At that precise moment a German yacht enters the bay and instead of mooring on the far side, decides to anchor so close that I need to rig fenders to stop hull damage. They immediately remove every item of clothing and treat us to a view of elderly aryan pubic hair. A forty footer with naked nubile hotties would have been delightful and even worth being slapped by my wife but half a dozen gauleiter wrinklies who’ve never used a treadmaster, put me right off lunch. Shit…stow food, awning and table, row ashore to retrieve mooring line, deflate and stow dinghy, hoist sails, expend last of my sweating energy hauling up anchor and wishing Bomber Command had done a Dresden on the whole lederhosing country.
Summer winds in the Ionian are as predictable as a laxative follow through. The day begins with light breezes which gradually build until lunchtime when they die completely. They pick up again mid afternoon and near the coast increase to near gale by dusk. As a charter boat I was restricted to day sailing which sets up a pleasant routine. By setting off early we could use the morning breeze to cover a respectable distance and then anchor up for lunch and a snooze during the midday lull. Departing at 3pm took advantage of the afternoon wind with the boat really flying as we approached the evening mooring. I have a vivid memory of approaching Parga at full speed throwing a large bow wave with six dolphins escorting us into harbour, three either side of the bow, leaping in the broken water. They stayed with us right until the harbour entrance. The wind direction was perfect for an engineless approach and we held full sail all the way into the harbour, executing a turn to bring us into wind alongside the pontoon with all flapping, probably the best manoeuvre of my sailing career. I wouldn’t have risked it in my own boat.
The first time we chartered a flotilla boat we were exceptionally lucky. The flotilla consisted of ten boats with a lead crew of skipper, engineer and hostess. There are those who look down their noses at flotilla sailing and even though I’m qualified to charter bare boat, I much prefer flotilla sailing. The organized beach barbecues, restaurant meals and entertainment makes the social part of the holiday loads of fun. It’s a great opportunity to meet people all with sailing in common. The lead crews also know the best restaurants and a group booking keeps the costs down. Previous sailing experience isn’t necessary for flotilla holidays and in my opinion the best way to learn how to sail. The days destination is specified with plenty of time to get there. You have the choice of sailing in company or on your own, meeting the rest of the boats in the evening or you can opt to anchor privately and just radio your position to the lead boat.
That first year we really hit it off with the lead crew and spent many enjoyable evenings in their company. Sailors are renowned for hard drinking and this crew were no exception. We were introduced to “Crew Metaxa”, 2 star Greek brandy, the first is undrinkable but the tenth slides down well. I don’t remember making it to bed before 3am after partying with them. What these guys taught me about sailing was well worth the hangover. As an amateur skipper I already had a few clues but the little gems taught by full time professionals were worth years of personal experience. One of these was the Mediterranean moor.
In summer the islands are full of yachts and the only way to accommodate them in tiny picturesque stonewalled harbours is to park them side by side, bows to the quay. This means dropping anchor off the stern as you approach the quay and trying to keep the boat under control, often with a strong crosswind. Most people drop anchor leaving the line loose and concentrate on throttle. Keeping the boat slow enough not to crash into the wall allows a crosswind to blow it off course and is very untidy. The solution taught me by Kevin and Tuck is to take a couple of turns of the anchor line around a sheet winch, leave the throttle at the same revs and control speed by surging the anchor line around the winch. The boat is then under full control all the way to the quay.
I mentioned this technique because the following year I had the chance to use it in probably the most crowded harbour of the Mediterranean.
We’d had a beautiful sailing day and as usual the wind strength had increased by late afternoon. We’d sailed the channel between Ithaca and Cephalonia with the intention of night stopping in Fiscardo, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world and very popular. For such a crowded harbour we should have gone in early to beat the traffic but the boat was sailing so well in a stiff a breeze that we stayed out until dusk.
As we entered Fiscardo we couldn’t see a single available mooring but the lead skipper came out on the mole and directed us to a point at the quay already taken by two boats. The last boat in is always the object of interest and the crowded restaurants around the harbour had all eyes on us. Holy crap if I screw this up it’ll be a very public humiliation. No time to worry about that, work to do. I pointed the boat at the non- existent space that I was directed to. Anchor dropped and the line was smoothly turned around the winch, I felt it bite and set the throttle, controlling speed with the anchor line. Our pointy end gently parted two boats and I brought ours to a stop six inches from the quay, having made a space that previously didn’t exist. My wife casually stepped ashore and tied off the bow line. To quote from the Apollo astronauts; “And that, ladies and gentlemen is how we do that.” To my surprise, everyone around the harbour started clapping and cheering. Our meal at Fiscardo was very enjoyable indeed with my face glowing from sunburn perhaps.
