If I learned one thing from working in the software industry, it was the value gained from methodical, systematic processes. It’s relatively easy to picture in your head how a web page or predictive algorithm might work, but when writing the code and then communicating across a team diverse by location and language, any matter of alchemy could arise. It was easier when I was younger, writing my own code. But still, unexpected results or functionality came up, and it was no fun when a customer discovered it first. Any good developer has to have a healthy amount of humility. Mistakes happen, it’s a reality of software development, and, after all the fancy visioning sessions are complete and fingers start hitting the keyboard, it’s crucial to hunt down the gremlins and fix them promptly. In larger organizations, a full-fledged testing team, divorced from the developers, is called in to look at the product – people with no emotional attachment or pride of ownership. Clearly we are all heavily dependent on software in our daily lives. And it can be frustrating when a bug arises or functionality is missing. But a reality check is necessary. These products can contain literally millions of lines of code, and so to, at least that many points of failure. What seems small and benign when we stow our smartphone in our pocket, is in fact a vast array of complex algorithms that would blow the mind of an IBM researcher just a few decades ago with a campus full of state of the art mainframe computers. It’s not sexy, but following a strict regiment of review and testing has provided us with some of the sexiest of software tools, and I don’t just mean Tinder!
And so it was that we started our first week onboard Sea Rose – our shakedown week – checking all of the systems and fixing any issues. The list of systems included Karen and I, as any sailor will tell you that if you’ve been away from it for awhile, it takes some work to get your head back into the game. Our strategy for the week was to not go too far from our comfort zone and from access to chandleries for spare parts. That meant the safety of the Greek Ionian islands, where we had spent the last six weeks of previous season island hopping with our good friend Theo. Once we were confident everything was working OK, we would make our first big crossing of the summer, to Sicily.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise me since Sea Rose spends her days either bathing in a salty sea or a hot dusty boatyard, but there’s always a list of things that break unexpectedly each spring, even though she is still a pretty a new boat. When we launch, I have a certain trepidation, knowing that some things are suddenly not going to work. I’m not sure what they will be and whether we have the capacity to fix them. Last year, on launch day, we discovered our propane cooking gas system was corroded shut, and our dinghy was leaking profusely. You can work all you want in a boatyard, but you need to get out on the water and really push the equipment to find out where the gremlins are.
Our first hop from Preveza was down to the Levkas Canal, the skinny waterway that separates Levkada Island from the mainland. We motored in moderate seas, and I was busy on the first task of testing out the water maker.
At the Levkas Canal, the floating car bridge that they swing out of the way at the top of every hour was freshly painted an ocean blue and looking new. This was our second time through the canal, and with no traffic coming northbound, our transit down the canal and past the town of Levkas was low stress and quite enjoyable. It felt great to be out on the water again. No surprises had cropped up, the weather was perfect for shorts and tee-shirts, and we exchanged waves of gratitude to passing boaters, each of us knowing this was a gift to be on the water given the continuing challenges of the pandemic.
The conditions were so favorable, Karen and I pushed on south to a the little island of Thilia, between Levkada and Meganisi. Thilia was a name so close to our last boat Thalia, it felt like we couldn’t pass it up. There was a small cutout on the eastern shore that reportedly could hold 1-2 boats. When we arrived, another boat, with a friending couple from Bulgaria, had scored the prime spot, but we managed to sneak in and run a stern line ashore using our new, bright yellow floating line. A lot of the charter boats here are equipped with large lengths of this yellow line and it makes sense. The line is going to be all around in the water while the boat is being backed to shore, so keeping it floating and out of the prop is critical. I had bought 80m of the line, a jump up from our prior 50m stern lines. For some things in life, you can never have enough. Often when I am swimming the line ashore and trying to scramble over sharp rocks to find a place to secure it while Karen is fighting a cross breeze or trying to avoid other boats, time slips by, the distance between us grows, and we wish we had more line. This year, we’ve minimized that worry.
A first swim of the season was in order after our long day from Preveza, you know, just to test out the snorkeling gear! There was a slight bite to the water, but once you were in for a few minutes, it felt as warm as ever. Snorkeling the shallows after a hot day on the boat was very much the rhythm of Med sailing, and it felt marvelous.
In addition to our new bimini, the sailmakers had made up a nice big awning to stretch over the boom. We set this up to cut the heat on the deck and thereby cool things down below. I had to pinch myself, as we sat in the cockpit – it felt so good to be back onboard. It is no wonder the Mediterranean environment is so healthy and life elongating. The warm, clean air, refreshing dips in the water, tasty fresh fruits and vegetables, a general low-stress culture. It’s going to be hard to leave it this year!
