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.
When our kids were younger, and as our family pulled out of the depths of winter, I couldn’t wait to get back on the water and start sailing again. To feel the warm air on one’s face and hear the gurgling of water down the hull as you slipped by under gentle afternoon sail was magical. Launching the boat in New England was a tricky affair of timing. Too early and you’d need to bundle up like the Michelin man to fight off the cold, too late and you risk missing out on a few gems of unannounced warm weather. But once we had the boat in the water, it was all about finding time to fit our sailing in between the kids commitments and other obligations. If we sailed every other weekend, I was satiated. On the other hand, if we skipped more than one weekend, I would notice an uneasiness come over me, an increased frustration with normally trivial life events and a general lack of groundedness. Sailing, and water in general, has always been an elixir for me. It gives me peace and comfort, like the fit of a favorite shoe or the melody of an acoustic guitar. I feel drawn to the water by some extraordinary otherworldly force. Knowing its healing power to my psyche, I don’t resist its powerful draw.
So it is not lost on me how fortunate I am to have a partner that enjoys sailing too, along with a gaggle of friends that seem to want to climb onboard at a moments notice. And after a long stretch of pandemic woes, there was a lot of psyche to be healed this Spring.
Karen and I boarded our flights from Boston on British Airways, making sure to follow all of the travel restrictions to the tee. Last year, we had slipped into Greece under a loop-hole, using our French visas as a means to blend in with the rest of the EU citizenry, before Greece closed that option a few weeks later. This time, we made sure to be 14 days past our last vaccine shot, and we visited the local clinic for a fast turnaround of PCR tests the day before we departed. I had tested the travel restriction waters a month prior, flying into Athens as soon as Greece opened to Americans to knock off a long list of spring commissioning projects; I was nearly alone in a quiet boatyard calling out for more owners to visit. But this time, with Karen and all of our gear in tow, we felt like the odds were in our favor, and excitement was in the air.
We start out each sailing season without an idea of where we will end. To a couple of people in technology management, where our lives revolved around project plans and status reports, this gap in definity might be surprising. I know it is odd, in a world where we can typically have so much precise control, to miss the opportunity to solidify a start at point A and a finish at point B. But it is one of the things that I love about sailing. With advanced GPS technology telling us inside of a few meters where we are on the globe, and down to the minute when we will reach our next waypoint, it’s still impractical, not to mention undesirable, to lock yourself into a destination. There’s the weather, and although we are able to forecast it with greater accuracy, it still defies our control. There’s our own health and the health of our craft. A modern sea-going vessel is a microcosm of a locomotive, with thousands of points of mechanical failure, any of which can cause an emergency diversion. And finally, there’s change in sentiment, the most important factor in my mind. If, on the way to point B, you discover an indigenous population at Point C worthy of a National Geographic exposé, it’s important to have the flexibility for change. Our point A this season was Leros, one of the most eastern points of Greece, and our point B was maybe going to be Portugal. Then the pandemic hit, we were fortunate enough to even make it to the boat, and early on we decided to stay in Greece to discover more deeply the character and history of this diverse country. We knew of Preveza, and its home base status for the Ionian Sea, but we put off the decision to lock in our haul-out point until the last possible moment. It was like my first grown-up trip to Europe, with my high school degree and a Eurail pass in hand. I knew I would be flying into Amsterdam, but that was about it. It was an eye-opening six weeks of adventure, made all the more memorable by the lack of a concrete schedule.
As we steered Sea Rose back to Preveza from the interior Gulf of Ambracian, the preparation for shut down was already underway. We were dropping and folding sails, deflating paddleboards and thinking through the actual haul out. We had booked a few nights at Cleopatra Marina, one of the neighbors of Aktio Marina. Theo was not hauling out for another couple of weeks, but he anchored nearby in Preveza, so we could at least enjoy the town of Preveza with another playmate.
The evening was growing dark quickly, a deja vu of the darkened skies before we left Antipaxos. Checking the forecast, another storm was indeed headed our way, likely arriving sometime in the early morning hours. We, along with many other boats in the marina, started preparing with additional dock lines. Marina staff tried to button up boats with no owners onboard, including the powerboat next to us. This is always a dicey affair. Obviously the marina doesn’t want boats to get damaged, but they are not going to take the level of care that a boat owner would take with extra lines and fenders. The fact that the owner was not onboard when a significant storm was approaching was also alarming.
