Meeting the Cyclades’ infamous summer Meltemi

Having filled our dual 300 litre diesel tanks in Athens almost three weeks prior, the gauge was still reading full. Navigating a zigzag route through the sparsely laid out Cyclades group, we’ve taken full advantage of the prevailing northerly Meltemi wind. This came as a welcome change from the many hours and nautical miles motoring in the first half of our journey through the Eastern Mediterranean – particularly back in Croatia. From broad beam reaches and close hauls to direct downwind sailing with our sweet Parasailor – we’re finally learning the capabilities of our Lagoon 440 catamaran.Which was often averaging eight nautical miles (15 km p/hr) in 20 to 25 knots of wind. Despite missing our recently destroyed gennaker, dad couldn’t be happier with the boat’s performance.

The Cyclades form one of six island groups in Greece, the others being the Ionians, Dodecanese, Sporades, Saronic Gulf Islands and North Eastern Aegean Islands. Yet the Cyclades are easily the most visited and iconic. If you come to these particular Greek islands not really knowing what to expect – as Mike and I did back in 2002 and mum also presumed just this past month – you’d likely conjured up images of tropical trees or at least greenery and island lushness. Though you’d be in for a surprise as the Cyclades are as rocky and desolate as they come. And at this time of summer when there hasn’t been a drop of rain for months – there are dust bowls everywhere whipped up by the constant Meltemi winds and where only hardy flora such as bougainvillea, cactus, olive and tamarisk trees survive through the season.

Yet what you will find are mesmerising cubism whitewash buildings – with their thick concrete render and limestone wash, blue doors and shutters – purposefully constructed to sustain the battering winds and provide reprieve in the searing summer sun. More so the sugar cube-shaped homes create a dramatic scene as they clamber in clusters up the hillsides, with narrow winding alleyways, stone paths painstakingly detailed with white paint, dispersing in often a confusing spider web of directions and stairs inviting you to explore and be lost. And always, at the highest crest so as to be closest to God, quietly sits one or three magnificent whitewash, dome-roofed churches. Despite the relentless, exhausting wind and dusty barren landscapes, the fascinating Cyclades are one-of-a-kind and like nowhere else on Earth.

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This past week we relished in comfortable sailing conditions of 15 – 25 knots on or behind the beam. It made us smile to be finally fulfilling the ‘sailing’ element of our cruiser lifestyle on a consistent basis. Though I am quickly reminded of our first week in the Cyclades when we were hastily introduced to the notorious Meltemi. Popping east out of the Saronic Gulf and off Cape Sounion into the northern most Cyclades Islands, we were instantly met with the steepest seas (3 – 4 metres) and strongest sailing winds (gusting to 35 knots) that we’d experienced in our six-month relationship with finally my darling.

To say I personally wasn’t anxious would be a lie. I was having kittens! We sailed a broad beam reach, with rolling swell and white caps knocking our portside and accompanying heavy spray drenching us on the upper bridge deck. Whilst dad and Mike were at ease (and mum’s chosen spot to ride out days like that was curled up in bed) – I was holding on tight with clenched teeth. Though I am trying my best to accustom myself with such conditions if I’m ever going to earn the right to call myself a sailor.

After three wind-swept hours we reached the welcomed calm of a protected bay on Kea Island, where we rested for two days before heading on an ambitious northeast close haul sail for Andros Island. Upon hitting some heavy confused seas between islands, wind swell having travelled a long distance uninterrupted from the north; we decided to fall away from our intended heading, sailing further southeast towards the bottom of Andros Island and onto the only sufficiently protected port at the southwest end of Tinos Island.

We’d been warned by the Greek Pilot Guide (our bible) that the leeside of certain islands suffered from a katabatic wind effect, where the northern Meltemi would speed up down the face of the southern facing shores. Hoping to escape the uncomfortable sea swell and find calmer waters behind the islands, we were still taken by surprise by the gale force 40 – 45 knots (80 km/phr) winds screaming unpredictably down the eroded mountainside.

Already with three reefs in the mainsail, amongst howling wind we quickly dropped the remaining mainsail and furled the genoa halfway in. With only a small triangle of genoa remaining we sailed the next two hours making around eight knots speed over the ground in 35 – 40 knot, gusting 45-knot winds. Thankfully the ocean was then somewhat blown over, not adding another tricky dimension to the situation.

Reaching our destination and struggling to reverse and manoeuvre the boat against the direct tail wind into tiny Tinos port, we finally moored and breathed a huge sigh of relief (well I most certainly did anyway). A planned three-hour journey turned into six and a half hours when we were forced to change headings, and then contend with the most testing conditions we’d seen yet. Subsequently Tinos port was where we sat out our first Meltemi ‘blow’. For a solid four days and nights that followed, wind in the port was recording a consistent Beaufort force eight (or 30 – 40 knots, again gusting to 45). After experiencing very little wind for the first half of our trip, when our home was a boat, it’s amazing how quickly we tired of the strong relentless wind. It can be draining.

