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Sailing the Greek Cyclades islands

Updated: Jul 12, 2019


Typical Cycladian church at the top of the chora, Ios

Reality check

It’s the 11th of July 2019. Nine weeks since we left our winter home in Sicily to sail the med. It's one year and four days since we had our test sail on Polaris, the boat that we now call home. It’s also about two years since we first discussed boats and started the planning of this dream. In this time, we have experienced so many firsts. It feels like a lifetime of excitement, drama and big decisions squeezed into a short space and we are still only starting out. In these past few weeks we have continued to learn so much about the running of the boat and how to operate in our new home and sail boat as a team. We have reached many beautiful Greek islands and have had the privilege of exploring them on foot, by moped and of course swimming and snorkeling. We have been in all sorts of weather and in doing so we have experimented with our boat, trying to determine the safest processes for us to follow. Jim has been my full time trainer and I have felt great progress as well as moments of realisation that I have a long way to go. We also reached the island of our youth, Ios, and we explored it together retracing old steps, and hanging out in old haunts.


Sunset view from Polaris. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

Sounion to Kythnos

After leaving Poros in the Saronic gulf we headed to Sounion, a town and bay on the Greek mainland, south east of Athens. The bay is made spectacular by the sight of Temple of Poseidon which looms high over the sea on the eastern headland of the bay. Familiar faces were in the bay that evening and together the following morning we set off for Kythnos, the first Northern Cyclades island we would visit. With no wind to help us, we motored there aiming to get a space in Kolona bay. On arrival it was simply too packed and we opted for the lesser known bay just across from it. The water there was some of the clearest we had yet seen and I could see lots of fish. The holding in the bay was terribly patchy and it was incredibly difficult to get a safe spot, but after anchoring at least five times we were finally set and happy.


The temple of Poseidon, Sounion. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

First fish, Kythnos

When we were settled in, I grabbed my fishing rod and attached yet another fancy colourful lure. As ever, the fish had no interest in this plastic trap and swam away immediately. Losing my patience, I removed the lure, attached a float with a further one meter of line with a hook and a tiny bit of salami. I threw it over the side. Within five minutes I watched a few fish come over the investigate the treat and one decided to give it a chew. I wound the line in pulled it back on board and called Jim over. He grabbed a tea towel and some very cheap rum and a teaspoon. Together we held it down and poured the rancid stuff into his gills. He flipped and flopped all over the deck and then finally stopped. Leaving him there, we went to the cockpit to prepare a chopping board and knife to gut him and a bucket with ice to chill him in. With our utensils ready we went back to the fish. He was no longer secured under the tea towel and was definately not dead flipping his way toward the portside bow to make his leap back home. We caught him in time and repeated the process. This time the inebriation was more than he could take. I proceeded to gut and store him in the fridge until it was time for dinner. Finally….one fish caught.


First catch ever, Kythnos island. BBQ'd with lemon

Finding shelter from the Meltemi

The next day we managed to get a space at Kolona beach, a stunning two bays separated in the middle by a thin sand bar but the following day it was time to leave. We had been talking with fellow sailors and consulting the various weather apps. An early Meltemi was coming and we needed to find shelter. We had a pretty lively sail over to Vari on the island of Syros with two reefs in the main and a little head sail out. Later we were joined by yachts; Felix and Right Meow. The bay was stunning, the water looked like a swimming pool and there was a pretty little Greek tourist town ashore where you can get provisions etc. We all had a lovely evening onboard Polaris catching up but by morning, with the worst winds yet to hit, we all reckoned that it might be better to be stuck in a larger town. Winds of 30 plus knots were forecast and could persist for nearly a week and so we made our jump to Mykonos, a town famed for it’s lively atmosphere and which I had visited for a night back in 2005. I was keen to see what had changed.


Kolona bay, Kythnos

Mykonos

We arrived at a busy bay in the south west corner of Mykonos. According to our reference books and the app Navily, this bay could offer good protection from the Meltemi since the forecast wind direction was a North westerly. As we approached we noticed lots of super yachts moored up on the west side of the bay. Knowing the Meltemi was coming we took extra care with where we anchored but the only available spot, taking into account the wind direction, depth, other boats and cordoned off beach areas, was quite near some rocks. If our anchor dragged we could be on the rocks. Finally we were anchored and trying to ‘settle in’;you know that 30 to 60 minutes after arriving when you are on high alert becoming aware of your surroundings etc and hopefully then relaxing. But, we couldn’t relax. There was a hostile atmosphere. There were jet skis shrieking past our boat and spraying us as they passed. There was dance music blaring from every bar and a chartered motor boat overfilled with alcohol fueled, hysterical people that pulled up right beside us and decided to add their obnoxious music into the mix. They were jumping into the water, hardly able to swim and a few times they were very nearly hit by their own friends on jet skis. The wake from all the water sports going on was tossing us about and I had to stow everything away as if we were out sailing in strong wind. Fed up, we left with our friends to explore the town.


