It’s two years today since we left Seattle for San Francisco, after a great send-off, with our friends Andy and Anita on board for the trip to San Francisco. We’re delighted that they will be joining us again in a couple weeks, for the sail from Greece to Licata, Sicily. Before that we’ll have Birgit’s mother and sister on board for a week, anchoring out, doing some swimming and exploring. We’re glad to have the chance to spend some nautical time with them both.
We were surprised, last year, to meet couples who told us that they had been cruising in the Mediterranean for 10 years, 12 years, and more. But now we are beginning to understand that time just slips by, that there’s always someplace you haven’t seen, or a favorite place to visit again. Sure, there are some downsides to living such an itinerant life, but so far the pleasures far outweigh the regrets.
Thanks so much to everyone who has shared in some aspect of the journey!
We’ve been anchored just offshore of Petalidi (or Petalidhion, or Πεταλίδί) since we left Koroni four days ago. Koroni was a nice-looking town on the hillside below the crumbling Venetian castle, but there was no easy way to get ashore with the dinghy. Rough concrete walls surround the harbor, too high to easily climb up from the dinghy, and in the few low spots there was a distinct reek of raw sewage. Well, you can’t win them all, so we moved to this pretty and quiet bay ten miles up the coast towards Kalamata.
Last night we had our first real thunderstorm of the season, thunder booming, lightning flashing through the air, and occasional strong, gusty winds. Our anchor dragged a little – maybe twenty feet – but we were in no danger. And the lightning, much to our relief, stayed at least a mile north of us.
There are all kinds of theories about boats, particularly sailboats, and lightning. Thinking about it, it’s a little disconcerting that you have this metal pole sticking some 60 feet up in the air, with nothing much around you. Remember, sometimes golfers or Little League players can get hit just because the stick up a few feet above their surroundings.
Counter intuitively, it’s quite rare for sailboats to get hit by lightning. The US has 40 or 50 deaths from lightning strikes per year (way, way more than deaths from shark attack, if you’re worried – less than one per year in the US). And sailboats don’t fare well on the rare occasions when they are hit. At a minimum, most every piece of electrical or electronic equipment on the boat is fried (engine starting circuits, navigational equipment, radios and so on), and in the really bad, extra rare cases the lightning blows a hole in the hull to reach the sea.
The explanation for the rarity of the sailboat strikes may be that seawater is such a good conductor of electricity (unlike fresh water or dirt) that there’s little for lightning to gain by going out of its way to strike an aluminum mast. Sailboats that are hit may just have had the bad luck to be exactly where the lightning was going to strike anyway. But sailors debate about strategy – some favoring grounding the mast, sometimes attaching car jumper cables to a shroud and throwing the other end in the water, or using other more permanent and elaborate means – and others (myself included) thinking that sticking a grounded pole (the mast) up in the air is just asking for it.
There doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence for either approach. So mostly we hope we are not among the very unlucky few, and that seems to work so far. Knock on wood. Thankfully we have some on our boat.
Here we are, in front of another Peloponnese town, less than 20 miles from Kalamata, once fortified and occupied by the Venetian Republic, among many others. It’s a secure anchorage, without the sometimes annoying swell that rolled into Methoni, but with plenty of sun so far, and interesting places to eat on the shore (which we have yet to reach). We just got here this afternoon, after a quiet four-hour trip from Methoni. Perhaps there will be more to report later on. (Once again, you can click on the pictures for a better view.)
The Venetian fort (crumbling) above the hillside town
The day before we left Methoni we had our first direct contact with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. At around 7:00am one morning a Greek Coast Guard inflatable – or RIB (rigid inflatable boat) – motored into the harbor with somewhere near 30 refugees on board. Another boat came in within a couple hours and unloaded more people on the concrete pier. They were held there until a bus showed up some hours later. They had either been seized, or maybe rescued, off a refugee boat – from the Middle East to judge by the appearance of the refugees. It was a sad scene – men, women and little kids crowded together, looking lost. But most likely not as sad as the scenes they had left behind.