We hadn’t yet tried out the sails and the moment came as we continued south past Levkada to the island of Ithaki. We had already seen a lot of these islands, but there were a few anchorages still left for us to discover. One was a little uninhabited island called Ligia along the eastern shore with a shallow bar to the mainland. There must have been a bigger plan here at one time because the island had an old concrete pier jutting out from the shore and the remains of a stone foundation. Two boats had scored the available space on the pier, but we joined two small power boats tied stern-to the rocks. The water was flat, clear and tempting in the way a swimming pool calls out to bathers on a warm August day. The families on the boats next to us, with their children’s squeals of delight, could have easily been mistaken for cabana neighbors at a town pool back home. Our new awning was quickly getting its money’s worth as we chilled in the afternoon tranquility. Our week of testing was going smoothly, until it wasn’t. A puff of side breeze started to break the glassy surface of the cove. Soon, we were eyeing the awning as it pitched up and down, designed more for a head on wind from the bow rather than from a strong side breeze. Equally concerning, the half a boat length we had given ourselves to the rocky shore, wondering at the time if that might be too little buffer, was fast diminishing. The strong wind could easily push us on to the rocks in no time, and the awning was acting like a sail making the wind’s efforts even easier. We had to get out of here fast. We ditched both stern lines, throwing them overboard in the hope they could be retrieved later, as there was no time to release them from the shore. Karen motored us forward on the anchor and tried to keep Sea Rose safely away from the shallows as the wind buffeted the boat from side to side. I hopped in the dinghy to retrieve the stern lines, one of which was our prized new floating line. The shoreline was down wind from me and the dinghy and outboard kept being pushed onto the limestone rocks while I tried to release the line’s grip from the jagged edges. When we had tossed the floating line overboard, it went over with its new custom mesh anchor bag, which was not designed to float. I had scoured the internet to find one that was suitable and rugged enough for our needs. At $90, it was definitely overpriced, and I wasn’t keen about losing it on day three of our summer. I could see it sinking down in the water and after trying to reach it with my hand and nearly falling out of the dinghy in the choppy water, I grabbed a boat hook from Karen and came back to snare it from the bottom. With both stern lines recovered, we hastily raised anchor and with the dinghy in tow, drove to a more protected nearby cove for this new wind direction and strength. Several other boats arrived at about the same time, and we found comfort in our new home, as we looked back at the white caps continuing to blanket the old anchorage. It was a good test for us. It took too long to untie the awning. We backed down too close to shore. We hadn’t read the cruising guide closely, which clearly labelled the prevailing afternoon winds that build up in the cove. The remedy didn’t require a trip to a chandlery. It was a re-orienting of a few of our brain cells for better seamanship.
We rounded the southern tip of Ithaki and turned west to the island of Kefalonia. It’s an odd shaped island, defying any clear analogy with an animal species, as I am apted to do. But it does have a plethora of inlets and coves waiting to be discovered. We had seen quite a few last fall with Theo, but this time we headed to the village of Sami, for a little time on a town quay and the chance to stroll a waterfront like a bonafide Greek tourist. Kefalonia has had its run in with natural disasters – including being the epicenter of the 1953 earthquake that also severely damaged neighboring islands, and the epicenter of the Medicane last Fall. Boats were sunk up and down this eastern shore, including in the harbor of Sami. But as another shout-out to the pride and fortitude of the Greek people, these villages have risen from the ashes and announced themselves as ready for the summer tourist. Sadly, the visitor volume is still way down. As we eased Sea Rose into the inner town quay, only a few other visiting boats were tied up. More arrived later, which brought an entertaining display of med mooring by lightly experienced skippers. A big group of young adults backed in next to us, with doubts as to whether their anchor was holding them. We worked with them to get their boat secured and after, we enjoyed helping them with suggests on where to visit during their week onboard. They were a friendly gaggle of men and women, once again from Bulgaria, and they insisted we take a jar of their favored Bulgarian tomato sauce. I returned the kindness the next morning with a gift bag of two Boston Red Sox shirts while they were out touring the island.
I had wanted to come to a village like Sami partly to see how they had recovered from the Medicane, and also to spread a little love by spending some money ashore. The waterfront was an endless line of tavernas full of tables, chairs, umbrellas, wait staff, and hardly a customer. I wasn’t sure our contribution would move the needle, but when we paused to read the first posted menu, we were promptly approached by a young friendly Greek man with excellent English and a casual demeanor. It seems every Greek waiter and waitress has a relative in the United States, or in the case of tonight’s waiter, was born on Long Island. We made an immediate connection, learning that he had also studied and worked in Athens for a software firm. With the family restaurant in this little village gem on Kefalonia, he admitted that the concrete jungle of Athens, where the tech jobs existed, wasn’t for him. Karen and I are always sad to find someone who dropped out of a tech career. The options were limited on the island – a remote working culture for tech people is not that common – and perhaps the family matriarch had called the flock back to the homestead, with the hope of cheap labor to survive another summer of the pandemic. Either way, I hoped he would find his calling. Restaurant proprietors in Greece can do that to you. Pull you in to their personal life – sharing their joys, their sorrows, their desires – all in a gentle way. It’s an unassuming openness that I will greatly miss.
