A Lemons-from-Lemonade Charter in the Beautiful Saronic Gulf of Greece
I wasn’t that surprised when the jib car came off in my hand. I had gone forward on Joker, our chartered Beneteau Cyclades 50.5, because my crew wanted the headsail lead adjusted. The wind was light and although a three-foot jib track on a 50-foot boat wasn’t going to have that much impact, we could at least pretend to be serious about this sail. As soon as I pulled the pin, polymer slides and other assorted sun-damaged pieces went flying. As I stood there with the car in my hand, one crewmember started to laugh. Then I laughed, and everyone was laughing. “Thank God,” I thought. “At least they’re seeing the humor in this crazy boat.”
I’d had a feeling about Joker from the start, ever since she showed up last for check-out in our five-boat flotilla with Adventure Voyaging, operated by circumnavigators Woody Henderson and Tania Aebi. It was mid-May and Woody, Tania, Capt. Neil, Capt. Randy and I were leading 40 guests on a week-long charter in the Saronic Gulf Islands of Greece. I’ve skippered similar trips in other locales and each one brings its own surprises, but Joker served up the kind of experience that makes a great sea story—one that’s sure to be repeated wherever sailors gather, well into the future.
Our fleet checked out of Marina Alimos, just south of Athens, and rode a thrilling beam reach across the Saronic Gulf to the island of Poros. Joker was in her element, and we found ourselves in the lead, pleased with having a boat that sailed like a witch. As we neared Poros Town, I let Woody take the lead and show us where he wanted to Med-moor the flotilla. Our VHF only received and could not send, so we were reasonably in the dark about plans for the evening.
With one crewmember on the bow and two in the cockpit ready with lines, we dropped anchor, backed down, and put the stern to the dock. “Phew, that went well,” I thought. Except that it didn’t. The anchor didn’t hold and couldn’t keep us off the dock. Out we went again, dropped anchor, backed, tied up. No go.
The next five tries didn’t yield any better results, after which a cacophony of alarms going off down below indicated that the batteries were suddenly low, even though the engine was running. The bow thruster gave up before try six, and I opted to temporarily rest Joker at the dock, tied to my neighbors, so we could deal with our electrical problem.
Unfortunately, Joker was an electrically demanding boat, with three electric heads, two refrigerators and multiple electric winches. She was also electrically challenged. We tried everything five experienced captains could think of—we tightened the alternator belt, started the genset (which also wasn’t charging), flipped switches and stared hard at the batteries, willing them to fill—until I finally remembered the check-out manager telling me, “If the alarms sound, turn everything off including the engine and genset, come down here, turn these three knobs, and then restart.” Sure enough, when we followed the procedure, the batteries started to come back up.
Alas, the hook was still not set and, worse, it was coming up out of the water folded. Apparently, this Kobra anchor was designed to fold up when stowed and was not supposed to fold when underwater. But by holding it upside-down off the bow, we discovered it was missing a pin that would have prevented that. Five smart captains learned something new that day when a quiet but persistent crewmember used a bit of string to tie the anchor open. “It’ll never work,” we thought. But it did work and seven days later, we returned the boat with that bit of string still doing its job.
Back at the Poros dock, Med moor number eight worked like a charm, and we headed into town for dinner, knowing Joker was secure, or at least securely Band-Aided.
Poros is really two islands, Kalavria, the big island, and Sferia, the small triangular tip to the south. Poros Town is on the smaller island and separated from the mainland to the south via the 700-foot wide Methana Channel. Poros has just under 4,000 inhabitants and its principal income comes from tourism, especially Athenian weekenders who come down via an hour-long hydrofoil ride. The town is shaped like an amphitheater, built on the slopes of a hill, and it poses perfectly for photographers in the harbor. Across the Methana, the town of Galatas on the mainland is also quite picturesque, especially in the morning when small colorful fishing boats tie up along the quay to sell their day’s catch.
While in Poros, Woody had boat challenges of his own: his windlass was slipping and not making proper contact. Worse yet, evidently, past charterers had solved the problem by using a manual override, because every winch handle on board was stripped. In the end, Woody MacGyvered a solution by crafting a washer out of a tuna fish can lid. It provided just the right amount of cushion for the windlass to make contact. Just in case, I started saving tuna cans.
Meanwhile, a crewmember who had come to our flotilla via Thailand decided to pull out a maneki-neko, the Japanese beckoning kitten that serves as a good luck charm. Battery operated, Kitty’s paw moved in a steady rhythm, bringing good luck. From then on, if Kitty stopped because we were heeling or for any other reason, everyone jumped to make Kitty comfortable and get that paw moving again—anything to keep the good luck coming.
