Athens: the Other Windy City


Finding shelter in the storm during a Greek charter  (published March 2012)

Last year, Sunsail was promoting a new base in Lavrion, Greece near Athens, along with a new Jeanneau-built monohull, the Sunsail 41. The boat looked fabulous to me, and not enough good things can be said about the sailing, people and food in Greece, so organizing a trip there was an easy decision.

Sunsail has several bases in Greece. We are familiar with Vounaki, which is a bit like a Med-version of the BVI—sheltered, beautiful and beginner-friendly. But it is a haul (five hours) over land from Athens International Airport. With the Athens base, we could reduce travel time and see some new islands.

In Athens, we found a tidy, safe, tourist-friendly city. Despite every effort by the media to create a sense of crisis, Athens is home to more than 800 outdoor demonstrations per year and we saw more bored police officers than anything else. The Syntagma/Plaka area has countless shops and tavernas and we happily wandered around for hours. Athens shares with Paris one distinction—it is very hard to find a bad meal.

Shopping in the Plaka, Athens
Shopping in the Plaka, Athens

We did some damage to our supply of Euros at a dress shop near our favorite restaurant, Plakiotissa, then rented a small van from Avis, which we used to reach the base in about 30 minutes before going for provisions. There is a small shop at the base, located at Olympic Marina, or you can drive or take a taxi two miles into town to a nice supermarket called My Market.

Upon arrival, we got an evening chart briefing and learned there are two sailing areas we could reach in a week. The Northern Cyclades are the closest, but they are subject to strong winds. In the summer, the Meltemi can blow out of the N/NE at 25 knots or more for days at a time. The base suggested a slightly longer run over to the Saronic Islands, which provide more protection and have equally nice ports. We were issued a copy of Rod Heikell’s Greek Waters Pilot and a supply of Imray charts when our paperwork was ready.

Our first weather forecast suggested we would see winds up to 32 knots our first day out. Sailing is discouraged over Force 6, and my crew was mostly new to chartering and ocean sailing, so I was not interested in long legs if there was a swell running. A morning review of on our GSM phone (we did not have much luck with CDMA phones, and generally found Wi-Fi only in tavernas) suggested it would be moderating.

We departed first for Vourkari on Kea, about 15 miles out. There is a significant shoal well off of Makronisos Island, and we became believers in the color chartplotter aboard, as I accidently left my hand-bearing compass at home. That being said, it may be easier to go around the south of the island. There are essentially three separate mooring areas sharing a common harbor entrance on the NW side of Kea. We discovered we had rope and 200 feet of chain in the anchor locker. I was expecting to free drop three boat lengths out, but the advice here was to power drop.

After we were secure, my new crew had their first experience ordering fish for dinner—they went back to the kitchen, pointed to all the fresh fish in stock, and soon it was delivered to our table. After that, we learned to point only at the fish we actually wanted.


The crew after the storm in Merikha, Kea
The crew after the storm in Merikha, Kea

The next day, we consulted the Heikell book, and in the face of forecast strong north winds, departed for Merikha on Kythnos. There was a swell running from the south as well and we did not feel very ambitious. We got confused a little here—Heikell warns mostly against strong SW/W winds in Merikha, and we ended up with a NW wind. The harbor is open to the north, and we got in on the wall before being hit by a rain squall. We lost our anchor holding and headed back out. On the way, we picked up the chain of another charter boat that kept heading for the beach in the back of the harbor and got tangled in the small boat moorings. We ended up throwing out the spare anchor to keep both of us from going aground. Sorting out tangled anchors is semi-challenging in storm conditions.

After getting free, I consulted the paper chart and saw an anchor symbol in the back of the harbor. I decided to go close to the SW side of the harbor in some sand and put out lots of chain in about 13 feet of water. I questioned a local fisherman who was motoring by. He mentioned “six Beauforts,” but thought we would be okay.

That night, there was plenty of drama in the harbor. In gusts of 32 knots, one yacht lost its anchor and hit the wall, sustaining damage. Another insisted on anchoring where the huge car ferry came in and swung his stern back to depart, earning a barrage of whistles from the harbormaster and horn blasts from the ferry. And the guy we tangled chains with zoomed around the harbor for a while in the dark, then ran hard aground behind us, anchor still on the bow roller. The holding was later reported to be generally poor, but we were fortunate.

The next morning, local fishermen sprang into action. They looped a bridle around the mast of the grounded boat and backed in a powerful fishing trawler. They flipped the sailboat over to windward, and using the buoyancy of the hull, pulled the boat from the standing rigging off the beach. We went ashore and found hot coffee and a waterfront seat to watch the excitement.

The weather started to improve and we decided to try for Loutra, also on Kythnos. There is a bit of shoal on your starboard side as you approach, but the harbor itself is compact and nice. If you are there in the off season or arrive early in the day, there are some protected spots inside the three-sided breakwater or even alongside. On land, there are some tavernas to choose from and a slightly faded hydrotherapy spa. I decided I could stay here for a week. The harbormaster was friendly and they had hot showers, laundry, power and water at the docks.

Korissia, Kea
Korissia, Kea

We had glassy seas and light winds and could choose from a range of cozy anchorages. But we wanted to go back toward Lavrion, so we decided to return to Kea and try Korissia. We learned there is a minor shipping lane off of Kea, and had to study the paths of tankers and ferries as we crossed the channel to ensure we were not in the way. Korissia is an easy harbor, and we found a spot on the wall. The wind was light, and a local resident came by and suggested that an anchor placement favoring a north wind was a good idea.

The next morning, we were finishing our coffee and breakfast cake in the shadow of a beautiful church when the wind came up from the north and started tugging on the anchor. We rounded up our crew and headed back toward Lavrion. As the breeze built, we were again impressed by the Sunsail 41. After trying countless charter boats, some were indifferent sailors, but this one—perhaps due to its wide stern—sailed fast and flat. We hit 8 knots at one point, and the boat handled well.

Back at Lavrion, we shared a few storm stories and decided that despite the wind, this had been a pretty good week. I was elated at what came next—my crew of mostly rookies was already talking about our next charter.

Erik Westgard, a retired member of the USCG Auxiliary, lives in St Paul, MN. He is employed in telecommunications and is an adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University. Erik has organized many charter trips and currently sails his Hunter 31 on the St. Croix River.

Author: Erik Westgard