Despite staying longer than we intended, the port of Tinos on Tinos Island was a vibrant, bustling Greek port to be stuck. Interestingly the island was the centre of Greek Orthodox religion in the region. Back in 1822 a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary was found on the site where the church of Panagia Evangelistria had since been constructed. The Virgin Mary was believed to have healing powers, attracting mass pilgrimages to the island several times each year. We just missed the Feast of the Assumption pilgrimage by one week, though at any time of year people can be seen crawling on their hands and knees pushing long candle offerings up a specially carpeted strip running the full length of the steep road and leading to the church.

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As 21 year-olds back in 2002, Mike and I worked a summer season on the Greek party island of Ios. We looked forward to visiting again in about two weeks time for a nostalgic walk down (a blurry) memory lane. We knew Ios was always overshadowed by the granddaddy hedonism haunt of Mykonos, and not having made it there back then, we were very keen to see what all the fuss was about. One of the two most famous isles in all of Greece (second to Santorini), Mykonos was seriously touristy and commercialised, but we couldn’t come all that way and not visit for ourselves.

Firstly living up to its reputation as one of the windiest islands in the Cyclades, when we finally decided to make a break for it from Tinos port, we sailed the short one and half hour leg in 30 to 35 knots and under foresail only. We then moored alongside the unfinished Mykonos marina fighting against similar gusts off the dusty hillside.

Mykonos old town ‘chora’ was picture postcard perfect and exactly what came to mind when you invoked images of the Greek islands. Think sugar cube-shaped whitewash buildings, colourful doors and shutters, a labyrinth of narrow laneways, windmills, restaurants, hopping bars, sea vistas, the finest shopping boutiques seen since landing in the Med and diverse accents and languages of an international clientele. We first visited the village by day, when it was relaxed, uncrowded and sundrenched. By night the narrow streets were shoulder-to-shoulder well into the wee hours of the morning as the masses returned from their all-day beach sun worshipping.

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Dad, Mike and I again hired scooters, as Mykonos’ beaches were many, varied and widespread. Plus it was where all the daytime action happened! Riding around on crappy, abused 50 CC rental scooters was intense. Our scooter lost the front brake mid-trip and dad’s front wheel would lift off the ground when the power band cut in. Yet it was intense primarily due to hectic traffic with roundabouts and intersections where anything goes, difficult to follow road signage, potholes, no shoulders dropping sharply off to gravel, blind corners and consistent, impatient overtaking games. One would not want to have more than a couple of beers and try to navigate the roads, as no doubt many do after a boozy day at the beach or nightclubbing. A pair of fresh, bloodied thongs (flip flops) moved to the curbside of a busy intersection reminded us that road carnage must be an everyday occurrence on the chaotic island. Out of every 50 scooter and four-wheeler riders we passed, only one would be wearing a helmet (and always thongs, bare chests and bikini tops) and that was no exaggeration.

Fortunately the island was also well serviced by public buses, so visitors could avoid tackling the crazy roadways should they choose. We came across some beautiful, though busy, fine sandy beaches with calm clear waters – many family friendly. Though the infamous all-day party beaches of Paradise and Super Paradise were heaving with bronzed almost naked bodies, sunbeds and umbrellas, posers and people watchers, DJs tunes pumping and G-string clad go-go dancers. Mykonos was also famously a gay hotspot, and whilst not as overt as I expected, there were plenty of toned fine specimens sporting a fashionable array of speedos and euro shorts. Whilst I can not party like I once did, and the past six months cruising have coaxed us into a relaxed sedate mood; for those going there seeking a wild good time, Mykonos would not disappoint.

Party all day. Rest. Party all night. Repeat.

Another benefit of mooring stern-to the small town quays in Greece’s many island ports – apart from having the best view in town for little to no extra cost – was sitting back and observing the Greek way of life. When first arriving at a new port about mid afternoon, it would appear there was a massive oversupply of cafes, bars and restaurants. Hundreds of empty seats and barely a sole around gave the appearance of a sadly deserted and struggling tourist area. Though come 8:00 or 9:00 pm the waterfronts would come alive with locals and tourists – mostly domestic Greek or Italian holidaymakers. There was barely a spare seat to be found!

Given the tradition of shutting shop in the middle of the day and heading home for an afternoon nap or long lunch was still widely practiced, the Greeks are night owls. Eating a late dinner around 9:00 or 10:00 pm, then casually socialising with family and friends to often well past midnight, every night of the week. And that included children of all ages. There looked to be no such term as ‘past your bedtime’ as well-behaved kids of all sizes zipped around on bikes or sat wide-eyed in strollers well into the late night hours.