In case you wondered why so many people have to go hungry or homeless, here’s one billionaire’s private boat, just outside Methoni…
Here’s something new – a post that’s almost entirely pictures. They’re not the greatest – done with a cell phone – but at least they give a sense of the remarkable feature of this town, the huge fort begun by the Venetian Republic in the 1200s. There was surely something here before that, but this very large, complex set of fortifications and trading center must have been like the medieval equivalent of a base on Mars. Venice held power here for some 300 years, to be eventually replaced by the Ottoman Empire, the French and then, at the very last, the Greeks. The complex encloses something like a hundred acres (40 hectares).
We’ve been here for four days now, at anchor in the harbor in fairly strong northwesterly winds, rocking and rolling a little, but eating well in town and topping off our water by rowing back and forth with a 5 gallon (20 liter) plastic can. Tomorrow we will most likely move on to Koroni, a little further east, in the gulf that contains Kalamata.
Clicking on the pictures, by the way, will give you a much better view of them.
The Fortress/Castle as seen from our anchorage
If you look carefully, you’ll see a relief of the winged lion of St. Marc, the emblem of the Venetian Republic.
The land side entrance to the fort. The moat is dry now.
Fortress interior, with another winged lion in the lower left
Part of the fort is crumbling into the sea
Some three-dimensional looking tiles in the interior of the chapel. We also saw these in a very old building in Sicily
The lookout tower begun by the Venetians then completed by the Ottomans
The sea side entrance to the fort
Hey, how about sharing a piece of that grilled fish?
We are currently anchored in the Bay of Navarino (or Navarinou) on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese in Greece, and it’s yet another one of the places where a lot has gone on over the last couple thousand years.
Looking south – the entrance to the bay
Gialova, or Yialova – your choice
It’s a wonderful natural harbor, fairly deep (100 meters or so in most places) and roundish body of water about two miles in diameter, with a narrow entrance to the south – especially important since the prevailing winds here are from the north and northwest. It’s surrounded by cliffs, dramatic conical mountains, lagoons and some gentle farmland. There are two small towns; Pylos (or Pilos) with about 5,000 people, and Gialova (or Yialova) with just a few hundred, mostly in the summer.
(The point of the variant spellings, by the way, is that there seems to be no real authority for how to transliterate words in Greek into our Latin alphabet. Perhaps most annoying is that to Greeks, Athens is Athena, and it’s hard to see why it couldn’t be represented that way in our alphabet… There are also Italian, French and Turkish names for many Greek places, reflecting occupations over the centuries. Navarino, for example is Italian (Venetian), while Pylos is the Greek name now used for the town, but not the bay.)
We’re anchored off Gialova, in about twenty feet of water, close enough to town to row in for a nice lunch or dinner in the tavernas by the water, mainly patronized by Greek tourists on their summer holidays. The water temperature is about 25° C (77° F), and it’s clean and blue – great for swimming off the boat. This time of year it is lovely and calm in the mornings, and the sea breeze picks up in the afternoon, just as the temperature begins to rise. Very pleasant. No cruise ships, but apparently this is a favorite stop for obscenely huge private megayachts, most of them as ugly as a MacDonalds.
But at the bottom of this peaceful bay, thousands of bodies and scores of ruined ships lie entombed in the silt and sand. The most recent catastrophe here was the Battle of Navarino, fought one October day in 1827, where 3,200 were killed and another 1,600 wounded. It was the last major naval battle fought entirely by sailing ships, although most were at anchor at the time.
It was during the Greek War of Independence, which started in 1821. A lot of international engagement and manipulation made the war more of a proxy battle than simply a rebellion, but in short it was a fight for Greek independence from the now failing, but far from toothless Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman fleet – some 80 Turkish and Egyptian vessels, including “ships of the line” had anchored in a semi-circular arrangement inside the entrance to the bay.
The Allied fleet of 22 ships, composed of mostly British, but also French and Russian vessels, supposedly just as a show of force, sailed into the bay and anchored in the middle of the Ottoman semicircle. Reportedly, a Turkish vessel fired a single shot, and the pro-independence allies cut loose. When the smoke cleared, only 8 vessels of the Ottoman fleet were still operable, and most of the rest were burned and sunk. Although outgunned and outnumbered, the allies had the edge in gunnery speed and accuracy. I think it is pretty much impossible for any of us to imagine the sounds and sights of that day. There are paintings, though, based on descriptions of the day, burning ships and bleeding sailors, which you can see by looking up “Battle of Navarino” on Wikipedia.