There were some hints in the forecast that we might have good weather to cross to Sicily in three days, so we made our way around the bottom of Kefalonia to the town of Argostoli, a more westerly spot than others, making the upcoming crossing slightly shorter. As we came into the channel between Kefalonia and Zakynthos, we entered a compression zone from the west wind and soon found ourselves tacking upwind in 20 knots, a good shakedown for all involved.
Argostoli is at the base of the Gulf of Argostoli, and rather than sit on a town quay for three days, we decided to first try the head of the bay, purported to be very protected, with tall cliffs and good holding. All told, it was a 68 nm journey from Sami, more than we typically plan for during a daytime leg, so the cooling dip off the stern felt all the more refreshing. The headwaters were expansive, easily accommodating 50 or more boats, but for the next two days, we were the only boat to call it home. We were also the only boat crew to visit the nearby ‘Three Umbrellas’ restaurant, highly recommended by past cruisers. The price of admission is a shallow dinghy ride and being prepared to walk ashore for the last couple of hundred feet. Indeed, we found the namesake three umbrellas, tongue-and-cheekly placed in shin-deep water with pairs of sunbeds to match!
In addition to our waiter, we met his brother in law, and most importantly, ‘Momma’ who made all the magic happen back in the kitchen. We shared a beautifully prepared sea bass, fresh grilled vegetables from their garden, lots of nibbely starters washed down with ample carafes of white wine, and a superb homemade lemon coconut cake. The taste of the cake is especially strong in my mind as I write this! The waiter sat us out on the very front of the patio, with an elevated view of the bay and also next to the road, with an eye I’m sure to help attract more patrons. Regretfully, we were the only table for the whole night. So sad. We made it our mission to tell everyone about our discovery, starting with our friends David and Allison. God save us if the pandemic closes this gift to humanity.
On the run back down the bay to Argostoli, we got the good news from the Italian government that fully vaccinated Americans were now allowed into Italy without the need for quarantine or a Covid test. We had planned to get a test at a local private clinic in Argostoli before we left, but saving the 2×125 euro fee would go over well with the Sea Rose accounting department. Our work was not complete yet, though. The last time we were in the dinghy, I found myself sponging more water out than should be normal. To my surprise, we once again were driving around with a sinking dinghy. Last year I had glued a long rubber patch on one side of the hull, where it joins with the rubber tube (see Boat Projects in Paradise). That stemmed the flood of water for the season. I suppose not surprising, but still annoying, this new leak was coming from the hull to rubber tube seam on the other side. Last year, we were in reach of a well stocked chandlery at Artemis Boatyard. There was no such store at Argostoli. However, I was able to scrounge up enough leftover two-part adhesive and pieces of hypalon from last year’s work to make the repair possible.
The town had done a beautiful job of renovating the waterfront with paths of black and white inlaid stone, and if they cared that I was taking up a small part of the walkway with my repair works, no one mentioned it. Maybe a few of the many people that stroll the water’s edge, longing for a chance to own a sailboat and cruise the world will come away with a bit more balanced view after they see crew like us doing repairs in otherwise charming locales!
We met up with our friends David and Allison from Living The Dream one more time before we parted ways. Their plans will take them eastward to the Aegean this summer, while we head in the opposite direction. However, if their ideas of cruising the Caribbean and possibly the American Great Loop pan out, we will likely cross paths again.
We put to work more (hopefully thoroughly tested) software to plan our departure timing to Sicily. I had a subscription to Predictwind, but had never really put it to full use. This 270nm crossing was the perfect opportunity. Karen and I hunched over the screen looking at various departure times, comparing the winds along the route based on multiple forecast models, trying to determine how best to get to Siracuse, Sicily with the least overnight burden and the best sailing conditions. We finally settled on a route based on an 0300 Friday departure, with a projected arrival in Siracuse of 1700 Saturday, allowing us to get by with only a day and a half of overnights. Long days on the water are not an issue to us. But minimizing the amount of time underway at night, with its reduced visibility and disruptive sleep schedule, is important to us.
After final hugs with David and Allison, Karen and I slipped lines from the town quay and headed out to anchor in the harbor. We didn’t want to risk a problem trying to leave the quay at 0300 with a bunch of boats on either side of us. An early morning departure off the anchor was going to be much easier.
Our great adventure of sailing in Greek waters was ending imminently. What had begun in July of 2019 when we arrived in Corfu from Croatia was now coming to a close. We will greatly miss the Greek way of life. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention that Karen and I had strong doubts about sailing away from Greece. It all started here for us, with our honeymoon back in 1992, and now after nearly two full seasons on Sea Rose, the land and its many islands had felt like second nature to us. We hope our long absence from Greece since our honeymoon won’t be repeated. Efcharisto Ellada!