Our daughter, with a bit of a smirk, said, “I’ll see you in a day or two” as she dropped us off at the airport. The problem was, we were packed to the gunwales with gear for a summer of sailing onboard Sea Rose, and we had no intention of coming back home in a few days. But this is the era of Covid-19 and most any effort to plan for the future seems futile.
Our original plan was to fly to Greece in early May, where Sea Rose was patiently waiting for us. But a lockdown throughout the EU made that plan impossible. We turned instead to more agrarian pursuits, giving our yard at home more attention than it has ever seen. With no clear end to the pandemic, we started making summer plans with friends. The weather was warm and dry in June, a rarity in New England, and our Plan B for the summer was looking tolerable, if not intriguing. However, at the beginning of June, Greece, a country that locked down early and was the envy of the rest of the EU for its low case count, suddenly announced it was going to open to EU tourists on June 15th, as well as non-EU tourists if they were willing to quarantine for 14 days. Even more appealing was their plan to open to all foreign tourists on July 1, without quarantine. A draft of a Plan C started to take shape in our household. Could we make this happen? Were we willing to fly in a plane in close quarters with others, risking the acquisition of a virus, and landing in a country where we had no healthcare coverage? Would we be OK staying in Greece for the summer, if other countries do not follow suit and open up? There was a lot to figure out, but on a whim, we booked flights for July 7th, thinking that giving the authorities a week to sort out the new rules would be prudent. Then, equally suddenly, the European Commission announced in late June that as of July 1 they would put forth a recommended policy for travel into the EU. This was a new wrinkle. Was the European Commission trying to one-up Greece, with its Harvard-educated prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis trying to find a way to resurrect the remaining tourist season? Karen and I made a visit to the Greek consulate in Boston, and came home more confused than when we started. There was some wording about exceptions for ‘transport’ workers, and more specifically, professional crew of yachts. We presented our US Coast Guard captain’s licenses, but we were told that we needed a Greek residence permit. When July 1st came, and the official EC policy was released, I read through all 17 pages of it. A very short list of non-EU countries, with appropriately low covid counts, were allowed to enter the EU. It was no surprise that the USA was not on the list, and the news that the EU was shutting out American tourists spread like wildfire through our national press. But buried in the fine print of the policy statement was an additional exception for ‘long-stay visa holders’, and coincidentally that included Karen and I. Mostly on a whim, we had applied to the French consulate back in March for a visa, knowing that it was possible we would need to stay in the EU longer that the 90 days granted automatically to visiting Americans. We had obtained a long-stay visa two years ago, and were familiar with the process. Now, it seemed like this could be our ticket to ride. Still, the Greek consulate would not confirm whether or not we could enter, instead referring me to the Athens airport passport control office. Our flights would take us to the little island of Kos, not Athens, but regardless, the Athens passport control website clearly stated, in their list of exceptions, that holders of a long-stay visa from an EU member state would be permitted to enter. Even the little airport at Kos had a passport control website, stating the exact same exception. But there was the little problem of the US Embassy in Greece that only listed ‘permanent residents’, not long stay visa holders, as valid exceptions, linking to the Greek consulate in Washington DC with the same wording on a one page document. How did they define ‘permanent resident’? Was this their abbreviated version of the 17 page EC policy, or should I read their wording literally and completely? It was all very unclear.
At the airport checkin counter in Boston, doubt started to fill my thoughts. Had we just wasted money on a transatlantic flight, and the labor of lugging six heavy bags of boat gear? We’d find out in 16 hours when we landed in Greece. Swissair had given us the green light a few days ago when I called them, so I was caught off guard when the airline checkin agent started drilling us with questions. As our neighboring travelers casually presented their resident permits, or EU passports, I started to explain that we had a French long-stay visa, but the agent was not satisfied. He disappeared for a few minutes to talk to his supervisor. On his return, his body language was enough to tell me we might not even get out of Boston. He asked if we had permission from the Greek consulate. Like a trial lawyer, though, I had prepared for this moment, with my hefty folder of paperwork, stacked in the order I wanted to present our arguments in order to build our case. I showed him my email exchange with the consulate, which referred us to the Athens passport control, and a printout of their exception for long-stay visa holders, and in addition a similar exception from the Kos passport control. Finally, I showed him a printout from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which the airlines use for the latest country-specific travel restrictions, showing Greece’s exception for visa holders. He took this fistful of documents and headed back to his supervisor. With a bit more skip in his step on his return, he gave us the good news that we were OK to fly, adding that it was good we had all of that paperwork. Yeah, here we go!
