Flotilla sailing in the Greek islands doesn't mean that you have to follow the crowds.
It was a flotilla holiday that introduced the Hampson family (including my wife Nikki, and sons Alex, 12, and Oliver, 10) to sailing so, after skipping it last year, we decided to return for 2010. For those that have never taken part, the concept is simple: a small flotilla of yachts (normally between 7 and 12) meanders around an area of the Greek islands under the helpful guidance of a lead crew, whilst enjoying the local scenery, food, and culture, and hopefully not a little sailing too. The crew consists of a skipper, an engineer to fix any problems that occur, and a hostie to act as a knowledge base for interesting things do see in each destination, and good places to eat, right through to mundane details like the location of the bins and water.
Daily briefings are held to instruct the group about where we will be going that day, what dangers to look out for, what weather is expected, and the layout of the destination harbour. Then you are free to leave as you wish and head over, possibly taking in a lunch stop along the way. When you get to your destination, the lead crew will already be there. A quick call on the VHF will bring instructions on how (bows to, stern to) and where to tie up, and the crew will be there to catch lines.
Having already toured the both North Ionian and the South Ionian, we decided to get off the beaten track a little. Sailing holidays run a flot to what they call The Faraway Islands. This takes in passages around off to the NW of Corfu to the small islands of Ericusa, Othoni, and Mathraki, and back down the west coast of Corfu, areas unvisited by any of the other flotilla tours.
Our Monarch charter flight took us from Gatwick into the small airport of Preveza, on the west coast of mainland Greece. We were met by the reps who directed us to our coach for the hour-long transfer to Plataria, SH’s northern turnaround base. We were then quickly directed towards our yacht, Vrosina, a Beneteau 323. At two years old, these are among SH’s newer boats and, despite some evidence of the hard lives that these boats lead, she was in good condition. After a welcome from each member of the crew, stowing our gear, taking an inventory of the boat’s equipment and stocking up from the supermarket, it was off to Olga’s Taverna for a much deserved Mythos and dinner.
The briefing on the first morning was followed by a comprehensive tour around the yachts, with a full explanation of the rig, electrics, locations of seacocks, safe operation of electric windlasses, etc. And then we were off to our first destination, Corfu Town. Unfortunately, we only had light-airs and breezes, so it was a full 5 hours motoring. Our destination for the night was the Corfu Yacht club, wonderfully located in the shadow of the citadel. However, the high winds and sloshing between the transom and the quay heard during the night were an indication that the force 3s and 4s predicted for the next day were inaccurate and we were met with an F6 come daybreak (this was to become a common theme as the weather had not yet settled into the usual pattern, seemingly catching all sources of forecasts off guard). The flotilla skipper is obliged to err on the side of caution in such circumstances, so we all stayed in Corfu for one more day, giving us a chance to take in the busy Corfiate capital and visit the excellent Rouvas restaurant that was featured on Rick Stein’s programme. There are worse places to be storm-bound.
The next day brought the F3-4s that we had been promised, so we headed north towards Kassiopi. This is a lovely little harbour town, facing out towards the dramatic Albanian coastline. As it was a short-hop, we anchored off for lunch in a spot recommended by the skipper for lunch, and to allow the kids to swim. In the evening, a punch party organised by the crew in the setting of the Venetian castle allowed flotilla members to meet and greet each other properly, and what a lovely bunch they were.
Next, it was off to ‘The Faraways’, and this is where the skipper’s knowledge was invaluable. Our destination should have been Ericusa, but the westerlies predicted for the evening were unsatisfactory for that mooring, and so instead we headed for the dramatic coastline of Othoni in good but sometimes capricious winds. We got everything from sea breezes to F6s, but the gradual shift from northerly through to westerly meant that we got around the north of Ericusa before bearing south to Othoni on one long, glorious tack.
SH supplies a special guide for the Faraway part of the flotilla that isn’t in general circulation. This was most useful coming in to Othoni as the safe channel into the harbour is marked by a single orange buoy. Whether to pass this to port or starboard would be anybody’s guess without the guide!
Othoni slides away from mountain to sea in a way familiar to anyone that knows the coastline of Western Scotland, as if a Hebridean island had been plonked straight into the Aegean. It has a similar windswept frontier feel to it too, and you suddenly feel quite far from the mainland and, indeed, the mainstream.
