Saturday, 13 October 2012

Paros to Sifnos

The translated spelling of those islands is variable but the Autumn weather on the Aegean Sea, early October 2012, is beautiful.  Eight of us are sailing on a Beneteau Cyclades 50.5 foot yacht and on the fifth day we hit an atmospheric high – no sea sickness, no sailing dramas, deep ocean swimming, music, jokes, laughter, dolphins, sun, ease and familiarity.  We’re finding our collective groove.  As we approach a small marina nestled on the southern side of Sifnos, with a beach called Plati Yialos and a village as charming and classically blue and white as a Greek postcard, there’s blossoming competence, confidence and conviviality.  The anchor drops, fenders tied, ropes thrown ashore and beers pop to celebrate our Oceanic Yachting Mojo.

I didn’t know what to expect when a charming but cheeky friend, Simon, invited me to join a group to sail the northern and mid Cyclades Islands for a week.  Most people growing up in Sydney have sailing experience, but I’m not immune to motion sickness if conditions are rough.  Nor have I slept on a yacht for an extended period or shared a cabin with a stranger.  So, though tempted, after only recently suffering a heart-wrenching dumping, I was feeling far from my best.  In fact I was unusually nervous.  When I heard the weather report in London, however, compared to the predicted 22 to 32c temperatures in Greece, I sensed a sunshine life-line that couldn’t afford to be missed.  I sealed the deal on Easy Jet.  I would give myself space and new horizons.  Tapping my curiosity and sense of adventure may be just what the doctor ordered. 

A week later, after changing my mind multiple times re the wisdom of leaving the safety of my apartment while feeling emotionally raw, I landed in Athens.  Instantly my shoulders lightened.  Jason met Simon and I at the airport.  Escorted by two handsome Australian men, I didn’t have to think.  They led me to the train and then to our cheap, clean and surprisingly comfortable hotel room in the centre of the old city.  After changing into shorts and thongs (aka flip-flops) we were soon stumbling past the ruins of Hadrian’s Library and seated in a bar with a cold beer and a stunning view of the towering Parthenon.  Hours later Jason, Simon and I, and another of their friends, Alex, were eating grilled octopus in a colourfully decorated restaurant on the Piraeus Marina.  “See that yacht, Julie” Simon grinned “ours is like that but bigger”.   I suppressed a shot of nervous adrenalin with a large slug of wine from a frozen metal tankard.  Slamming it back on the table with satisfaction I reminded myself “when the going gets tough the tough get going”.  I’d find my sea legs if it killed me.

The next day was all about getting up close and personal with the Acropolis, every stone ancient and inspiring, every myth and historical piece of detail sufficiently meaty to get my brain absorbed by new thoughts.  An azure sky dotted with white fluffy clouds complimented searing sun on golden rocks, and the boys teased me like an Aussie bloke teases a sheila.  The familiar style was comforting.  As we watched the mighty All Blacks beat South Africa in the Rugby Championship that evening, a little more weight fell from my shoulders. 

Next morning at the Port of Lavrion we stocked up on groceries and met the rest of the crew: Mark (a dashing and polite Englishman whom I’d met briefly over lunch once in Putney), Angela (the talented Kiwi-Thai-Filipino videographer), her laidback boyfriend Jim (from Norwich), and Emma, another down-to-earth Aussie with whom I was to share a bed.  Phew.  None of them were weird.  Well, no more than me.  Then our temporary skipper George, a lovely Greek man who was going to see us safely to the first island of Kea, took the boys over the safety-features before leaving the mainland in our frothy white wake.  No turning back now: the deep blue Mediterranean spreading before us like an inviting but serious contract.

The thing about boats is that they’re exposed to the elements of sea and sky.  Changes in conditions can be as slow and gentle as a caressing waltz, or as intensely rapid as a dizzying jive or powerful tango.  I was relieved on the first day to find the former, and as I lay on the deck beneath elegantly filled sails, reading a book and basking in the sunshine, I felt reassured and grateful.  Hours tinkled by, my thoughts roaming too often to matters of the heart, but buoyed by my location’s expansive beauty and skin-soaking warmth.  Sometimes the boat was awash with pumping music, people’s playlists competing for favour; other times it was switched off, the comparative silence of the breeze as soothing as the music had been invigorating.  Eventually our first harbour came into view and I watched in admiration as the bronzed buffed boys pulled in the sails, navigating between boats to drop just enough anchor to allow us to reverse gracefully up to the dock.  I jumped off the boat onto dry land with a spring which telegraphed I was pleased to have made it, but by all measures this introductory day had been mild.  There was civilisation to be found in these arid islands: at little Ormos Vourkari, opposite the lighthouse and larger port of Áyios Nikόlaou, in the form of a pretty stretch of bars and restaurants.  Though happily, being ‘out of season’, it had a relaxed vibe and a complete absence of crowds.

