The northern Ionian Sea offers some of the best sailing, cruising and exploring in all of Greece (published August 2016)
We have always loved to charter in Greece and these days The Moorings offers three bases. If you are looking for outstanding food, sailing and interesting port visits any one is a good choice. Athens (Zea) is easy to get to and has excellent winds and open water sailing conditions. A new location, Corfu, is in the far northern Ionian, an area we had heard about but had not visited by yacht. The largest base,Lefkas, is in the popular and sheltered more southern part of the northern Ionian.
Second largest in the Ionian, the island of Corfu has an interesting history and is very popular with British tourists. There is a strong connection: Britain ruled the island from 1815-1864 and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born there.
We built our own flight connections using low cost flights (65-100 Euros was common) to Corfu from several London airports and Athens. The base is housed at the large and well-appointed Gouvia Marina, a bit north of Corfu Town. It is a short, 20 Euro taxi ride from the airport. The marina itself has a mini mart and several restaurants and there is a town and supermarket that wraps around the complex. On our first night there, we had a delicious Greek dinner and listened to live Greek guitar music at Harry’s taverna.
We are fans of all things Venetian, so Corfu Town, with the dual fortresses, was high on our list of sights to see. The 1546-era Old Fort is a museum, has a café with a great view and even a yacht marina, which can be used as a stop on your voyage. The town has two more marinas and several nice churches as well as excellent shopping. We liked lunch outdoors at the Aegeli Restaurant, on the Liston, which was built in 1807 by the French Imperial Commissioner to resemble the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. It overlooks the attractive main square. The new fort, until recently an active military facility, is also open for visitors.
Looking at The Moorings web site for routes out of Corfu, we were a little baffled. They recommended a trip of over 60 nautical miles down toward Lefkas. This seemed too far to travel on a seven-day charter and our hunch was confirmed by Johnny Adams, the personable base manager, during the initial chart briefing. “Our main cruising area is bounded by Kassiopi to the north and an east west line just south of N. Andipaxoi.” He said the west side of Corfu has good wind, but there are not a lot of interesting ports there and it “is hard for us to get to you if you need assistance.”
The chart of the area is Imray G11. There are two guide books: Greek Waters Pilot and Ionian by Rod Heikell. One question mark was Albania, which lies close to Corfu. “They are not quite ready for us” said Johnny. Political stability is better, but he advised against visiting there by charter yacht. Local travel agencies were offering day trips to Albania for 40 Euros.
Johnny feels and we agree completely that starting up in Corfu gives you easy access to a unique cruising area that you might not see if you leave from Lefkas. “This area is also good for beginners and for the person who wants a nice easy holiday. You can also stop at Vonitsa in the Gulf of Amvrakia, which is a pleasant former fishing village” he said.
The base, founded in 2013 by Johnny and Emily Hewitt with three boats, has grown to 22 boats. In the briefing, Johnny was pointing out a fair number of harbors where you would anchor out, which can be a nice break from med mooring. Lazy lines and commercial mooring balls are uncommon here. Interestingly, we did not fill out any port police paperwork once underway or pay a docking fee all week. “They come to you” says Johnny. One note of caution, in Greece, few if any navigation hazards are marked. We saw quite a few fast ferries but no cargo ships in the area.
We liked the Moorings 43.3 by Beneteau. It has three cabins and three heads, two en suite. After years of chartering 41 and 42 foot boats, my crew announced (looking at me as they spoke) “This is our new minimum sized boat.” It is a comfortable sea vessel with a roomy cockpit and powerful engine and was fast and stable in a breeze. The refrigerator was a wonder as it kept food and even ice cold all week with minimal current draw.
While Johnny and Emily were marketing anchoring out in Kalami as a nice and easy first port, we headed instead for Mourtos, Sivota and med moored. We were behind two flotillas, so got the last spot to the left of the ferry dock on the town wall. We think the spots to the right as you go in were not a full two meters deep; several of us tested this with a boat hook. We were a little rusty but did not embarrass ourselves docking. The key to sailing near flotillas is to arrive before they do, or listen in on their pre-departure briefings and go someplace else.
We met two Scottish gentlemen who helped us tie up, handed us beer and strongly advised an excellent Italian place a few blocks inland, which had a wood fired pizza oven. This was next to a nice art gallery and bakery and near a small supermarket. We were told it was good to move the boat away from the wall another foot or two and bring in our boarding planks at night, this was largely to protect the boat from any ferry surge, which we actually felt at 5 a.m.
