
Ría de Arousa is the largest of Rías Baixas, on the western coast of Galicia. It’s surrounded from every side by high hills, and the shores are dotted with lovely sandy beaches, small towns and numerous harbours. In the middle of the ría there’s a large island called Illa de Arousa, with its pine forests and beaches. The most prominent feature on this ría is the incredible number of viveros, mussle and clam cultivation rafts. There are apparently about 3000 of them on this ría alone. All the little bays are full of them, and to get to the different harbours and anchorages you often have to go a long way around the large fields, unless you’re brave enough to weave your way through. It’s possible to do that, because they are anchored vertically downwards, but there are many of them! It’s not recommended to arrive for the first time at night – the biggest fields have light buoys in the corners but the rafts themselves are unlit.