The next day, there is a choice: either take part in a round-the-island regatta, take a day’s free sailing to return back to the harbour, or spend a day on the island. We opt for the latter as the kids needed some beach time after several days, which allows me to wallow in the fantasy that we probably would have won it had we taken part.
Ulysses was kept here for seven years in Calypso’s cave (having a great time, by all accounts), but we escape without problem the next day. We finally get to Ericusa… but had planned for Mathraki. Again, the skipper’s knowledge was invaluable as he knew that the current north-westerly would cause a swell that would make life uncomfortable on the eastern side of Mathraki. Instead, we free-swing in the lovely bay at the south of Ericusa. Later, on land, we were surprised to be greeted at the door of a taverna by a man that looked and sounded very much like Tony Soprano. Apparently, many inhabitants of these islands emigrated to New York a generation or so ago, only for they or their children to return with thick Noo Yoik accents.
Then, off to Mathraki, where we are once again welcomed by an American accent at the excellent local taverna. If you ever go here, and you’re a confirmed meat-eater, make sure that you order the pork shank – it’s quite something. The mooring is yet another stern to, and I’m getting quite used to manoeuvring in reverse. One thing that I don’t quite get used to, though, is the skipper’s instruction to start dropping the front anchor about 4 boat lengths out, keeping about 1600-1800 revs on the engine, and then to stop on the anchor just about ¾ of a boat length back from the quay. The idea is that the anchor will grab, and the boat will be held in position off the quay by motor and anchor until the lines can be sweated in. Call me soft, but I get more than a little nervous when I’m still doing 2-3 knots astern less than 20ft from the quay on a fair slice of throttle, but he’s the boss and there seems to be method in his madness. All the same, I wouldn’t fancy it if it were my boat.
Next up is Palaiokastritsa on the west coast of Corfu, which is a collection of quite lovely bays surrounded by cliffs. Again, it is seldom if ever visited by other flotillas, as they tend to stay on the sheltered eastern side of the island. We all rafted off in the central bay, and we peeled off from the main group for a wonderful meal in the taverna overlooking the marina – the spaghetti with shrimps is quite amazing.
Next, we have a long 35 mile motor south down the rest of the length of Corfu and on to busy little Gaios on the island of Paxos. We could have done with a decent breeze on this of all days, but it wasn’t to be. The quay is right on the town square and is lined with cafés, so I had quite an audience to witness the anchor and motor astern combination finally coming a cropper, and although I got her into forward as soon as it was apparent that the anchor hadn’t dug in, we still kissed the quay a little, but with no damage. Still, I then had to repeat the manoeuvre for my audience. I was gratified to see the next 323, piloted by someone that has their own at home, repeat the same trick – I’m so glad it isn’t just me!
Whilst it’s lovely to step off the boat straight into a town, Gaois was hot and noisy late into the night. Special thanks to the local who went for the motorbike land speed record along the quay just as the rest of the town had finally tucked itself away for the night.
A free-sailing go-where-you-please day next, so we headed to beautiful Lakka, also on Paxos, as we knew that there is plenty of space to free-swing in cool waters and swim off the back, which is much-needed after hot, stuffy Gaios. The next day, we motor (no wind again) to Two Rock Bay, where the flotilla rejoins for a beach party prepared by the lead crew. There is no taverna here, no town, no buildings. We free-swung in the bay and, with little light pollution, the night sky was stunning and the sea lit up with phosphorous plankton. In daytime, the snorkelling is excellent, and we even managed to spot an eel nestled in a rock wall. Finally, after lunch the next day, we tear ourselves away to head for Sivota-Mourtos. Luckily for our last full day of sailing the wind had got up to F4/5, but unluckily our route was head-to and we seem to spend an age tacking off Parga. It was the first time we’ve really been close-hauled on this trip, and I find that Vrosina really doesn’t like much less than 60 degrees of wind on a starboard tack, which doesn’t help. I’m told that all 323s are like this.
Our last day was a short 90 motor (no wind for our last day) back to Plataria. Once parked, the dismal job of packing and giving the boat a clean-through ready for the next occupants was undertaken, before our farewell group meal at one of the tavernas. Prizes are awarded at the end of the meal, leaving my boys to scrap over the Sailing Holidays flag that we won in the pub quiz.
I would thoroughly recommend this flotilla if you’d like to get off the beaten path. SH’s crew and general organisation were excellent, as always.