One really does enjoy that first drink after you’ve docked your yacht for the night.  Even if spending the day doing little more than serving refreshments, tying the fenders, or languishing in your bikini, there’s a shared sense of achievement. 

Alex with a Greek heritage and a modern Aussie man’s flair for cooking, made a tasty fettuccini on board the first night.  The following night, after docking in the sheltered Finikas Harbour on the south-west coast of Siros, the eight of us went out for dinner.  We were still getting to know each other but the day had been warm and tranquil.  We felt pleasantly chilled out, and began with a few drinks at a pretty terrace-garden restaurant overlooking the harbour.  I found myself telling an amusing and somewhat exposing (or self-effacing) story about an encounter with an infamous Melbourne celebrity.  The more engaged my audience became the more the details of the experience came back to me, and I shamelessly hogged the floor as they appraised my performance with generous laughter.  The boys, cheeky wits that they are, have regurgitated elements of the story multiple times since, extending and building on the scene’s humour with a healthy Aussie jibe and an occasional touch of flattery.  Jason, in whom I’d confided my more recent romantic troubles, encouraged me later saying “you just have to get your mojo back, Jules, then you’ll be right”.  Whatever the realities of that, it was mighty good to have a laugh.

The next day our passage to the island of Mykonos was a different story.  The conditions comparatively challenging, I weathered a few hours feeling nauseous, hungering for land but managing not to be sick.  Yet it was tiring beating endlessly upwind, until the boat peaked at 9.1 knots with real wind speeds of 21 knots.  Angela, Jim, Alex, Emma and I clutched the upper railing of the yacht, the girls wishing our butts were five times heavier so the boat would ride on less of a dramatic heel.  For a while it was fun. But when the jib dipped multiple times into the water, fear replaced adrenalin.  Could we ride out this angle without flipping over?  Regrettably, I didn’t understand anything about the balancing weight of a deep keel.  When Alex and Emma asked “are you ok”, I could barely reply as my vocal chords were as frozen as my knuckles. 

During what to me was an ordeal but to the boys a thrill, Jason, Simon and Mark took turns at the helm.  Tension mounted in their legs and arms as they fought to keep the boat steady, explosive grins on their faces revealing they loved the high, the speed, the (managed) risk… then whoops of joy as our yacht’s tactics proved competitive and we beat another yacht into Mykonos harbour.  I was told to expect calmer waters when we passed the headland.  So I held my breath.  Finally we were nearly there.  But as the boys tried to furl the sails the wind hit us from a different direction.  Ten minutes of flapping sails, ropes flying, confusion and fiercely bashing waves, threatened to tip me over the coping threshold.  Then no sooner were the sails sorted than we set out to sea again in search of a more protected bay.  I couldn’t contain the adrenalin ‘come down’ and a few tears of anxious relief flowed.  Jason stepped up, wrapping his warm coat and arms around me, and I snuggled safely until my nerves settled and I could re-engage with the sailing regime.

After dropping anchor in a secluded bay with white sand and turquoise water, we were ferried to shore in a rib (rubber inflatable boat) to enjoy a tasty dinner cooked by the winner of Greece’s Master Chef.  Then knocking back a bottle of caramel vodka as an excuse for dessert, we jumped into taxis and headed into the old town of Mykonos to potter in pretty jewellery shops and drink cocktails by the sea beneath her famous windmills.  The boys said we should see the day as a sailing right of passage, encouraging the girls to feel proud of ourselves.  We thought them rather sweet - this collection of people unknown to each other days before, but quickly showing kindness and consideration.  I guess that’s what they mean when they say “we’re all in the boat together”.

Rewards aren’t always given on cue, but our perfect conditions returned and the next day we sailed off to Paros.  After pleasurable hours sunbaking and reading on deck, we approached the western coast marina of Paroikiá.  We had time to lie on a beach, swim and chat by the water, later hiring rusty dune buggies to ‘fang’ it around the island.  The next morning we took the buggies out again as the views were irresistible: brown rocky cliffs set against glaring white cottages, blue sea and sky, and splashes of pink bougainvillea.  We enjoyed the different kind of ‘wind in the face’ as we swapped seats in the buggies and quad bike to reach the other side of Náousa, discovering a stunning bay with a tiny white church perched on a rough outcrop no bigger than a rock (ák Almires), and around the corner a delightfully pretty place to swim.  It was heaven.  My shoulders felt light.

And that’s the thing about sailing and life: you have to go through rough waters.  But it’s ever so nice when the sunshine and magic returns.