The international terminal was a ghost town, with the Swissair/Lufthansa airline counter being the only one open, and we were on their only flight out of Boston, scheduled just three times per week. Let’s just say that getting through security was a non-event. But it was an event getting used to wearing a mask for the next two hours at the gate. Up until this point, I had worn a mask only for short occasions inside a store. We had been given N95 masks by a doctor friend of ours, which definitely offered better protection than our homemade cloth ones, but I was beginning to have more respect for our medical professionals who had to wear these things all day long. How on earth was I going to last for 16 hours in flight if the wait at the gate was already bothersome. Only time would tell. And, hey, we were flying to Greece to go sailing, so it was time to adjust my attitude.
Before we knew it, they were calling people to board. We were both curious how full the flight was going to be, partly to know how hard the airlines were struggling, and partly to know how much they would try to protect social distancing norms. Every other seat had been blocked when I had reserved our seats online earlier in the week, but to our surprise, nearly every seat was being occupied. I hastily asked a guy that was going to sit down next to me if he would mind switching his aisle seat with Karen, so at least the two of us would be together. The thought of being on a transatlantic flight shoulder to shoulder with someone I didn’t know was too much of a social distance rule breaker for me. Karen and I were in agreement that our biggest fear was catching covid-19 on the flight and arriving in a foreign land with limited health care.
The first leg from Boston to Frankfurt went fairly smoothly. After deboarding, we were directed to the line for non-EU passport control. It’s always confusing to me when you fly through Europe where and when you go through immigration. Here, even though we were just transferring through Germany, it seemed like we would be going through immigration. Again, lines were non-existent, so I couldn’t count on an agent trying to rush people through. The agent examined our passports and asked if we had a resident card. Meanwhile, an adjacent traveller destined also for Greece produced a flimsy laminated greek ID card, which gave the agents a reason to chuckle, as if this was only the beginning of their complaints about the Greek government, and in turn, their people. I had nothing by which to amuse the agent, but I did draw his attention to our French long-stay visas, to which he asked if we resided in the USA or the EU. Karen was not going to risk seeing me stall on this question, and jumped in immediately to say that we lived aboard our sailboat, which was presently in Greece, but destined for France. He took a moment to concur with his colleague, or perhaps, because my high school German was very rusty, he could have been asking what his friend had for breakfast – it was hard to tell. But, regardless, he stamped our passports and we exited from the military gray surroundings of immigration into a brightly colored high-end retail complex. I turned to Karen and said “Did we just get admitted to the EU?” I had read the Germany travel restrictions closely before we left, and learned that we definitely didn’t want to leave the passenger transfer area for risk of not being allowed back in to fly, but here we were. Such is the confusion of international travel.
Our second leg was a snooze-and-you-might-miss-it short hop to Zurich, to that enviable country of Switzerland that is non-EU but treated like best-friend status. Here, we would wait for six hours for our flight to Kos, Greece. With this long of a layover, we had plenty of time to develop more mask fatigue, and in the process observe the flagrant disregard for mask wearing by the majority of Zurich travelers. In Frankfurt, everyone was wearing a mask. Here, it appeared from the signs and PA announcements that it was a recommended but not mandatory action, and quickly we had become the minority.
