On the Greek Frontier
The plane dips its wing in a hard right bank to approach the small strip of a runway. Quietly I grip the armrest while glancing out the window, allowing the shimmering diamonds of the sun’s reflection on the water to cause a smile to cross my face. The Aegean Sea is still just as beautiful in January as it was in August, with it’s turquoise trim along the shore of Samos Island, Greece. Moment’s later, the Samos Marina near Pythagorio comes into view and I quickly snap several photos with my phone while straining to see my sailboat on the dry dock at the north end of the marina.
My escape to Greece began in January of 2015 when I threw caution to the wind, liquidated my 401K and shipped my 31 foot sailboat to Istanbul, Turkey. The lead up to that decision is a story for another time. Let it be said simply that I did not want to just exist – I wanted to live! My motto had become “life out loud” and even though my seven years of living on sailboats gave me a lifestyle different than most mainstream Americans, I wanted more. Or maybe I wanted less. Less traffic. Less corporate America. Less punching a time clock. Though I am certainly not advocating bad financial decisions, I think many people make very good financial decisions and lousy life decisions. Greece was a life decision. Prior to my flight to Turkey last April, I had never stepped foot off the North American continent and I couldn’t see myself waiting until I had the proper pile of money to break away and start living.
My sailboat took me from Istanbul, through the Sea of Marmara and down the Turquoise Riviera to the resort area of Bodrum. The famed Dardanelles where Mustafa Atatürk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, rose to prominence during World War I, the quaint island of Bozcaada and the upscale marina at Çesme were just a few of the sights that I experienced on that incredible passage. However enamored I was with Turkey though, my fate and that of my sailboat were to be in the Greek Islands.
The moderate winds of August propelled me to the Greek island of Kos where I officially checked into Greece for the first time, quite ignorant of the refugee crisis that was in full tilt. Hundreds of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and various African countries lined the shore in Kos Town. Though the news reported the worst of humanity during this time, my experience with the refugees was quite peaceful, as they waited in the shadow of the 14th century castle. The goal of the these war weary souls was to reach the European mainland where they could start life fresh.
My goal was similar. A fresh start. After a brief refitting in the Kos marina, I checked the direction of the wind and sailed south to the small volcanic island of Nisyros. On this easily overlooked island in the southern Dodecanese, I experienced the rich culture of the Greeks in festivals, meals at outdoor cafés and interaction with locals that can only happen when you stay put for awhile. Interestingly, I discovered how affordable it can be to live in these Islands. Several times a week, a local vegetable truck delivered fresh produce to the residents of Paoli, where the municipal marina was located, and I found that if I cooked my own food and kept the dining out to a minimum, I could make my Euro stretch quite nicely. The local bakery was another source of great food at reasonable prices and when I had friends visit me, I made sure that we frequented them often. Since I had no car, I walked, took the bus or rented a scooter. This gave me access to the entire island’s sights from the volcano crater of Stefanos to the mountain villages of Nikia and Emporeios as well as the seaside town of Mandraki. Car rentals were available, but I found that the competing scooter rental companies kept their prices reasonable and their equipment in good repair. Though I was prepared to live on the “hook”, anchoring the majority of the time, much to my surprise the moorage fees at the municipal marina were rarely collected making my stay there not only pleasant, but nearly free as far as my boat was concerned.
While using Nisyros as my “home” base if you will, I sailed to the islands of Gyali and Tilos on my sailboat and took a ferry north to Athens and the island of Aegena. Each of these islands has ambiance all their own and, though there are hundreds of Greek Islands left for me to sail to, I would return to any of them that I visited the summer of 2015. On Nisyros I was able to kick off my career as a freelance writer as well, working from my boat and capitalizing on the free wifi provided by the restaurants along the harbor. With the beach in walking distance, brilliant sunrises and equally picturesque sunsets, it all had a very Hemingwayesque feel to it. The creative juices flowed, however, as the summer progressed into fall, I had some choices to make.
For an American traveling in much of Europe, we are covered by the Schengen Visa Treaty, which allows travel only on our passports for up to 90 days in a 180 period. This restriction meant that I had to leave Greece by the end of October. Though I knew the day was coming, I was growing quite fond of the sleepy little Island of Nisyros and the overall pace of life in the islands, so the thought of leaving them was not very exciting. Initially I had planned to sail southeast to the Marmaris coast of Turkey and stay in a marina there for three months. It seemed a viable solution since Turkey had identical visa requirements as Greece, with the only difference being an online visa that’s only $20 to purchase. Toward the end of September, a Turkish friend in Izmir, to the north and the opposite direction I’d planned on heading, contacted me and suggested that I bring my boat up there and he would help as much as he possibly could. Since I knew no one where I was heading on the southern coast, I felt that his invitation made sense, even though it would take me north for the winter and subject me to colder temperatures.
In preparation for the trip north, I coordinated the passage with a friend from Florida who would be checking an item off her bucket list by sailing in the Greek Islands with me for ten days in October. Additionally, I contacted a charter captain who had sailed the Aegean for fourteen years to help me with an island hopping itinerary for the trip to Izmir. The plan was brilliant. One leg would be solo, from Nisyros to Kos where I would meet my crew coming in on a ferry from Athens. After that, we would have ten days to sail to six more islands with my crew disembarking on Samos to fly back to Florida. Each island on the itinerary had details of where to stay, where to eat and how to get provisions along the way. My friend planning the transit for me knew that I was on a tight budget and would be doing much of the cooking on board rather than eating every meal on shore, so being able to get groceries and water along the way would be important. Once I was without crew, I would check out of Greece and sail to Turkey solo, taking four to five days to reach my friend’s boatyard near Izmir.