We headed into Preveza for a last supper with Pedro, which gave us a chance to meet up with Theo as well. Preveza has a long waterfront with lots of space for charter and private boats to med moor, attracting lots of gawkers from ashore, and boaters that like to be gawked at. There’s plenty of drinking and eating establishments along this prime waterfront area, but we let our feet wander off the main drag and, to our delight, found an alley stuffed full of tables, chairs, rushing wait staff, and the din of many dozens of people’s dinner conversations. It was perfect. Theo took care as he always does with the PR, confusing wait staff yet again with his fluent Greek with an out-of-place accent. We dined on fresh fish, souvlaki, and enough appetizers to crowd out any spare space on the table.
A content stomach made it easy to fall asleep that night, which was a good thing as the morning came early, with lightning nearby, sending momentary daylight images of our surroundings.
I find it really hard, when you are woken up with a dark sky all around, to get your bearings and understand what you are dealing with. We knew a storm was coming, but it was hard to discern whether it was headed for us, or passing in the distance. I stood up on deck for awhile and it became apparent it was blowing in from offshore, coming right down the Preveza entrance channel for us. There was a row of floating docks that circled the perimeter of the marina, but no sea wall or breakwater to stop the wind, waves and surge from rolling right into all of us inside. As the rain started, I went down below for cover. I really don’t like to be in a marina during a storm. There are too many other boats around and all it takes is one to break loose or lose a fender, and you’ve got problems. Besides, boats handle high winds much better on anchor. There’s typically much more spacing, the bow naturally swings into the wind, and you can trust your own anchor and gear. But here, we were tied with our stern to the dock, with the stern facing into the approaching wind. This orientation has its pluses and minuses. The wind is blowing you off of the dock, so if there is any issue with lines parting, you have some time as you blow away from the dock and before you hit objects downwind of you. However, with the wind blowing into the cockpit, it exposes all of the design flaws of a reverse wind. The dodger does a beautiful job of shedding wind and rain away when it’s coming down from the bow, but from the stern, everything gets soaked in the cockpit, and water will eventually make its way through the companionway slats and into the cabin. In addition, our bimini is setup to take the brunt of force from the bow. I had previously added struts to hold the frame rigidly in position. But with a stern wind, the whole structure lacks the same rigidity. It gets jostled around, shakes and vibrates like it’s going to come disconnected and fly off into the heavens.
Down in the cabin, I watched the anemometer as it increased to the mid 30’s, then 40 and finally peaking at just over 50. I really wanted to be Theo, in his anchorage off the Preveza waterfront, happily swinging with the bow into the wind. As the wind dropped, and it passed through about 17 knots of strength, the jib furler, now being more flexy without the jib sail wrapped around it, started pumping violently. Apparently the wind was at the same frequency as the natural resonance frequency of the furler, conjuring up images in my mind of the Tacoma Bridge collapse from 1940. I took a spare line, looped it around the furler and tied it taut back to the mast. This seemed to ease the pumping. By daybreak, it was time to say our goodbyes to Pedro as he hustled aboard a taxi for the airport. If it wasn’t for my trembling hand, it might have been a relatively normal parting of friends!
After a day of catchup and climbing masts, we were in the haulout slip on Monday morning, enjoying the lack of breeze as I stared around at all of the decorative flags flying from each marina, most of them ripped away, down to a sliver of leftover cloth running along the edge of the flagpole. To this California kid, who grew up playing along the passive Pacific shores, this temperamental Mediterranean was a whole other affair!
With the able crew of Aktio Marina settling our boat down for her long winter snooze, we could rest assured that another fine sailing season was in the bag. If all goes well for our next summer season, we will re-ignite our plans to sail out of the Med and prepare for future seasons in Northern Europe. So it will be with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to Greece. How one country and it’s citizens can so deeply touch your soul and tickle your senses, I’ll never know. Efcharistó!