As the time of our departure approached, a little kiosk was rolled into the center of the gate waiting area, and people started queuing up in front of it. It wasn’t exactly clear from the gate agent’s announcement, but it appeared that everyone needed to wait in this impromptu kiosk line. As we got closer to the front of the line, I could see people were handing over passports and residence cards. Apparently, this was Greek immigration, occurring oddly enough in Zurich. The line was moving fast, with the agent checking people’s documents and promptly stamping their boarding pass. A second agent joined the first guy as the line grew behind us. When it was our turn, I handed our passports and boarding passes to the agent. He looked back at me with a bit of consternation. “You are USA citizens?” “Yes”, I replied back. “Are you a resident of Greece?” “No” I replied. He had this look that said, “Hey, who do you think you are and why are you wasting my time? Don’t you know Americans are banned from travel to the EU?” But I had my dry-run of this process back in Boston. After showing him our French visas, and seeing him not satisfied, I started again with my stack of paperwork – the email from the Greek consulate, the Athens and Kos passport control websites, and whatever else I could quickly flash in front of him. This was the real proving ground. Karen and I were both dressed in our new ‘Sea Rose’ shirts to make us look like more of an official ship’s crew. I had our captain’s licenses and ship’s papers all ready to hand over too. The agent said he would have to check with a supervisor. He turned to his adjacent colleague, busy processing other passengers, and said he would be stepping away for a minute. His colleague would have nothing of it, saying he couldn’t stay much longer himself, and that would leave no one at the kiosk. They both needed to process the line of passengers in time for the flight’s departure. Our agent sighed, stamped our boarding pass, and motioned for the next passenger. Karen and I looked at each other with a smirk. Were we just cleared into Greece?! Kos was a tiny airport so it was entirely possible that their immigration checks were handled at the origin airports. We hastily settled into our seats on this small plane operated by Lufthansa’s secondary carrier Edelweiss. Kos was just 2 1/2 hours away. As for at the mood, it was the equivalent of a flight to Las Vegas. Like us, other travelers were giddy about their upcoming holiday in the sunny Mediterranean. We were surrounded by Germans and other northern Europeans, plus a few Greeks, but definitely no other Americans.
Soon islands started to appear out the window and we made our final approach into the familiar arid landscape of the Aegean islands. Kos has only a single small airport terminal building. As we deplaned and walked across the tarmac, we were ready with our Greek ‘passenger locator’ forms, an anachronism that all visitors to Greece were required to submit before their departure and which included a QR code for officials to scan upon arrival. Supposedly, this code would determine if we needed to be sent to the covid-19 testing line. We fully expected to be tested, given the current situation with rebounding case counts back home. We had even tried to get tested before our departure, but no lab near us could promise us a turn-around time faster than 5 days. We knew that showing the Greek authorities a week old negative test result would hold little water.
As the officials in Kos examined our locator form, we were directed into the testing line. No scanning was taking place, but they appeared to be looking at a specific line on the form – perhaps our country of origin. Very few passengers were allowed to skip the testing line. I would estimate less than 5%, for what I assume were local Kos residents returning home.
To their credit, the testing process was very efficient and respectfully done. Upon showing our locator forms, a long tube with a swab inside and our name written on the outside was handed to us. We then proceeded to a cordoned off area where a nurse took the swab and swiped the inside of our cheek, put it back in the tube, and directed us to the exit. I was incredibly relieved that we avoided the dreaded and more common up-the-nose-and-into-brain-matter swab test. We were required to self-isolate at our designated destination in Greece for 24 hours or until we were notified by Greek authorities. We hustled along to baggage claim where I half-expected at least some of our six heavy bags to not show up, or to have split open with random boat parts scattered everywhere. But, alas, just before the conveyor belt shut down, all of our bags showed up.
With both of us wielding full baggage carts, we followed signs for the ‘Nothing to Declare’ customs line, where there was coincidentally ‘No One Present to Check You Through’, and suddenly, we were out the door of the airport and into the taxi line. Pinch me, this isn’t happening! Hooray! We had made it to Greece! One less paper printout, or a slightly more restrictive agent, and we could have been skunked of our summer of sailing, and our daughter would have been back at the Boston airport to pick us up with her own smirk. But, no, we had been given the opportunity once again to re-unite with Sea Rose and sail the azure waters of the Mediterranean, and we weren’t going to waste this opportunity.