We next went to Lakka on Paxos. This town was highly rated by my crew, and the harbor is sheltered and pretty. Blaming jet lag, I got our feet and meters signals crossed somehow and got anchored on poor holding in sand in about one and a half meters by a nice beach. I realized this too late to move as the place was packed so we put out two anchors. Luckily, the backup anchor was heavy and well suited to sandy bottoms. We do not recommend anchoring in the weedy area near the town since anchors have a hard time gripping to grassy bottoms. In retrospect, we might have arrived earlier and anchored closer to the harbor entrance in deeper water or moored med style to the sea wall.
We poked our bow into Gaios early the next day but found the outside main wall area full. You can also moor to a section of that wall painted yellow from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. only, when the tripper boats were gone for the day. The narrow inner harbor and south entrance struck us as confined and shallow for a large vessel so we moved on to Mongonisi.
In contrast to our experience in Lakka, we arrived early at Mongonisi and dropped the anchor and 30 meters of chain in the middle of the bay and put our three bladed prop in full reverse to set the anchor. That night we slept worry free. Mongonisi has a classy little bar, showers, a large taverna and a mooring wall that looked too shallow for our boat. There was some grassy bottom in the bay. It is very sheltered, secluded and tropical feeling. Ashore, we found good hiking, some interesting rock formations in the nearby hills and kayak and paddle board rentals. It is a few kilometers by path over to Gaios Town. We were entertained by Greek music and dancing in the taverna, and by the unfortunate adventures of two flotillas of inexperienced 32 foot boats trying to med moor in 20 knots of a gusty crosswind. Practice, crew work, and a light touch on the throttle are required.
We also absolutely loved Parga on the mainland. We found a large bay with beaches that was well protected from the prevailing northerly. In the center there was a charming fort with a cafe and to the right a compact harbor for ferries and fishing boats. We anchored in a spot by the breakwater and set out a lot of chain. The crew assembled on deck and waited for the water taxi, which ran from about 3 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. or so.
The main road ran up the fort, and was lined with shops and tavernas, each with a more amazing view. The town looked just like Portofino, Italy, seen on so many postcards. We had a lovely dinner at Avra, which gets at least five stars. There was enough to do in Parga for several days at least. There were some grocery stores if you run low of supplies, and the water taxi carried jugs of diesel and water. The quality and flavor of the local vegetables impressed us.
Looking back, this should have been a two week trip. There are enough interesting places to try in the local area. “People think the Med is this tiny little place, it is not” says Johnny. And with more time you could venture further south. When we charter in Greece again, we will always go during the shoulder season, as the harbors are often small and mooring space limited. During the summer, you have to contend with crowds of charterers, loads of tourists and the blazing heat Greece is so famous for.
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.
International Certificates for European Chartering
Back in 2008, the paperwork needed for a charter in Greece was a lot simpler. We showed up at the Sunsail desk in Vounaki with our passports, crew list and sailing resume. The office would prepare whatever was needed and take it to the Port Police for a stamp. Then we were issued our boat papers and cruising permit and off we went.
In late 1998, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Inland Water Committee (UN ECE IWC) Resolution 40 was finalized and has so far been signed by at least 22 counties. The idea is vessel operators, including those on bareboat charter vessels, need to be certified to a common set of safety and operational standards. The certificate they outlined has been called the International Certificate of Competency. Think International Driver’s License for boats.
If you live in the UK, which has signed this agreement, you can go to the Royal Yachting Association and earn an ICC. In the U.S., since we have not signed Resolution 40, an alternative process for obtaining an International Certificate has been developed. U.S. Sailing (and other groups, like the American Sailing Association, ASA) offer a certificate called the International Proficiency Certificate, IPC.
“We have not encountered any issues with the IPC being accepted in Mediterranean waters” says Stu Gilfillen, Training Director for US Sailing. “We train to a very high standard, and we are not aware of charter companies choosing to not recognize an IPC.”
US Sailing lists 29 countries on their website where you might be asked for an ICC/IPC or other proof of competence documents. It is possible for non-UK folks to talk to the RYA if you want to earn an actual ICC, (they have U.S. and other affiliates), but that should not be necessary.
Captain Thom Burns, President of Northern Breezes, an ASA school here in Minnesota, says “We regularly charter in Croatia from a range of charter companies. Neither I nor my students have had any problems with IPCs.” We earned our IPCs from Thom’s school, and have chartered seven times in Europe, including Croatia, Italy and Corfu recently.
Johnny Adams, The Moorings Base Manager in Corfu, Greece echoes this: “I am not aware of any problems with ASA issued IPC certificates. If the problem was widespread, I am sure I would have heard of it by now.”
We found the training process to earn the certificate was not that complicated. We took and or challenged the ASA 101/103/104 + IPC sequence. The schools are good at dealing with very experienced sailors, and we found we learned new things all the way along, and even cleaned up some bad habits. If you are going to the Med, make sure to plan your training (or any needed recertification), well in advance.