Monday 25 July 2016

Ionian Sea

The anchor chain snakes over the bow roller and disappears into the deep blue waters of the bay; a long line from our stern is tied around an olive tree on the shore, holding us off the rocks creating a perfect swimming pool beneath the bathing platform. The screech of cicadas is the only sound in the heavy midday heat that has settled over the boat, snuffing out the breeze. We are anchored in Abelike bay on the island of Meganissi, in the Greek Ionian Islands.  We came for a swim and a short overnight stop; a week later we are still here.

Having crossed the Adriatic Sea from Sicily with Andrew on a blustery overnight passage, we made landfall on a windy evening in the harbour of Argostolion on the southern end of Cefalonia.  Andrew flies back to the UK and I sail Juno single-handed for a few days, working my way up the Ionian Sea to Vathi, the main harbour on Ithaka, where I am due to meet Caroline who has been on a yoga retreat. Sailing Juno on my own has been very liberating, even anchoring in 25 knots, resetting the anchor no less than three times, scampering up and down the side deck from the bow and back to the helm.  I meet Fatty in the main square in Vathi and after a week apart we have lots to talk about. We have dinner at the Sirenes restaurant in the back streets and Caroline enthuses about the yoga retreat that has had an amazing revitalising effect on her. She looks fit and healthy after a week of exercise, healthy vegetarian food and no alcohol.  Ingrid, the owner of the retreat, comes for coffee on Juno and describes her damascene conversion from investment banker in London to yoga teacher on Ithaka. We re-provision and head north revisiting some of the bays and villages that we first encountered when we chartered a yacht with Tom and Jamie back in 1997.  Our photographs taken back then on a bulky expensive Nikon camera are nowhere near the quality of todays compact cameras, but the images are fun to compare.

We reach the island of Meganissi where we are due to meet our old friends the Oultons, and we decide to anchor in a bay on the east coast rather than in the harbour – confusingly also called Vathi, the Greek word for deep.  Here in Greece the mooring process goes like this: drop the anchor three or four boat lengths off the shore, then reverse in letting the chain run freely. Once we are about ten metres from the shore we snub the anchor chain and Caroline dives into the water with one end of the mooring line in a loop around her waist, swims ashore and ties it to a tree or a rock on the shore.  I then take up the slack on board and make it fast on a cleat before putting the engine into neutral and allowing the anchor chain to tension up the line.  Some boats use two stern lines at 45 degrees to each other but in settled conditions our heavy octoplait line with lots of tension on the anchor chain is ample to hold us secure.

This part of Meganissi is heavily indented with bays and is very popular with yachts because it is protected in all conditions except for a strong easterly wind. Low hills surround the bays, shrouded in a dark green scrub and the occasional Cyprus tree, while the water is a deep blue turning to aquamarine in the shallows.  At the head of the neighbouring bay, a short ride away in our dinghy, are two small tavernas; tables clustered in the shade of the trees, a dusty track leads to a rickety wooden jetty to attract the anchored yachts. We tie up the dinghy, feeling slightly guilty not to be patronising the tavernas, and walk up the road that rises steeply away from the bay and down into the port of Vathi. The little town is delightful.  A natural harbour, maybe four hundred metres wide at the entrance, with thick woodland on the headlands and at the head of the bay white-washed walls and terracotta roofs come into sight. A flotilla of charter yachts is tied stern-to against the harbour wall and two fishing boats are being hosed down after their nights work. A scooter draws up and the rider is handed a polystyrene box, presumably filled with fish destined for one of the restaurants on the island, which he balances on the seat behind him then roars off in a cloud of dust. One of the fishermen is sitting in the shade of blue plastic sheeting suspended from a telegraph pole; over a wooden chair is draped a pile of yellow netting which he is crafting into a fishing net, attaching floats using a wooden fid wrapped in black twine.

It is mid-morning and the restaurants that line the waters edge are starting to open for lunch. Tables and chairs are laid out under the shade of coloured awnings, bougainvillea in shocking pink and red trails across wooden pergolas.  The main road runs along the harbour wall, separating the dining tables clustered around the water from the kitchens set back across the road and waiters glance warily at the occasional scooter that buzzes past while they carry trays of cold drinks to the waiting guests. Since we were here last there is a new level of customer service and everyone is polite and eager to receive our trade. Despite the financial crisis, Meganissi has an atmosphere of prosperity with contemporary villas now dotting the hills above the port and modern air-conditioned boutiques with designer clothes replacing the espadrilles, straw mats and lilos. However the change is good and Vathi has retained its charm.

Nick and Claire Oulton are on holiday with their daughters Sophie and Emma and son-in-law RG. Yes, curious name, but he is American and very charming.  They have hired a small speedboat and make trips out to see us at anchor and we dinghy into Vathi to have dinner with them in the evening. We have holidayed many times in the past with the Oultons since our children were still in nappies, so it is the easy company of old friends, reminiscing about previous trips, playing rugby with a wine cork at dinner and yes, Claire always falls for it when I offer her water and pour most of it over her. And yet it feels strange that Tom and Jamie are not with us to make up the party.

Our anchorage soon becomes a community and we meet some of our neighbours. Rasmus and Mona from Denmark with their two boys are on an extended charter and we hope to meet them again on our return. John and Elsie on an Oyster 56 invite us for drinks and John reminds me that when you visit somewhere by sea it always feels different than arriving by air – and more satisfying to have made the journey under ones own steam. They have decided to sell their beautiful boat after 14 years and we make a mental note to tell Rasmus and Mona to look out for Itchy Feet when they look for a yacht to make their planned circumnavigation.

Our short visit turns into a week of swimming, paddle-boarding and eating and we have to drag ourselves away when it is time to leave and head for Levkas, where we will leave Juno and fly home for Jamie’s graduation.

The day that I left the UK a few weeks ago, the country was waking up to the shocking news of Brexit; the fear and uncertainty was palpable, even among the excited holiday makers at Gatwick Airport. Today, it seems that the stock market has rebounded, the pound has recovered, we have a female prime minister, an old- Etonian at the foreign office, a British champion at Wimbledon. I give Juno a final wash down in the marina, perspiring freely as the thermometer in the cockpit climbs off the scale, when Caroline emerges from the air-conditioned saloon where she has been cleaning the interior, looking cool and glamorous and with British understatement remarks, “gosh, its quite warm up here”.


  1. Many congratulations to Jamie. Loved the pictures, know Abelike bay well before tavernas and flotillas, even have a shell here in Methana for which David dived in Abelike bay. Lots of wind here with the Meltemi. Temperature about 100. Hope to see you before too long. Much love, Sally and David