New Adventures and Old Favorites

Every year, Dan and I try to expand and deepen our sailing skills. Last year, doing an overnight passage was high on his list (yes, I said his list). I had agreed since this was the only way we would be able to visit more far flung countries and break free from our coastal cruising up and down from Northern Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece…..and then back again. To be perfectly honest, I’m pretty sure I would be more than content to do this for many years to come 🙂 Somehow, I managed to drag my heels through the season (in my defense, we were now regularly making 10 hour passages….just not overnight and in the dark), and we closed the books on 2019 without sailing overnight.

Despite our very late start to the 2020 season, we got busy honing our anchoring skills beginning day 1 on the water. We were also making long passages further and further south. Our goal was to circumnavigate the Péloponnèse peninsula and come through the Corinth Canal. When we reached Navarino Bay(our furthest point south on the western side), it was time to make some decisions. We monitor 5 or 6 weather forecasts on a daily basis in order to determine our best time to sail as well as where our safest place to anchor will be. Unfortunately, the eastern side of the peninsula was frequently showing wicked wind conditions, and we were regularly picking up transmissions calling for gale force winds. We finally looked at each other and asked ourselves “why?” Why beat ourselves up trying to make this happen when we would be here again next season (and hopefully much earlier in the season), and we could make the circumnavigation then. We both agreed to finish out our exploration of Navarino bay and start making our way back north.

Heading north meant we would be going against the prevailing winds which means a rough ride as you beat into the wind and waves. We decided (more like Dan convinced me) that doing a night passage would make for a much more pleasant cruise north as the winds tend to die off once the sun sets. The winds had been up the previous few days which meant the seas would likely be a little rougher than normal, at least in the beginning. The forecast was calling for little wind and fairly small swell, so we decided it was time. We decided to leave about an hour before sunset in order to leave the bay and get ourselves set on course with a little bit of light. This meant an 8:30 p.m. departure. We talked through our plan….up together for the first few hours, and then I would take the first 3 hour shift. From there, we would switch off every 3 hours while the other got some sleep and then do the last hour into the anchorage together. All in all, this was going to be about a 12 hour journey.

Our overnight passage from the Peloponnese to Zakinthos

Anchor was hoisted, and we were underway at 8:00 p.m…..excited and nervous at the same time. As we came around the point of Navarino Bay, we were slammed by big swells right on the nose. This meant that the bow of our boat plunged down deep into the trough of the wave, sending spray up over us, before we rocketed up the next crest of a wave. Some might find this fun….I found it utterly terrifying. I know this boat is capable of handling far worse conditions, but my brain refuses to accept it and couldn’t help envisioning us catapulting in a giant forward somersault. Dan, of course, was whooping like a little boy on a bucking bronco. Together we thrashed through this mess, watching the sun set on the horizon, before darkness finally enveloped us. At around 11:00 p.m., Dan headed below deck to catch some sleep while I took over. All alone, in the middle of the sea, in the pitch black, in the still pitching seas…..yep, not a happy camper. You might be asking….why did you choose to go out in such rough seas? Well, as is frequently the case out here, we were only suppose to have 1-2 foot seas…HA! Yeah right!

Rounding the peninsula at the entrance to Navarino as the sun is setting

I spent the next 3 1/2 hours doing my watch. Despite the bucking bronco ride, I did eventually settle into a groove, and my fear began to lessen. Unfortunately, moonrise was not until 2:45 a.m., so I didn’t have the light of the moon to help brighten my way. The other challenge was the navigation instruments (despite being turned to their lowest light setting) messed with my vision, so I had to stand up and over top of them to keep them out of my line of sight unless I needed to see something specific. It was really hard to tell the difference between a random light on land or an approaching boat (more unease). It wasn’t all horrible though. I did get to watch the Neowise comet for much of my watch, and the Milky Way was huge and bright overhead. At 2:30 a.m., Dan came up and relieved me of my watch. I tried to get some sleep down below, but the sea was still throwing up some occasional big swells. Down in the hull, the crashing sound is amplified and sounds like the boat is going to blow apart. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep (I expected as much since sleep seems to elude me these days).

