24th April 2018
How my family were transformed from landlubbers to sailors in just seven days touring Greece’s Ionian Islands by Steve Tooze
It was one of those moments you really only want to watch through your fingers. My daughter Scarlett was standing alone at the wheel, manoeuvring a very large boat through a very small gap. The water in the harbour was still choppy from the previous night’s high winds. A concrete jetty loomed menacingly close behind us. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds of expensive yacht bobbed what looked to me like a few inches away either side of our mooring, and in front of us, too. We seemed pretty conclusively boxed in. ‘Yep, back a bit,’ drawled our skipper Fisher to my daughter, utterly unfazed by our apparent predicament. ‘Port a touch. OK, bit of throttle – and straight forward.’ Smoothly, our vast catamaran eased out of its apparent trap in Vathi harbour.
I gave Scarlett a weak smile and a thumbs-up; she shrugged the whole thing off as if she’d been piloting boats out of tight spots in Greek harbours all her life. Fisher patted her on the shoulder as we sailed out into the open topaz blue expanse of the Ionian Sea. Then, when he knew she wasn’t listening, he winked at me and whispered: ‘Not bad – I’ve seen grown men crack up trying to do that!’ That was Fisher’s genius, of course.
From the moment we’d stepped onboard the beautiful and luxurious four-cabin Sunsail 444 catamaran a few days before in Lefkas, he’d treated Scarlett and her brother Fin, 10, as if they were seasoned seamen, rather than two landlubbers who’d rarely set foot on a boat.
He behaved as if there was no question that they’d naturally be able to tie oxo and slip knots, put out bumpers, haul up sails, and steer us into tricky anchorages in tiny remote bays. And like kids everywhere, my two took their cues from the responsible adult in charge, and did just that. For four people with absolutely no experience of a life at sea, our jaunt around the Ionian Islands was the perfect introduction to the possibilities of sailing.
A winning combination of stunning peace and beauty, chilled-out luxury, and low-key exploration, with a couple of dashes of drama that added a thrilling edge of adventure to our week onboard. Let’s start with the drama – mainly because we all enjoyed it so much! One evening, as we headed serenely for the port of Vathi on the island of Ithaca – legendary home of the Ancient Greek king and hero Odysseus – the normally benign north-westerly wind turned around on us, and got a bit nasty.
By the time we reached port, a force-6 wind was jangling the masts beneath menacing storm clouds, and dozens of yachts of varying sizes – and with crews of varying degrees of experience – were trying to moor in quite turbulent seas. It was pretty chaotic for many – but not us. Fisher, a former Royal Navy sailor and nerveless veteran yachtsman, quickly took control of the situation and calmly got our entire flotilla tied up safely in a pontoon against the harbour wall.
That left us free to wander the pretty streets of Vathi, slightly giddy on adrenalin, to giggle at the ridiculously gilded superyachts of various oligarchs moored nearby, before enjoying a fabulous fish dinner beneath lanterns in a harbourside restaurant. On another blazingly hot morning, the kids were thrilled to get a radio distress signal from another yacht as we sailed towards the island of Spartochori – and even more excited when Fisher wheeled our catamaran around and announced we were going to the rescue.
Racing across the bay, with flotilla engineer Bungle roaring alongside in a speedboat and pods of dolphins leaping joyously in our bow waves, we made our heroic arrival at the stricken yacht. Black smoke was pouring from its engine, and a worried mother, father, and two teenage children, waiting in life jackets on deck, looked very pleased to see us.
An hour later, we’d safely towed them to Spartochori, and we were all swimming in the clear waters of the bay, basking in the glow of feeling like we’d genuinely helped someone out of a sticky situation. These two incidents couldn’t have been more at odds with the gentle, laidback spirit of the rest of the trip. Each morning, we awoke in our comfortable and spacious cabins to find the sun blazing down on us from a cloudless sky in a succession of breathtakingly pretty island harbours.
A morning briefing on the day’s sailing plans for our flotilla was followed by a lazy breakfast that ranged from fresh bread, cheese and coffee on deck, amid the waft of warm earth and olive trees from the shore, to the watermelon and ginger wake-up drinks in jars with handles that we were served at the Sivota Bakery Cafe. Then it was off into the blue, the kids helping Fisher gather ropes, put sails up and down, and generally keep things shipshape before indulging in their favourite pastime of being pulled along behind the catamaran, shrieking with laughter, in a huge rubber ring shaped like a watermelon. Stunned by the sun, and the impossible beauty of the Ionian mountains and shoreline when viewed from the sea, we would arrive at midday at some secluded cove, moor up on a buoy, climb into our kayaks, and paddle ashore to eat at a tiny ramshackle fish shack that would inevitably be the only thing on a crescent of tree-fringed sand.
A crisply fresh Greek salad – the only thing on the menu in the only tavern on a bay at Thilia in the Meganisi strait – was a particular hit. In the evening, we’d moor up at a new island and eat at one of Fisher’s favourite local restaurants. Sipping cold beer at a tavern at Port Atheni, on the east coast of Meganisi, the kid, our captain and I clapped and cheered as the owner Spiros and his son Jimmy showed off a traditional local dance. The next morning, Scarlett and Fin fed croissants to shoals of colourful fish around the jetty.
Our final night took us back to Lefkas, where we had a delicious meal of feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry and drizzled with thyme, honey and roasted sesame, served with squid ink risotto, at the lovely Nissi restaurant in the rather chi-chi main square. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to Fisher and the boat that had been our home for the past week. But Scarlett and Fin walked away proudly clutching RYA Practical Sailing Course certificates, and all of us were left with that warm feeling you get when you try something new and out of your comfort zone, and unexpectedly fall in love with it.
Sunsail offers a one-week flotilla holiday during the school summer holidays aboard a Sunsail 444 four-cabin catamaran in the Ionian Islands of Greece from £8,611 for up to six passengers. The price includes the catamaran, yacht damage waiver, flotilla fee and one week’s skipper hire. Flights cost from £350pp return.