Our itinerary required an overnight at Kos before taking a ferry north to the island of Leros the next day. Kos was familiar to us, based on our visit with our friends Connor and Andree back in October. To celebrate our good fortune, Karen and I quickly dropped our bags at the hotel and went on a hunt for dinner. I had forgotten how warm and dry the climate is in the Med. Thankfully, we arrived at dusk and avoided the peak heat of the day. Kos had just opened up to flights the week before, so we were feeling a bit like an expeditionary force. Some restaurants were still closed, others were open with a single table of people – likely the staff waiting for patrons. But we did find one lively joint bustling with European travelers and a few locals. We had brought our masks, but I was curious how many others would be wearing them, seeing that all of the restaurants, by the very nature of being in a hot climate, were setup for outside dining. Our server wore a mask, but none of the patrons did. Admittedly, it is hard to have a meal with a mask on!
The next morning, we dragged our crazy heavy luggage out to the ferry dock and boarded a fast cat for the 90 minute run up to Leros, passing the mountainous island of Kalimnos on the way, another favorite that we sailed to with Connor and Andree.
If there was any doubt whether the prevailing summer Meltemi winds were on covid lockdown or not, it was made painfully clear on the ferry ride. White caps could be seen in all directions, and the captain, not wanting to lose any time on the schedule, powered full throttle through the large swells, sending us rolling from side to side, enough to force you to grab the armrests and hand rails to stay in your seat! I had to rely on the fact that with the long legacy of Greek shipping, this captain was competent enough to handle these seas.
Soon enough we were approaching the ferry dock at Leros. The circuitous last two days of travel were nearing their end. After huffing our luggage – one 50 lb bag on each of our backs, and two overweight rolly bags each, plus our backpacks with computer gear – off the ferry, we were mercifully greeted by our rental car agent. Surprisedly, we were able to fit all of our gear in a car smaller than a Mini, and rapidly found the A/C controls for our 20 minute drive to the boatyard. Did I say it was hot? Would we be able to handle the heat of the Med this summer? It had seemed easier the last two sailing seasons, when we arrived in May and slowly could acclimate to the upcoming heat of July and August.
At last, we were rolling into the boatyard and got to lay eyes on Sea Rose for the first time in 9 months. I felt a curious hybrid of joy and angst for reaching this point, after all of the work over the winter, and the on again/off again nature of our flight plans. But we were here and it was time to get to work for the launch date approaching quickly in four days.
I had been curious before we arrived at how many boats would still be on the hard in the yard, and whether we would run into many other boaters getting ready to launch. The yard looked full to the brim, even more crowded than when we left last Fall. So clearly most boat owners could either not get to their boat, or had already decided to blow off the season. Just a few other people could be seen working on their boats for launching. The yard manager, Georgios, acknowledged that a full yard meant more storage revenue, but a big chunk of their total revenue comes from working on boats, and they were looking at missing out on a season of that revenue. In addition, people like us were showing up wanting to get their boat in the water pronto, but their boat could be positioned behind several other boats, based on the original launch schedule, causing the yard more labor hours to move boats out of the way.
Few people, it seemed, experienced any upside of this pandemic. We were all holding our wishes in common, for a vaccine to carry us back to a world of normalcy.
Karen and I spent four full days on the hard getting Sea Rose ready, sweating in the unrelenting heat (could we please have a big cloud come by?!), drinking gallons of water each day, and arriving back at our AirBnB exhausted each night, just in time to grab a quick bite and beverage at a nearby taverna. Here on Leros, where there had yet to be any Covid cases, the taverna scene was more relaxed. The wait staff would have a mask quick at the ready to put on as you approached, but typically insisted that you don’t need to wear one. All of the dining here is outside, and we would usually take off our masks once we were done ordering. Most tavernas had a small table setup as you walked in with hand sanitizer and extra masks. The staff were friendly, as most are at any season in the Greek islands, but a few admitted that they were worried, with the influx of tourists, whether their little virus free Shangri-la was going to crumble. And who could blame them. The Greek government had the foresight to lockdown the country early, and for these islands that meant no one leaving or coming, resulting in an incredibly low case count. But how do you find a happy medium with the need to restart the tourism trade, one that so many Greeks rely on particularly in these seasonal islands. We vowed to wear masks whenever it seemed at all helpful, take sanitizer whenever it was offered, and to frequent restaurants and shops as much as we could. OK, so the need to dine out was not a hard one to swallow, but hey, we were doing our part!