Two things happened that drastically changed my plans. First of all my charter captain friend asked me why I was going back to Turkey. She knew from experience that Turkey charges nearly five times as much to register a visiting boat than Greece does and, her being a Florida resident, she was concerned with how I would do living aboard in the winter. My first live aboard experience had been in Washington State, so I knew how to function on a boat in the cold. Fortunately, I also knew the solitude that it can bring and I wasn’t sure if that would be the best thing for my burgeoning writing career. The second event was a horrific bombing in Ankara, the capital of Turkey on October 10th, the day after I left Nisyros, which killed 109 people. This was the first time violence had reached a major city in Turkey and with the re-vote for president scheduled for the first week of November, it really threw a shadow of tension on the country. Within the itinerary that she had sent, my friend included the contact information for a marina with a dry-dock facility and suggested that if I hauled my sailboat out on Samos Island, I could then fly anywhere. I decided that would be the prudent choice and set the wheels in motion to visit a friend in Puerto Rico for the winter instead.
With the endgame in place, the trip to Samos went very well. On the island of Kos we rented a scooter and visited a brilliant winery, had a sack lunch in the ruins of Aphrodite’s sanctuary and ate some world class fish dishes. We also stocked up on groceries and water, while we waited out a two day storm from the south that brought winds too high to comfortably sail in.
When we had a favorable wind, we set sail for the mountainous island of Kalymnos which turned out to be the most incredible sail of the trip. The blue diamond skies and warm temperatures made it an experience that we will never forget. The quiet bay that we stayed in on the east side of the island had majestic peaks rising on both sides and honestly reminded me of a mountain lake in my home state of Idaho. There were a dozen or so mooring balls to choose from with the only charge being a delicious fresh fish dinner at the restaurant run by the nicest young Greek couple. The proprietor even came out to the boat that evening and gave us a ride up to the restaurant so we wouldn’t have to try to fit two of us on my kayak. In the morning, they hailed a cab for us so that we could go into the town of Emporios for a some sightseeing. Little did we know that there was a rock climbing festival that week and the town was teeming with spandex clad rock climbers from all over the world. Surprisingly there were a half a dozen rock climbing equipment shops in the small town as well.
Our next leg found us on the island of Leros where we opted to get a slip at the very nice Evros Marina in order to refill our water tanks, have hot showers on shore and get some fresh produce. By that time the scooter rentals were reduced to their post season prices, so a ten euro ride around the island was just too good to pass up. This afforded us the ability to see the restored medieval Castle of Panayia, from which we had a nearly 360° panoramic view of the island’s many harbors. Later that night we watched the sun set in a beautiful bay and had one of the best seafood dinners of the trip. In the morning, we took the scooter to Mama Vita’s Restaurant at Xirokampos Bay and had a tasty Greek breakfast followed by homemade Bloody Marys. The owner did not know how to make one, so she let my friend take over the bar to show her how to make them from scratch. Needless to say, that was the best Bloody Mary I have had to date. After turning in the scooter and checking out of the marina, we took a short sail to the next bay to tie off on a free mooring ball and see the copper sun set over the sea once again.
An early start the next day took us to the Island of Leipso and the harbor of Lipsi. Another iconic harbor town with white and blue painted fisherman’s boats, wonderful bakeries and of course too many restaurants to choose from. Since I needed to get some writing done, my crew member took a walking tour of the town finding a wonderful place for a meal by the end of the day and making friends with several locals. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the peace of the off season harbor and fresh pastries from the bakery while working where most people vacation.
The last island we would visit before sailing for Samos, was Marathos. It is a tiny spit of an island with a population of seven people and twenty-eight goats. The Piratas restaurant served us a fabulous goat dinner and let us tie off to the dock there for free. Thankfully my trip planner had suggested that we climb up behind the restaurant at dusk and witness one of the best sunsets in the entire Dodecanese Island group. A glass of Kos wine to toast another day filled with amazement was the perfect finale as the first bit of autumn crispness snuck into the air.
One last jump to Samos to finish the trip the next morning. Unfortunately the wind was on our nose, and as this was one of the longer legs of our island hopping, we had no opportunity to sail. The boat’s engine performed brilliantly as it had every step of the way and by late afternoon we were pulling into the Samos Marina near the port of Pythagoreio. The staff found us a berth quickly and made us feel at home. This time there were no scooters available since it was past the 15th of October and the companies only insure them for the six month tourist season, so we rented a car and took a whirlwind tour of the island. The next day, my friend decided that she would grab a ferry for the last couple of days of her vacation and see the islands of Patmos and Rhodos, which had not been on our itinerary.
Solo once again, I decided that the offer I received from the Samos Marina for six month’s moorage and haul out was more than fair and would save me another thirty mile sail to the other side of the island and the boat yard in Karlovasi. The marina yard crew was very professional which helped me to be comfortable leaving my boat, my home, in their hands for three months.
The wheels of the airplane shudder to a stop. Standing, I grab my pack from the overhead and make my way to the front of the craft, then down the steps leading to the tarmac. Once on the ground, I breath deeply the fresh Aegean air and glance around. A quick selfie with the Samos Airport sign on the top of the yellow terminal and then I begin the three mile walk to the marina. It feels like home. A new home full of adventure and promise.