8 things I wish I had known before sailing in the Greek Islands
Sailing in the Greek Islands was a bucket list item for us. We'd talked about it for years and so this Summer we booked a one week trip with some friends and, with very little idea of what to expect, boarded a 50ft catamaran in Athens. Seven days, and plenty of wine, beaches and sun later, we had had a terrific week but we learned a lot about the practicalities of the trip I wish I had know in advance.
1. Understand the distances and boat speed
We booked a trip beginning and ending in Athens, with a stop on the 5th day in Santorini. How naive of us! Athens to Santorini is 162 nautical miles straight shot. The sailboat will make 8 knots motoring, 5 knots motoring into the wind, and 12-15 knots with the wind. So in one week we had unknowingly chosen to be in open water for probably 40 hours. Adding in that we had to be near Athens the first and last nights that is 40 hours on the boat in 5 days so 8 hours a day. Doesn't leave much time for swimming, visiting the islands etc. and combined with the fact that after 3 hours of motoring it gets pretty boring this is clearly not a good decision.
2. Pick your start and end points carefully
The sample itinerary we had been sent started in Mykonos and ended in Santorini. Sounds lovely right? What we had not realized is that it is a 2 day sail to Mykonos, and a 2 day sail back from Santorini - included in the 40+ hours of travel time I just mentioned. Talking to the captain and crew once we were on the boat we learned that most charters do not go both in and out of Athens, or if they do it is because they want to push an aggressive schedule motoring before they get up each morning (the captain was willing to start at 5am) and so arrive at each island mid to late morning. However, we found that once the motors started we all had to be up on deck. It was just too noisy and hot to be in the cabin so starting at 5am each day was not practical (and the gentle swimming and paddle boarding before breakfast, not to mention the breakfast of yoghurt, honey and fruit each morning would have been missed).
Now I know to think carefully about the distances and pay 10% more for the trip to pick the boat up in the general area we want to explore. To explore the Cyclades starting and ending in Paros would be a good week, or Santorini to Athens, or Mykonos to Santorini. All are doable, but not all at once!
3. You are at the mercy of the wind
Obvious I know, but not obvious when planning the trip from my desk. Motoring into the wind is not much fun. Sailing with the wind is heaven. Next time I will know to set everyone's expectation that the route each day is unknown until we check the wind forecast and talk with the captain. There are ferries between the islands so if someone in the group really wants to see, or end up at, a particular island then set expectations that on day 5 or day 6 they will be getting a ferry. Where you are at that point is indeterminate if you want to limit your motoring time and maximize your sailing time within the 2-3 hours a day you are in transit.
4. Take bug spray
There is nothing like being in a very small cabin on a sailboat with 6 mosquitos who snuck in as you went into town for dinner. I recommend Jungle Juice from REI. It's 98% DEET and I found out the hard way that Off! is no match for Greek mosquitos.
5. Understand your group's preferences in advance
We were a group of 6 on this trip and while we had a few conversations in advance things would have been smoother if we had consciously discussed preferences in advance. We should have been sent a form to fill out for food preferences in advance but somehow this slipped through the cracks and so as I filled it out the night before in the hotel in Athens I did not have enough information. One in the group is lactose intolerant, but that did not translate into Greek well so there was cheese with every meal. One in the group eats no meat, which did translate, but as a result there was no meat for the meat hungry folks in the group. Next time I would be explicit on what to include, what to not include, and in what rough ratios each day.
Likewise activities. Not everyone likes sun and swimming. I cannot get enough of beautiful churches, others won't go into a church. We should have discussed this in advance so we were prepared. We worked out a balanced schedule in the end and everyone made an effort to be flexible. So much so that we all tried standup paddle boards, even the history buff.
6. Pack light, and pack travel laundry detergent
You don't need many clothes on a boat. One or two swimsuits, a pair of shorts and a couple of t-shirts. Maybe a sundress or two for the girls. No shoes - you don't wear shoes on a boat so only one pair is needed to explore on shore. More importantly there is very little room on a boat to put your clothes away. You need to unpack because there is no room for a suitcase in your cabin (if you are on a 50ft sailboat anyway, maybe different on a 100ft yacht) so the less you have to unpack the more room you have.
But there is no laundry on a boat and so, if you are packing light, take travel laundry soap to wash out your unmentionables and your t-shirts when they have sun screen and olive oil on them. Trust me they will.
7. It's worth taking a few critical items
Take the best camera you can. The light in the islands and on the water is incredible. Dawn, day and dusk the colors are stunning. Take a hat that does not blow off. You may be sitting on the upper deck for several hours with the wind blowing and holding onto your hat gets old. I had an REI traveling hat with a chin strap and I still had to hold it. And if you get queasy take Seaband wristbands with you. These bands have a button which presses on a pressure point on your wrist to prevent sea sickness and they work. I wore them 24 hours a day for a week and felt fine but only because one of our friends brought two sets. And of course sunscreen and a long sleeved SPF shirt for the long hours of brilliant sunshine.
8. Talk with your captain and crew
I tried to have a live conversation with someone in Greece - the broker or the captain - in advance but I was not pushy enough and it didn't happen. This definitely contributed to miss set expectations and our not understanding the distances and choices we needed to make. One live conversation would have allowed me to ask all the dumb questions and head off the frustration felt by the group that we were not taking the route we thought. Of course these are very much first-world problems and within a couple of hours of chatting with our fabulous captain and mate we quickly figured out a different route, ferry alternatives and relaxed into a wonderful week. But one live conversation in advance would have helped so much.
My learning - don't rely on second hand advice, and pay attention to the advance planning and details a month before you leave!
Our boat was Idea!, our captain Alexandros and his chef and firstmate Stella. Alex was a shy, brilliant captain reminding us of the Greek sailors of thousands of years ago with his feel for the boat and the wind. Stella was a fabulous cook, all the more impressive because she had a tiny kitchen and was cooking as the boat rocked. And she was absolutely charming.
We were 6 on a boat that can sleep 10 and this was the right number. Even 8 would have felt cramped in the shared spaces. Indagare found the boat for us and handled the hotels the few nights before and after in Athens and they made a great choice for our group.