Sunset from a greek tavera in Kythnos

Running for cover in Paros

By morning the wind had arrived and there was no evidence that this bay was providing any shelter. We were seeing sustained wind speeds in the high twenties with gusts up to 30 and this was not even the peak. We tried again to settle in but in addition to the wind, the bay was extremely choppy with white horses everywhere. We could have been out at sea. Other friends of ours had left and gone to Paros. They confirmed that the Meltemi was much lighter there, they were only getting an average of 9 knots. Knowing the wind in Mykonos was set to get a lot worse we took a punt and decided to pull up the anchor and hopefully get to much better shelter. As we headed out the wind subsided significantly and other than very unsettled seas, the three hour trip was only met with winds of between 10-18 knots. We arrived at Paros in the early afternoon and the highest wind speed I saw was 15 knots. In the days that followed we had the chance to provision a few times, have scenic walks, we ate out in Paroikia and rented scooters to explore the island. We visited a kite surfing beach and were very impressed with the beautiful town of Naousa in the North east. After a few more walks and a trip to the Chandlery to order spare parts it was time to leave and finally set sail for Ios, the island where I lived for the entire summer of 2005 and where Jim visited briefly too.


Pier at Naousa

Arriving in Ios

On the way to Ios we were joined by a lone dolphin who swam with us for ages. It was sureal coming back to Ios. I suppose I expected that it might be a bit of a dump. After all it was the place where I had decided to live when I was just 19. In 2005, instead of going inter-railing around Europe, I decided to fly to Athens and get the ferry to Ios by myself. Going to Ios alone was the first thing I had ever done on my own without family or friends. Arriving back there, I felt so happy and at home. The beach was more spectacular than I remembered and the town more beautiful. After securing our anchors we made our way ashore and I tried to navigate through the maze like streets. In fact, I very quickly found the house where I had lived. For Jim, he had actually just spent three nights there and his accommodation had been a cave! He also, managed to find ‘his cave’ which to reach, included a brisk walk through a ‘snakey’ field and across several walls towards an abandoned church! How he did that more than once I do not know.


Ios dolphin. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

Ios is much more than a backpacker party town. The food is excellent, and the town, built upon a hill, offers some of the most stunning views across it's bays that we have seen anywhere. It was strange to see young Irish people there the same age that I would have been jumping off the same rocks, dancing in the same bars and generally doing the same things 14 years later. It is safe to say that neither Jim nor I ever dreamed we would return to Ios on our own boat. I wonder what our 19 year old selves would think of us now. I think we would be impressed, I don’t think we ever wanted to have normal lives.

Mylopotas beach, Ios

Schoinousa and the three Catanas

We left Ios and had a half day of sailing to reach the Island of Schoinousa island, south of Naxos. The water was incredible and the rock formations underneath could be easily seen regardless of the depth. I had a swim with a turtle, Jim and I did some paddle boarding and by late afternoon the following day Right Meow and Polaris (us) had been joined by a third Catana called 'Like Dolphins'. The skipper and his wife kindly invited us all aboard where we shared stories all evening. They had been sailing that particular boat for 15 years and had a wealth of information and experience for us to tap into. Later I mentioned that Polaris’ original name was Calisto. It turns out that they had sailed with the original owner. In fact the original owner had broken one of the daggerboards racing them in Guatemala!! What a thrill to hear these stories! Early the next morning we left and sailed on a comfortable beam reach to Kalados bay on the south end of the island of Naxos. The scenery there was dramatic; fields of pale wheat and wild purple and green plant oregano provided a stark contrast to the aqua marine translucent sea below. Soon after arriving we went for a brisk walk and explored the bay. That night was spent in the nearby taverna and the following morning we were off again, sailing back to Paros to pick up those parts we had ordered. Next we would head to Sifnos making our way in the general direction of the southern Peloponnese.


Herd of sheep, Kalados bay, Naxos. Photo credit: Jim Hooper


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