All at sea in Greece

by Ella.Buchan

Fancy more than a tan on your holiday? Try learning to sail in the Greek Islands, and combine chilling out in the sunshine with earning your skipper’s certificate

There is something incredibly peaceful about cruising along at seven knots, heeling into the wind with a perfectly trimmed sail. Conversation halts and, for a few minutes at least, it’s enough to simply exist.
That is, until someone bellows “man overboard!” and swings the boat into the wind – “crash tack!” – sending compasses, maps and crew members flying, and running the risk of knocking someone’s block off.
It’s all part of the sheer joy of living on a yacht, as I discovered on a week’s learn-to-sail holiday in the Greek islands with Sunvil Sailing. Other little pleasures include sleeping in a small triangle and keeping used toilet paper in a plastic bag.
Our adventure started at Nidri, a port town on the island of Lefkas. We were left for a few hours to stew in a mixture of hot sun and cold beer – perfect conditions for getting to know our fellow crewmembers. Our fellow hearties were Mick and Tessa, who had some sailing experience. Which was heartening to landlubbers like my boyfriend Etienne and I – until Mick explained they had not stepped on a boat since 1993, when a jaunt around the Solent left them shaken and stirred. “There were force nine winds,” Mick shuddered. “We thought the skipper was trying to kill us…” Only when our skipper, Ken, explained the head of the mainsail would need to be virtually in the water before the boat could possibly capsize did we feel at ease again.
Fed and beered on dry land, we snuggled into our cabins on our yacht – Artemis – for the night. It was immediately obvious why we’d been warned against hard suitcases – our luggage had to be divided between various small holes.
The following day set a pattern we followed for the rest of the week. Waking at around 8am, surprisingly rested considering we slept in a small sauna, we met for a quick briefing and breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and honey. Then we set sail. I tried to pay attention as Ken deftly removed the mooring lines, coiled the ropes and took us out into the inky blue of the Ionian Sea. Was I supposed to remember all this? Then Ken started talking about physics… Oh dear.
After a morning practising knots, including figures of eight, clove hitches and OXOs, we dropped anchor in Skorpios, a tiny mass of shrubs sold to Aristotle Onassis for the token sum of £1 – a ploy to attract Greek millionaires back to the islands. Now its only occupants are household staff and a troop of ageing armed guards, who apparently lurk behind the bushes in case anyone decides to explore. I decided not to test this theory.
After another few hours messing about with the sails and not understanding very much at all, we steered around the rocky, mountainous edge of Ithaca, which suddenly gave way to the red-roofed harbour of Vathi. Here we moored up for the night and gathered for a debrief (i.e. beer) before meeting up with the crew of Ira, the only other yacht in our flotilla – Geordie skipper Guy, experienced sailor Andrew and fellow amateur Beth.
These evenings became a highlight of the holiday. Hundreds of miles from friends and responsibilities, we formed our own microcosm of society, revolving mainly around food, beer and laughs. The biggest dilemma of any given day was whether to steer a close reach or a close haul, the weather was always scorching and it became a nightly necessity to run the gamut of evil cocktails. A hangover on a boat can be messy...
And the next day it started all over again. During the week we visited Port Leone on Kalamos. The village was abandoned in 1953 after an earthquake, yet it still has a ramshackle bar complete with plastic chairs and a decent stock of Mythos beer. We ate Greek salad, tsatsiki and moussaka on the pretty port town of Kalamos, enjoyed the simple beauty and hospitality of Kioni on Ithaca and explored the limestone caves of Cliff Bay, Atoko. We snorkelled (but avoided the shore) around Pera Pigadhi or Rat Island, so nicknamed because of giant rodents that try to climb aboard.
A night of Mataxa brandy and cocktails ranging from nice to nasty was spent at Ay Efimia, Kefalonia – the rugged, rambling, romantic setting of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Then a terrible hangover was spent nearby at Foki Caves and Fiskardo, the only town on Kefalonia to survive the 1953 earthquake.
The aim of the week, aside from getting as far away from everyday life as possible and getting a tan, was to get a competent crew or day skipper certificate. With the latter, I could theoretically charter a yacht and sail in non-tidal waters with one competent crew member on board. My competitive streak unleashed, I had to get the day skipper. Had to. No matter how useless I was.
And, at times, I was pretty useless. I managed to bluff my way through most manoeuvres until I was required to take charge, when the lingo spilling out of my mouth seemed to come from nowhere. A low point was nearly killing two crewmembers by releasing the topping lift instead of tightening it (sorry, Mick and Tessa).
After sailing back to the beginning in Nidri and enjoying a last fling barbeque at the Armonia Hotel, the moment of truth arrived. “If I give you day skipper,” explained Ken, “I have to be confident you could charter one of the company’s yachts tomorrow without killing anyone…” Not looking good – until he handed back my logbook complete with certificate and gold seal. I clutched it tight, lest he realise his mistake.
My sea legs took the best part of a week to wear off – probably my body’s way of protesting at being stuck back on boring old dry land. Anyone need a skipper?


We joined a learn-to-sail week in the Greek Ionian Sea with Sunvil Sailing. Prices start at £495 including return flights from London Gatwick to Prevesa, transfers, live-aboard accommodation and tuition.