At 5:30 a.m., I called it a night and got up to make us some coffee. The seas had finally calmed down and dawn was approaching. So, together we enjoyed the final few hours of our journey watching the sun come up over the horizon. As we pulled into the bay on the island of Zakinthos, we celebrated our first overnight passage. Once our anchor was securely set, we both collapsed below deck for a few hours of much needed sleep.

Blissful sunrise at sea!

We spent the next 5 nights anchored in the bay of Keri. The first spot we chose (in our sleep deprived haze) was off a popular beach resort area. We were fairly close to this awesome little island that had been turned into a beach bar. There was a foot bridge over the water to the island which had beach chairs, umbrellas, a bar and swimming. What caught your eye the most was the huge, white sheets strung out over the island that billowed in the wind. While it was beautiful to see, we soon discovered that we were in the middle of a constant flow of tour boats and rented motor boats buzzing around ALL day long….ugh. The next morning we moved to a quieter part of the bay (close to where we had anchored last time we were here). After swimming our anchor, I was very disappointed to only see the top third of it buried into the sand despite backing down on it fairly hard. We decided to enjoy our morning swim and then re-anchor. This bay has restricted areas for the protection of the sea turtle hatcheries. From time to time, we would be gifted with a sea turtle cruising by or popping his head up for a breath of air. We decided to move ourselves a little further down the anchorage to a beautiful area backdropped by sandstone cliffs. Here, we dug in nice and deep.

Beach bar island from our anchor spot.
Sandstone cliffs from our next anchor spot in a quieter part of the bay
Sea turtle ducking under our boat in the glow of our underwater lights

The next day, we dinghied over to the island of Marathonisi. It was a short ride to this uninhabited island that sits in the center of the entrance to the bay. Much of the island is roped off to protect the sea turtle eggs, but many tours and rental boats flock her to snorkel in the beautiful waters and explore the caves. We tried to arrive a little early in the hopes of beating the crowds. We beached our dinghy and immediately hit the water for a snorkel/swim workout around the island. While we did go into some really cool open caves, we were not graced with the presence of any sea turtles. By the time we returned to our dinghy, the beach was loaded with boats and people 🙁 Time to go! So back to Zoe, we went.

Marathonisi beach. The boat with the flags in the background is a floating beach bar
Protected turtle egg nests. There was national park ranger in the hut in the background keeping an eye on things.
Caves of Marathonisi
We enjoyed swimming and exploring the caves. It was a bonus we had them to ourselves before the tour boats showed up later

The next day, we rented a car to do a little inland exploration of the island of Zakinthos. I have to say, this has probably been one of my favorite islands in the Ionian Sea. Our first stop was to the cliffs overlooking Shipwreck Bay. As you will recall, we had sailed into the bay to get an upfront look, but this time our view was from up above……WAY up above. To get the best view, you needed to bushwhack down this little trail along this peninsula that sat way above the sea below. When I first saw the goat path leading the end of the point, I had pretty much determined that I would not be enjoying the stellar view from out there. Well, I managed to suck it up, pull up my big girl panties, and trek out to the end. It was definitely worth the view. The colors of the sea were amazing! The views were spectacular despite leaving me a little queasy with vertigo. There were many warnings about staying clear of the edge of the cliff (not a problem for me…..I went deeper into bushwhacking to make sure I was nowhere near the edge). I did however come closer and peer over the edge…..ack.