Our next stop was Ermioni, a small seaside town on the Peloponnese mainland where the fleet side-tied and gave my poor anchor a break. The small town is situated on a natural outcropping with water on three sides, giving it an island feel. The shopping was fantastic, with everything from souvenir shops to provisioning stores. We especially enjoyed wandering along the waterfront tavernas and bakeries that opened early to cater to hungry charterers. We consumed quite a few calories in that lovely town.
It was shortly afterward, on the way to the island of Hydra, that the jib car came off the track. Once the laughter stopped, we unscrewed the cap of the track, taped all the loose parts back together and jammed the car back on the track. Luckily, there were no bearings, as those would have been irrecoverable. We reattached the track cap, bound the whole mess with electrical tape and washed our hands of it. Someone made a special offering to Kitty.
Because of our delay, we pulled into Hydra last, where we faced a tiny horseshoe-shaped harbor with a spider’s web of anchor lines criss-crossing the bottom. Tania and Woody were Med moored to the quay, and Neil and Randy were Med moored with their sterns tied to the bows of the first two boats. They beckoned me to tie up between the top two boats, so we dropped anchor and started backing down. I had to laugh when I saw the 20 people standing on the bows of Randy’s and Neil’s boats, all with fenders in hand, waiting to cushion Joker’s arrival. We snuggled right in, creating a perfect “Christmas tree Med moor,” as we dubbed it, a formation that was subsequently repeated at other harbors.
Exploring Hydra, you can’t help but find little treasures around every corner. Hydra Town, settled in the 16th century by Orthodox Albanians, retains its old-world charm and slow pace, in no small part because with no cars allowed it’s donkeys that do all of the work. Hydra’s circular harbor is packed with cafes, tavernas and souvenir shops, and it doesn’t take long to walk from one end to the other. Later, we hiked straight uphill for an hour through a pine forest to the 19th century monastery of Profitis Ilias where we had a bird’s-eye view of the harbor.
It’s hard to take a bad picture in Hydra. Everywhere you look, there are colorful terraces, cute donkeys, unique architecture and inviting cafes. We walked along the Boundouri path, took a dip in the cool Mediterranean and enjoyed an ouzo (an anise-flavored Grecian aperitif) at the Ydronetta Bar. Watching the sunset from Hydra is the defining experience of the Greek Isles, taken straight from a movie and truly deserving the word, “magical.”
After that it was on to Epidavros, a short passage during which I started noticing bits of black plastic on deck. Sure enough, the mainsheet block was fast disintegrating. More offerings to Kitty, a bit of restringing of the mainsheet, and we were back in business.
After another perfect Med moor in Epidavros harbor, the group took taxis to the Asclepios Sanctuary, which includes a sports arena, a large theater, and a vast complex of temples and medical centers. It was effectively Greece’s early version of a health spa. Most of the complex dates from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, and its remarkably well preserved. The amphitheater, which seats 12,000, is known for its perfect acoustics. Standing at the center of the stage, my voice carried 55 rows up and came back to me amplified. It’s a marvel of ancient engineering.
Our sail back to Alimos was much like the first day, with 20 to 25 knots on the beam. This time, Kitty must have appreciated our offerings, because the mainsheet held and the damaged jib car was on the lazy sheet. At 23 knots I took my hand off the wheel, and the boat was perfectly balanced. We reefed, and the wind dropped to eight knots. Clearly Poseidon was messing with us.
Back at the marina we said our goodbyes, already knowing that the story of our charter was going to get funnier with each retelling. I hugged my crew and took out the last of the trash. Two minutes later, I returned from the dumpster to find a giant void where Joker had just been tied up. She was gone. I walked to the edge and looked down, half expecting that Joker had blown a through-hull and headed for the bottom out of sheer embarrassment. Luckily, she had only been moved by the charter crew and was headed for a boat spa day. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Looking back, chartering in Greece was so magical, it hardly mattered how our boat behaved. The crew of Joker not only laughed a lot, we created sea stories that will live on long after the details of Greece become fuzzy in our memories. If ever there were any doubts, we proved that, indeed, a rough day on charter is still better than a great day at the office.
Photos by Zuzana Prochazka
Zuzana Prochazka holds a 100-ton Coast Guard license
and cruises SoCal aboard Indigo, a Celestial 48.
You can read her blog at talkofthedeck.com