Preveza is the destination airport for Ionian sailing holidays and a pilots dream. A runway with sea at one end and a tall mountain with a wicked downdraft at the other. No hi-tech navaids here, a visual approach from the north requires an ear- popping descent over the mountain with a split arse last minute turn over the sea. Cheap charter flights don’t serve lunch which in this case is just as well because a 727 flown like a fighter is likely to regurgitate it. These days it's not often you get to appreciate manual flying skills in an airliner.
The finale of a two week flotilla holiday is the regatta. For me this begins on the outbound flight. Every flotilla has the expert who likes to share his sailing wisdom at maximum volume. Even in the cabin of an old Boeing his pontificating voice could be heard for two unceasing hours over the triple turbines. Of course he also knows about everything else so a running commentary of the landing was obligatory. I don’t consider myself a particularly competitive person but something in my DNA insists that I beat that man in a sailing race. During the course of the fortnight he’d made himself so popular with the lead crew that they also wanted me to beat him. One of the reasons is that at Spartahori, Mr Knowitall had forgotten to tie his anchor to the boat and lost it in the deepest harbour of the Ionian.
The night before that first race was spent in alcoholic reverie and we left Tuck at 4 am, asleep on a bar stool. We were awakened at ten with the sun blazing onto a stifling cabin and the mother of all hangovers. Through bloodshot, glued eyes I saw Tuck happily dismantling our sheet winches. I vaguely remembered some of the previous night’s conversation and gratefully acknowledged that he not only wanted me to win, he was prepared to help me do it. Once he’d finished, our sluggish salt encrusted winches spun like new tops. Oh crap, that meant I had to honour my side of the bargain. It’s all very well for a seasoned hard drinking sailor to be fresh as a daisy after an all night binge but I’m not made of such stern stuff. With pounding head, shaking hands and an unquenchable thirst, I had two hours left to prepare for the race. I ran about rinsing sheets in fresh water, duct taping turnbuckles, ensuring free rigging leads and tensions. Meanwhile below, my better half was cooking essential race breakfast and stowing everything close to centre of gravity to ensure proper trim. We’d not partnered on a race before so had to strategically allocate tasks, the opposition had a four man crew so we were already disadvantaged. Race start was at 1300 and she was still tidying below while I motored to the start line.
As I approached the line there was a shout from below because a bottle of milk had spilled. The female psyche has interesting priorities, spilt milk becomes more important than winning races and I seem to remember being less than tranquil in re- ordering our priorities. She finally arrived on deck as I was beginning my timed run along the start line. We tacked for the return and adjusted speed for the start. The starting horn sounded and we hardened sheets and crossed the line exactly on time, perfectly positioned to windward of the fleet. We were the first boat to the turning mark and a smart tack held our lead. The windward course required short tacks for the rest of the race. Short tacks two up is bloody hard work especially when one of the crew is a particularly feminine lady. She worked the mainsheet and track adjustment while I hauled the genoa sheets with the tiller stuck up my bottom. There’s a knack to tacking a genoa without wasting time with winch handles. With our freely spinning winches, as I luffed, I released the windward sheet and my crew having previously taken turns around the leeward winch then allowed me to haul like crazy in that moment before the sail filled. That enabled the sheet to be hauled bar taught without the handle and only needed to be eased as we bore away. There was one tack when she got her own back and rightly abused me for standing on the mainsheet but otherwise our snappy teamwork put us well ahead of the fleet. Eventually the largest boat in the fleet, a 44 footer with a crew of six, overhauled us and stole our wind. No surprises there, a boat that size will always take a 32 footer on an upwind leg. The real surprise was that the skipper brought her too close to the headland and she lost all her wind. Having seen her sails slacken, I knew why and allowed more offing as we turned onto the last leg. We overtook her as she was starting her engine to avoid drifting onto the rocks.
At that point I hadn’t realized that my crew had been so diligently focused on her work. For an inexperienced crew it’s not easy to determine the yachts relative position on an upwind leg. Boats on opposite sides of a course can appear to be level or even ahead and only a full awareness of wind direction and tacking angles gives the correct picture. The poor darling had been working her heart out without realizing that we’d been lead boat nearly all the way. Her only chuckling respite had been the fun of passing the bigger boat. I made it up to her the following year by giving a running commentary of the next race.
The wind died as we turned into Sivota bay and the fleet caught us up on the final downwind leg but not enough to steal our line honours trophy.
The inflatable plastic toy with our boat name hand penned on the side is my most treasured trophy and was presented with due decorum and much mirth on our last (alcohol free) evening.
I slept solidly on the return flight to London and didn’t hear a peep from our resident expert.