What’s more the Greek’s after dark pursuits are civilized and low key. We’ve seen no sign of aggression or raised voices, and public drunkenness was frowned upon. Plus it was a common sight to see groups in their early 20s sipping cold frappe coffees in a Saturday evening bar setting. Family is first priority in Greek culture and despite the country’s current economic woes that are likely aligned with their overly relaxed outlook; I feel we could all learn a thing or two from the Greeks to slow down, take life less seriously and make more quality time for family and friends.

Ermoupolis on Siros Island was one such harbour front town that buzzed late with conversation and merriment. The capital of the Cyclades and a busy commercial port, we hung there for a few days over the weekend, waiting for an engineering workshop to open on the Monday morning so dad could source some parts to repair an electric winch motor. Hand winching in these sailing winds was no fun! Mum and dad mingled with the locals and soaked up the atmosphere of a free summer performance, including a cute shadow puppet show that had the kids in stitches (if only we could understand Greek) and a local export hip-hop trio with a proud, cheering crowd.

We helped tend the lines for an Aussie/Kiwi couple that moored alongside us, owned by the sweetest pair Zana and Brian on their own adventure of a lifetime aboard their new 48’ Fontaine Pajot catamaran ZeeBee. Zana was originally from Manly, Sydney and Brian a champion-racing skipper from Auckland. Their smiles were infectious as we shared stories and we’d be delighted to cross paths again out there.

Yet another memorable anchorage was Livadhi on Serifos Island. Where for the first time we struggled to get the anchor dug in, which was essential given the strong Meltemi gusts that infiltrated even the most protected southern bays. It took seven attempts in three different spots along the wide bay, after unsuccessfully aiming for the odd, small sandy patch and constantly pulling up a forest of weed or too-soft mud.

Our friends on Dominos also landed in Livadhi on the same afternoon – though tracking their own route through the Cyclades we may see them again in a few islands time. The imposing ‘chora’ main/old town climbing up the rocky hillside high above our anchorage was sensational. Taking a local bus up and walking back down, the traditional Greek village sat sturdy on a blustery yet dramatic craggy mountainside. We’ve just adored these quaint townships.

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We next sailed south and downwind to Milos Island. It was a comfortable Parasailing day with a reduced 15 – 18 knots wind and flat seas – the calmest weather we’d seen in three weeks since passing through the Corinth Canal. In the late 19th century the renowned 130-100 BC arm-less Venus de Milo, or marble statue of Aphrodite the goddess of beauty and love, was found by a peasant farmer on the island. The arms were apparently lost in a skirmish over ownership and have never been located. One of Greece’s most famous ancient sculptures, the Venus de Milo sculpture has since lived in the Louvre, Paris for over 100 years.

Our overnight port of Adamas on Milos was another spot that came alive on dusk. Whilst in port I attempted to recreate the national dish of moussaka with a side of Greek salad. It took all of the 2.5 hours to prepare as the receipe called for, and despite looking the part; I must seek to uncover the secret touch of Nonna’s Greek kitchen. Sailing around Milos and neighbouring Kimolos Islands uncovered some gorgeous bays for swimming, colourful fishing villages with upstairs for living and the downstairs boat shed, plus a kangaroo-shaped rock.

We are currently on the southern end of Sifnos Island and will next make our way onto Antiparos and Paros. Super excited to soon welcome our new guests – our very dear friends Jay and Dee from Whistler, Canada. Jay is Mike’s best friend from high school and was his best man at our wedding last year. We are stoked to be sharing part of the adventure with them!

Until next time – much love from us all and hope life is treating you well.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Yet again you have written a wonderful story and your pictures are to die for..amazing adventures. love to you all. and i hope for safe sailing.

  2. greg aide says

    Absolutely fantastic… Brooke you certainly have a talent as a travel writer. The website/blog you have set up is stunning. I travelled to these islands in the mid 80’s with a couple of friends.. we were going to hire a yauct and do it but could not get insurance believe it or not, even though one of my mates was a Greek Aussie guy from uni days in bondi. IOS was amazing as wasnNaxos and Paros. Jimbo, my Greek aussie mate came from an island on the east coast.. keffalonia, you must visit if possible. I spent a few idylic weeks with jimbo living in the shell of the house and labouring on the construction of the house his father was building there after he had retired from owning and running the corner shop in glenayre avenue bondi, for 30 odd years, across the road from one of our uni days digs. Helping him build the house and immersing yourself in that wonderful Greek lifestyle that you describe so elequentltly. Your prose and pictures have just taken me back to that wonderful time in my life. Keep up this fantastic work… I will be reading it all and following

    Greg… PS Brooke… I was Stewarts boss and was there with him in the Forrest when he had that horrific accident

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