NOTE: This wraps up our blog posts from the summer of 2020. We are planning another season in the Med and hope to be onboard soon. However, it will likely be awhile before we have free time to get back into posting blogs. Karen and I thank you for your interest in our adventure, and all of your support. If you haven’t already, be sure to also subscribe to our YouTube channel LifeFourPointZero. Fair winds!
You’ve probably heard it before. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” This statement was credited to the explorer Sir Ralph Fiennes. Generalized, it’s the philosophy that if you get into trouble, it’s your own fault for not taking the time to prepare. For new sailors, hikers, campers and the like, it’s something you often learn the hard way and have to begrudgingly accept down the road as valid. Of course, one can’t deny the chance factor – seemingly random, unfortunate events that wreak havoc. But with hindsight, often many of these could be avoided, or at a minimum, prepared for through scenario planning. I’ve written before about how Karen and I will try to think through various bad events, of which there is plenty of material to draw from on a cruising sailboat, and consider how we would best respond. We’ll often look back at a bad event and puzzle out how we could have been more prepared. It’s not exactly like a Mykonos discotheque conversation, but thinking through the worst, and preparing for it, makes the other 99% of the time more relaxing and enjoyable. We are by no means perfect at scenario planning, but we try to remind ourselves to do it on a regular basis.
In the shoulder seasons of the Med – September and October, and to a lesser extent March and April – the normally tranquil waters turn suddenly furious with rage on enough frequency to warrant your close attention. Coincidentally, September and October is a popular time for our friends to come visit, after the summer fun is winding down in the more northern latitudes of where they live. So, we often have the added challenge of showing our friends a good time while keeping all of us and Sea Rose safe. Pedro was our only guest this summer, and we had already dealt with the ferocity of the medicane just before his arrival. Clearly troubled atmospheric tempers were brewing. As we enjoyed our last evening in beautifully, peaceful isolation at Antipaxos, we debated the best strategy for a forecasted storm building to the west, estimated to arrive in the morning. Our anchorage was a gem for swimming and snorkeling and flying drones, but it was no place to be during a blow. We also had to eventually get Pedro back to Preveza, on the mainland, for his flight home. The earlier we raised anchor in the morning, the better our odds of avoiding the worst of it.
In the morning, cobalt clouds overlaid the sky from horizon to horizon and an edgy surge of agitated water was finding its way into our anchorage. The halcyon days of summer were fading quickly from memory. Anchors were freed from their watery home and both Paloma and Sea Rose headed off under engine power for the entrance to Preveza, 30 miles distant. The wind direction was not ideal – nearly on our bow – and due to its building strength, was giving us a challenge to motor up one crest and down the backside. In these shallower coastal waters, the period of the waves can be short, which means more crests to climb each minute, killing our boat speed through the water. I hate motoring in a sailboat as much as a power boater probably hates sailing. We decided to bear off course slightly so that we could raise and reef sails, and together with the assistance of the engine, could essentially tack up wind against the big waves. It’s a cheat for sure. Any racer would scuff at such an act, but then again, we have cold beer in the fridge and tasty food regularly coming out of the barbecue — scarce things on most racing boats!
Soon, we saw a dark squall line approaching from the East. Paloma, with her bigger engine and longer waterline, was ahead of us and getting hit first, healing way over. Trails of sea spray were racing downwind in sinewy white lines across the water. Then we saw and heard lighting. The wind always peaks our interest, but as soon as Zeus starts getting in on the act, nothing else matters for us. Lightning bolts were striking all around, and the anemometer went from 15, 20, 25 to 30 in rapid succession.
I turned Sea Rose into the wind to ease the impact, and to reduce the pressure on the paddle boards on the foredeck. The paddleboards were for sure a liability up on deck, something we had not fully thought through in our preparations. They should have been deflated and stowed. The wind briefly peaked at 42 knots. It eased slightly and I turned back closer to our original course. Paloma disappeared from view with the heavy rain and sea spray. Another two squall lines came through with the same high winds, heavy rain and lightning. If it wasn’t so stressful, I’d have time to chuckle at how dry the summer had been overall. We sailed from the very eastern part of Greece, for 2 1/2 months, without a drop of rain until we arrived in the Ionian. And now it was like mother nature was making up for lost time.