But that’s just the most recent large-scale violence. In the very early days, the bay was supposedly the site of the Palace of Nestor (mentioned in the Odyssey). Then in 425 BC, the “Battle of Pylos” was fought here as part of the Peloponnesian War. That’s where Athens and Sparta fought for control of territory. The Athenians won and used the victory to establish a raiding base in the Peloponnese. In the following years, the bay was fought for and occupied by the French, the Venetian Republic, for a brief period in the 1700s, even the Russians – but for over 300 years – up to 1827 – it was mainly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
A huge stone fort, added to by each of the occupiers in their turn, stills glowers at the entrance to the bay, but these days windsurfers, some waterskiers, and a handful of cruising and local sailors are the most prominent nautical activity. Still worth remembering, I suppose, that for most of their history humans have left a bloody and contentious record. Precious peace has been rare, and fragile.
Although some of our readers are cruising sailors, most probably don’t know much about living at anchor on a boat. If you’re interested, here are some of the details:
Anchoring: Finding a comfortable place to anchor the boat is sometimes a challenge, and it’s one of the reasons we are enjoying Greece so much. First of all, you need to be protected from the prevailing winds. That can be tricky because afternoon and morning winds often come from opposite directions, a result of the change from hot land during the day (and thus relatively low pressure) and cooler land during the night (higher pressure than the air over the more thermally stable sea). That’s what’s behind “sea breezes” and “land breezes.”
It’s not really the wind, so much, that’s the issue, but rather the waves that build up when it blows fairly hard for a few hours, and also the ocean swell that generally keeps coming from the direction of the strongest prevailing winds. So you want a bay with some kind of peninsula between you and the open ocean. Preferably with the water not too deep, since you need to put out four or five times the depth of the water in anchor chain to keep the pull on the anchor fairly horizontal. The opening that lets you in the bay shouldn’t be lined up with the strongest (usually afternoon) prevailing winds.
So you sail or motor into the selected bay, the anchor ready to drop, and watch the depth sounder until you’re in a comfortable depth – say 20 feet or less, ideally – but not so close to land that there’s a risk of being blown ashore if it gets nasty. We have a 45 pound CQR brand anchor, attached to 300 feet of 3/8 inch chain, with coded painted markings every 30 feet. The anchor is basically like an old-style horse-drawn plow, and over time digs itself in to sand or mud. Rocks are more of a problem. The 3/8 inch (9.5mm) designation refers to the diameter of the steel rod bent into racetrack shapes and welded to make the chain. It’s pretty heavy stuff and works well to keep the anchor pulling at a good angle. Boats with lighter chain (or rope) have to put out more of it to get the same effect.
With the anchor down and the right amount of chain let out, it’s time to back the boat down, gently, to stretch out the chain. Depending on the weather, it can take some time for pressure from the wind to set the anchor, and trying to hurry the process usually doesn’t help. For that reason it’s good to have some room around your boat – to avoid dragging into other boats or snagging their anchors.
In a crowded bay, keeping distance from other boats is often a problem, as inexperienced “charter” (rented boat) sailors will drop their anchors too close to you and end up being able to criticize your lunch at close range. Polite suggestion often works, but not always.
Something else that’s nice in an anchorage is a small town nearby, accessible by dinghy, where you can drop off garbage, maybe find a good meal in a taverna, or buy groceries (including beer, red wine, etc. – but more on that under provisions).
Nice anchorages are much more common in Greece, than in Sicily, Italy and Spain, and in the Peloponnese, much less crowded. The water is warm and clean, and swimming is a daily (or twice daily, or three times daily) pleasure. Oh, and it’s all free of charge! The only downside is waking up on a windy night wondering if the anchor is dragging. So far, knock on wood, our anchor has inspired a lot of confidence.
Provisions and daily life: On our current trip from Messolonghi to Kalamata, Serafina we will not touch a dock for three weeks or more. Fuel for the engine isn’t a problem – it’s a sailboat, after all – but even motoring, the 50 gallons of fuel we had on board leaving Messolonghi gives us about 500 miles of range, way more than enough if we never have a minute of favorable breeze…
Water is more of an issue. We had about 100 gallons of water on the boat when we started this trip, and we use something like 2 or 3 gallons a day, for coffee, drinking, rinsing dishes, brushing teeth and stuff like that. We try to economize by doing heavy dish washing with salt water, then just rinsing off the salt with fresh. It helps a lot. But we have two 20-liter jerry cans for drinking water, and if we find a town that has a faucet available, we’ll fill them and dinghy them back to the boat for margin, maybe more than once.