The work in the yard was a dizzying array of jobs – all of which seemed to take longer than I had planned in my task list when we were back home in our air conditioned house without jet lag. But we managed through the most critical. The most stressful was the running of two new halyards down the mast. We had hired Georgios, and his crane operator, to do the work, as I had tried unsuccessfully myself last summer. The new line would always hit something halfway down and stop. Georgios had a trick up his sleeve, that kind of ingenuity you might find on a midwestern farm. He would take a short bicycle chain on a thin line and lower it down from the top of the mast. The chain would naturally find its way past obstacles inside the mast and into the passage ways designed to run the halyards. This all sounded perfect, and so up Georgios went on the crane’s hook to the top of our mast. Armed with a chain whose rust indicated it hadn’t been used in a while, he lowered it down tied to a fishing line. All went well until it got caught on something and wouldn’t go down any further. Oh, and by the way, it wouldn’t go up either. We had a rusty chain and fishing line stuck inside our mast. After a lot of attempts, he called it a day and vowed to return tomorrow to try again. I pictured having to go through the laborious task of unstepping the mast and laying it down on the ground in order to free the chain. We certainly couldn’t take off for a summer of sailing with a rusty chain somewhere inside a mast next to critical halyards being used daily for trimming sails.
The following day, the yard had several boats that needed to be launched and therefore a higher priority for Georgios’ attention. Finally, in the afternoon, he arrived and we discussed options. He had already removed an intermediate halyard block halfway up the mast to see if he could find the chain. Another option was to remove one of the spreaders – the horizontal arms extended out horizontally from the mast – to get access inside the mast. This would require the use of a few other halyards to secure the mast from tipping over while the spreader and its rigging were out of commission. This option had made me very apprehensive. Removing major hardware on the mast for a two year old boat spelled high risk to me. If the re-installation did not go smoothly, the rig could fail and we could lose the mast.
After a few more attempts to pull harder on the fishing line, it snapped, leaving a small amount trailing in the wind at the top of the mast. Up Georgios went again on the crane hook, and to the surprise of all of us, he pulled this little tail and up came the chain! Phew! Not to be dissuaded, the crew retreated to find a newer, freshly oiled up length of bike chain and came back with new vigor. Georgios, at the top of the mast again, lowered this setup down once again and with the deft hand of a puppeteer, coaxed it gently to the point were it appeared at the base of mast, and his crane operator/fisherman-with-thin-wire, was able to snare the chain and pull it out of the halyard exit. Magic! Attaching the new halyard to this fishing line, it was pulled back up inside the mast and down the outside by Georgios, and we had a new halyard! All of this was necessary due to the fact we had to cut our Code 0 halyard last summer when it got fouled on the rigging during a freak overnight storm in Croatia, leaving us with no way to hoist the Code 0 sail.
With their new talents on display, I had the crew run a second halyard which would become our backup spinnaker halyard. This went equally smoothly. We now had a whole rainbow of colorful lines coming down and out the mast!
Thankfully our other tasks did not carry this much drama, but were still critical to getting Sea Rose ready for the sea. They included assembling the bimini and dodger, and the seven solar panels that zippered on to them. Installing the chart plotters and wiring, bottom painting, several upgrades to the watermaker, getting our ship’s papers from the customs and port police office, and a lot of effort to stow gear and provisions from multiple grocery stores. When we left the boat in the fall, we made sure to remove anything food related that might attract animals or bugs. A rack of spices was pretty much the only thing that didn’t get tossed or donated. That left us with a lot of basic ingredients to replenish.
Our launch day, Monday, July 13th, was upon us before we knew it. The yard had scheduled us for mid-afternoon, but by noon the trailer was being positioned under our hull and we were asked to step off the boat. The moment was here! Most yards use a large cube shaped crane called a travel lift that carries your boat by slings and lowers you into the water. But Artemis relied on a trailer that was designed to be rolled down a ramp. I had been a little concerned about this approach, but soon learned that it was as safe as a travel lift. It also gave the yard the opportunity to haul out extra wide cruising catamarans, for which Artemis had developed a bit of niche. They were extremely gentle with Sea Rose and for this we were very grateful.