Hiking the cliffs of Shipwreck bay
Breathtaking views
Dan getting his shot!
There are no guardrails and the trails are a bit slippery. We’re a bit surprised this place isn’t in the news from a hapless tourist getting to close to the edge and falling. It would be easy to do and there are hundreds of visitors a day…

After that hairball fun, we drove to the town of Zakinthos to explore the city center. It was definitely bustling with people (and VERY windy). We stopped at a Taverna called Dimitris where the owner extolled the greatness of several of his dishes. While not the first time we’ve heard this hustle, he was not kidding. I am in love with a dish called Lamb Kleftiko and order it frequently when I can find it. I have to say, his was hands down one of the best I’ve had in all of Greece. After a fabulous and filling lunch, we drove through the countryside and stopped at a local winery for some tasting. The grounds were lovely, and we purchased a couple of bottles to enjoy back on the boat. After driving the whole of the island, it was time to get back to the boat for the evening. Getting off the boat for some land based excursions always brings us such great joy (and helps ground us from our sea legs). The island of Zakinthos and the anchorage in Keri has been another of our favorite spots for beautiful swimming and lovely, countryside walks. We could easily see getting “stuck” here for a long time….but, it was time to continue our journey.

Klima Grampsis winery in the interior of the island. Great wines to taste in a beautiful setting.

The next day, we sailed (yes, we actually got to sail!) out of the bay on our way to the island of Cephalonia. Our destination was the town of Spartia. As we rounded the corner to the lee side of Zakinthos, the wind collapsed, and we were back to motoring. Once we passed the tip of Zakinthos island, we were in the open channel between it and Cephalonia. Now, we had blustery wind right on our nose. As we slogged up the channel at a whopping 3.5-4.5 knots under motor, I looked at Dan and said, “why are we doing this? If we divert to the town of Poros, we will be able to sail.” That is all it took. Before long, we were flying along at 8 knots under sail (and a much smoother ride). In the end, we shortened our trip by an hour and half! Unfortunately, when we arrived in the Poros anchorage, our favorite spot was taken! Boo! So we anchored a little further down the coastline and closer to some rock reefs. On the plus side, we spotted a turtle nearby and the swimming was great. On the downside, as evening approached, we were hit by a huge, unexplained swell that seemed intent on hitting us on the side. This went on for hours and well into the middle of the night. We’ve been on rough passages before, but this is the first time that things actually fell and crashed. NOT FUN! Incredibly different from our last stay here. This was a one and done. The next day we were underway again.

Our next stop was the anchorage of Spartia on Cephalonia, 3 hours away. The winds were extremely light, so it was another day of motoring 🙁 We chose the bigger side of the anchorage and chose our spot in front of some beautiful, sandstone cliffs. Once again, we were off on the outer fringes away from the swim areas and tavernas….which usually means fewer neighbors. I’m not anti-social….I’m socially distancing! This was another great spot in our books. We had amazing swimming with lots of rocky reefs to explore. On one of our swim outings, I rousted a ray from his hiding spot and later, a turtle joined us for a bit. It was incredible.

Zoe at anchor in the bay
We love anchoring in bays with these cliffs….
A turtle we came across while snorkeling in the bay. So cute!

After 2 days, it was time to continue our journey north. Our next stop was back to Poros. This time we were able to claim our favorite spot from the first time, tucked up behind a reef. Well, it wasn’t any better this time. By the time the sun went down, we were pitching violently for most of the night 🙁 Needless to say, we headed out the next day. Destination….the island of Kastos….another one of our favorites from last year. It was another blustery day with the wind in the right direction, so we were able to sail again. It wasn’t long, however, before we were reefing (making our sail smaller). The winds really picked up and the seas were getting rough. By the time we arrived in Kastos, our hearts fell. Both of our very favorite anchorages were jammed full of boats. Finding a spot for our big girl was nearly impossible and the winds were howling which added to the challenge. After setting the anchor and both of us feeling incredibly uncomfortable with our proximity to a reef in high winds, we decided to abort. Off to Vlikho Bay we went. We spent a lot of time in this bay last year despite the multitude of jelly fish, so we were really familiar with the holding and availability of space. By the time we arrived and dropped anchor, we had gone 45 miles and been out for 8 hours. We decided to settle in for a few days here and spend some time revisiting the town of Nydri (another place we love) and driving to some of our other favorites around the island (olive oil mill, winery, etc). Once again, our biggest challenge is going to be leaving here 🙂

Heading back to Zoe after dinner ashore.