Food and beverages are pretty easy. We stuff the refrigerator with eggs, milk, veggies, cheese, and sausages, and we have several lockers on the boat devoted to pasta, dried beans, rice, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, pesto, anchovies, olives, etc. There’s not a lot of incentive to cook when there are good, inexpensive tavernas nearby, especially because the stove heats up the boat. But still, we eat at least half our meals on the boat, sometimes just salads (with great tomatoes, feta, and sweet red onions), other times pasta, or scrambled eggs with sausage and peppers, and one in a while oven roasted chicken.
We have two containers of “camping gaz,” as butane is known in Europe, about the size of a smallish household bucket, and one of them is good for about a month of cooking. As ultimate backup we have one of our old, larger US propane containers also full of butane.
Electricity for the small refrigerator, lights, computers, phones and so on is provided by five large sealed “AGM” (sealed) lead-acid batteries. Charged up, they provide plenty of power for three days, but we have to be careful not to run them down too far – which can damage the batteries, and in the very worst case would leave us without the power to start the engine. They’re charged by the alternator on the engine. When we’re sitting at anchor for an extended time, we end up running the engine for an hour every couple days, just to make sure they don’t get too low. Since diesel engines only pull in enough fuel to maintain their RPM, the light load of running the alternator uses way less fuel than the .45 gallons per hour it burns when pushing the boat.
Life on anchor is a lot like camping, except with less dirt, bugs crawling in your sleeping bag, and hard ground. There are not a lot of pressures, for sure, and time to read is one of the great rewards. The lack of light pollution gives us great night skies, if we can stay awake for them…
There will be more to post soon on the bay of Navarniou – site of yet another historic sea battle – where we are anchored now.
Thanks to diligent readers (3 of them) who researched (or speculated) as this blogger should have done, we now know that there are at least four terms for a gang of jellyfish that meet with some degree of scientific or popular approval. Two votes for “a smack of jellyfish,” one each for “flutter,” “bloom” and “swarm.” We also had a vote for “jangle,” which has a certain flair.
“Smack” seems evocative to me of the sound a jellyfish would make when thrown hard against a wall. It also reminds me of one of my favorite phrases from P.G. Wodehouse, who has Bertie Wooster walking (elegantly dressed, of course) along an English beach, where he sees “a fat child meditatively smacking a jellyfish with a spade.”
So, on these pages, from now on, jellyfish will travel in a smack. The die is cast, and thanks!
After seven unexpected weeks in the Messolonghi, Greece marina, we are out and about again – anchored at the moment in Katakolon, Greece, on the western shore of the Peloponnese. Nice breezes, clean water, and good swimming, as long as you keep an eye out for the occasional squad (flock? gaggle? murder?) of jellyfish.
Messolonghi was as pleasant as sitting in a very hot marina can be, with dogs and cats, nice people, and a small, non-touristy town. We resolved, in Germany, some unavoidable health issues, and updated my residence in the E.U. But we’re very glad to be under way again, and scraping the marina crud off the bottom of the boat.
We’re not that far from Olympia, the original site of the games, and cruise ships stop here every other day or so to disgorge mobs of people to bus the thirty miles or so to the ruins. They don’t have any impact on us, other than visual and maybe esthetic.
We’ve not felt much desire to make the trip to Olympia, maybe experiencing what we’ve noticed in some other long-time cruising sailors – tourism fatigue. Enough to swim around the boat, read a lot, cook a little and sleep. In a few days we’ll continue on our way towards Kalamata, with anchorages on the way in Pilos and Methoni, both reported to be lovely spots.
The only slightly negative note I can think of (other than the news from around the world) is that I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. Attracted by some of his essays, it seemed reasonable to give it a shot. But it’s very dark, like William Burroughs The Naked Lunch, except for tennis fans, and very, very long! No thumbs up, so far, from this reader, experiencing a moral dilemma over whether or not to stick it through to the end.
Katakolon without cruise ship
The size of a medium watermelon…
Only the second boat without roller furling (other than us) that we’ve seen in Greece…