In the blink of an eye, Sea Rose was bobbing in the water at the ramp, and we went through our engine and leak checks. The wind was blowing a steady 20 knots directly into the ramp, and the approach to the ramp is narrow with shallows on both sides, so it took some careful maneuvering for Karen to back us out from the ramp and into the wind and waves. Our freshly washed cockpit was rapidly getting doused with salt water as the flat stern slammed against the oncoming waves.
The boatyard provides a few moorings for its customers adjacent to the ramp, but Georgios had recommended a much more protected anchorage just a mile away named Archangelos. What a brilliant idea that was! We gently motored to this small harbor, anchoring amongst a handful of other boats. It didn’t take long for us to get a whiff of the taverna on shore, and make plans to celebrate the good fortune of our launch by having dinner. We hopped into the dinghy and as I started revving up the outboard, I was alarmed to see water flowing into the dinghy at my feet. When I slowed down, the water leak slowed to a stream, and when I revved up again, it came gushing in. Another surprise, more drama. We kept the outboard at idle speed and continued into the taverna dock. Fixing a leaking dinghy was now on the top of the task list. The next morning, I took the dinghy ashore and flipped it upside down on the beach. The issue was clearly evident. Several sections of the rubber tube material had come unglued from the aluminum hull. I had fixed a small leak in this area two years ago, but this would take more time, and materials that I would need to source from the yard’s chandlery.
We were back on the boatyard’s mooring to pickup some additional supplies, and return our rental car, and I was lucky enough to find the right glue needed to repair the adhere to the Hypalon dinghy fabric. The chandlery surprisingly also had bulk rolls of repair material as well. I bought twice what I needed, just in case other leaks developed later.
All the while, Karen tried boiling water on the galley stove, only to find out the burner would not light. I knew we still had propane in the tank, but try as I might, I couldn’t figure out why gas was not making it to the stove. Something had become blocked or broken in the line. Not wanting to take any risk of gas leaking into the boat – a real no-no if you read stories about boat accidents – I shutoff the system and radioed to Georgios. He was quite sympathetic to our plight. I couldn’t picture sailing the rest of the summer and only having the BBQ to cook meals on. He said he had a ‘gas guy’ that he would call to the marina in the morning. I was beginning to learn that the yard had a few staff members that operated equipment and did engine work, but they relied a lot on other people on the island for much of the balance of expertise. I actually liked this business model. For all I know, these other business owners could be cousins, aunts, and uncles of the boatyard staff – the island was small enough.
The winds continued to blow and make the yard mooring uncomfortably rolly, so we headed back to Archangelos for a second night. I had told myself before we left the U.S. to expect the unexpected. A boat does much better in the water being used every day. With Sea Rose on the hard for the last nine months, some things that worked fine last summer were bound to fail as we got underway this season. I just didn’t expect key things like the dinghy that we use everyday to get to shore, and the galley stove we cook on near daily as well to stop working. Where was that yoga class – I needed a fresh dose!
In the morning, the ‘gas guy’ showed up and took our tanks away, returning in the afternoon and with a little translation help from Georgios, told us the regulator valve was blocked. As a workaround, he brought two additional tanks, with a hose adapter to fit the boat side of our system. There’s a long list of things I love about living in Europe, but I sure do miss the simplicity and standardization of propane tanks in the U.S. You take your ubiquitous off-white 20lb tank to any number of gas stations, hardware stores, or camp grounds, and you can get it filled or swapped out with an identical tank – no sweat. Here, it seems each country has their own system and style of fittings. And if you find a tank that will fit, you have to then determine whether your stove needs butane, propane or a mixture of each sold under the brand name CampingGaz.
We were lucky that the ‘gas guy’ had filled our new tanks with propane, and back on the boat, I wrenched one into our tank locker, gave the all clear to Karen down in the galley, and, magically, we had a hot blue flame! With copious amounts of thanks sent back to Georgios, we dropped our mooring lines and got underway. It was time to wave goodbye to Artemis, and to Archangelos, and start our sailing for real! We pointed the bow northeast to a small island named Agathonisi that had an appealing write-up in the cruising guide. We were on our way. Two months late, but feeling darn lucky to be onboard. Watch out, charming little Greek islands, here we come!