The cloud ceiling started to rise and the rain diminished to a steady drizzle. We didn’t take any chances and pushed the engine to get us to the Preveza entrance channel as quick as possible. Preveza exists as a home base or sorts for boating in the northern Ionian. There’s a handy airport, a sizable town with everything one might need – boating and otherwise – and three large marinas for hauling and winter storage. We had picked one – Aktio Marina – as the winter home for Sea Rose, and Pedro was flying out of Preveza in a couple of days, so it felt good to be local to where we would wrap up the season. There was no longer a need to worry about time commitments and schedules.
Still, there’s plenty to see in the area. Preveza is a kind of a mini Gibraltar entrance to a large inland sea, technically the Ambracian Gulf. The cruising guides don’t focus much on this area, so we’d be using our own wits to find the most interesting spots. We pushed on under light winds to the town of Vonitsa on the southern shore, attractive initially by its protected anchorage behind a long peninsula. We found out later that the peninsula was actually a skinny island connected to the mainland by means of a low arched walking bridge. Charming!
Vonitsa was a locals town; the few other cruising sailboats that joined us were the side show. Here, villagers shopped and strolled their infants and met their school children at the siesta break. We did find a Venetian fort on the top of the local hill, built on top of a Byzantine fort, with a commanding 360 degree view of any invading armies and navies. Our invasion was of the civilized form, paying our 3 euros to wander the grounds, and maybe help the town cover a portion of the electric bill to show off the fort’s grandeur at nightfall.
With our early start from Antipaxos, the nasty squalls and the trip into the Gulf, it was an early night for all of us.
The morning broke quietly with water as flat as a mountain lake. Indeed, in its peaceful solitude, with mountain peaks in the distance, this area reminded me of Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor. We set our sights on a cluster of small islets visible across the Gulf from Vonitsa, a spot called Nsis Vouvalos. As we inched our way in, we needed to keep a close eye on the depth sounder, as the water was too murky to see the bottom. We had a consistent 0.6m under the keel – the downside of a shallow inland sea. We could have probably made it work for the night, but caution prevailed as we continued north to the town of Koronisia, tucking in behind a headland from the building westerly afternoon breeze. With both Sea Rose and Paloma settled on our anchors, we decided on a picnic lunch back at the islets of Nsis Vouvalos, this time using Theo’s low draft dinghy. Karen spotted a beach landing filled with small sea shells and flotsam. Mankind was not a frequent visitor to this spot despite its striking views and quietness. And I mean real quiet. The kind where you can hear your breath. It is so rare to find a place these days with zero background noise.
We took the dinghy ashore to Koronisia in the morning, finding a long path along the shore and low bluffs, the kind of path that thins out enough to make you wonder if you’ve lost your way. The path circled a large interior lagoon that to our surprise was the home for several flocks of flamingos. Greece still seemed to have a few surprises up its sleeve. Eventually we found the village of Koronisia, with one small waterfront cafe, requiring a stop by my caffeine-tempted friends.
Shrimp is the main attraction here, when it is in season. Instead, we found a half-filled town pier, and lots of stray dogs to accompany us back to the dinghy. Koronisia was not taking the economic hit of Covid very well, or perhaps its struggles started long before that. Throughout the summer, we had been watching closely to understand the impact of the pandemic, but Greece is a tricky read. So much of the economy and infrastructure came to a stand still back in the early 2000’s. But brace yourself, when they get into their stride, this country is going to come back with gusto; I can feel it in the passion of their citizens.
It was time to wrap up our brief tour of the Gulf of Ambracian, head back to Preveza, and start prepping for shut down. These last few days in the Gulf had been the perfect antidote for the stormy weather earlier. A little work, a little play. The perfect balance!
If you do any amount of sailing in Greece’s Ionian Sea, you are bound to cross paths with the island of Levkas. And, if you are not too thrown off by its equally common name of Levkada, you will find a beautifully mountainous island with something for everyone. Together with the town of Preveza on the mainland, there are a plethora of services for sailboats on Levkas, and the commensurate line up of bars and restaurants to keep all the sailors in good spirits. We had visited Levkas last year with our friends Steve and Julie during a whirlwind tour of the Ionian. This time, as we sailed gently around the southern coast of Meganisi with both Paloma and time on our side, I was looking forward to exploring the island more deeply.