‘Crew’sing to Greece-our first experience as crew

Sunset at sea

As most of you know, Adam and I jumped in feet first when we bought our sailboat Hot Chocolate. Sailing was always a dream, and as is all too often the case, it had stayed a dream. Until, that is, we had a mid life crisis and decided that buying a boat and learning to sail the hard way would ultimately be cheaper than hiring out other peoples boats to learn on.

We have been stuck in Marina di Ragusa trying not to face the reality that we would, at some point, have to learn to sail so that we could leave the safe waters and start the real adventure. Luckily (or maybe it’s not down to luck at all) one of the things we have discovered since starting this adventure is that things have a way of working themselves out.

Passage planning at the marina

We were approached by a sailing instructor, Paul, who was living aboard in the marina. He had sailed over single handed from Greece at the end of last season and needed to get back there for a job. Not fancying the sail back alone he asked if we would crew over in return for sailing lessons, and the chance to take the ICC qualification on his boat.

We knew we would be going home to see ‘long lost’ family (aka my wondering brother who hasn’t been home in two years) at the beginning of May, so two weeks felt like a lot of time to sacrifice that could be spent working on the boat-and believe me, there is at least six months worth of work still to do! There is also the small matter of spending two weeks in a cramped space, with a complete stranger. Luckily Paul was knowledgeable, funny and easy going (most of the time-read on to find out more!) so we decided it was way too good an opportunity to miss. We packed some hand luggage, tied and re-tied Hot Chocolates lines and said goodbye to the many friends we had made at the marina, most of whom would be long gone by the time we returned.

The Route

Our route to Greece

The plan (subject to change due to the weather) was to sail up the coast of Sicily, across to the boot of Italy and then hop over to Prevesa in Greece. Paul had anchorages and marinas all sussed out. We knew of a storm that would hit us roughly half way through our journey and so predicted some time stuck in a marina while we waited for a good window to make the longer passage.

The journey

The crew keeping watch

Day 1

We left the marina a little later then planned due to the crew (us!) faffing a lot. It was hard to leave our boat and the familiarity. Unfortunately there was no wind the first day so we motored most of the way to Porto Palo, our first anchorage. We successfully set the anchor and enjoyed the sunset before passing out early.

Day 2

It was a full days sail to Syracusa and we were all excited to get there, having visited before and knowing how beautiful it was. We were lucky enough to get some wind for the second half of the sail and spent some time practising man overboard and heaving to. Just before we threw ‘Bob’ the fender over the side we spotted dolphins in the distance. With a roll of his eyes Paul turned the boat towards them and humoured our excitement as we watched them dance around the boat. We entered the harbour just before sunset and anchored out with the most stunning 360 views of the old town. We enjoyed a glass of wine on board with the lights twinkling around us.

Sunset in Syracusa

Day 3

In the morning we had our first experience of Med mooring, motoring onto the dock stern to and laying the anchor to hold the bow. Paul made it look easy, but we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to go so smoothly when it was our turn. We spent the day exploring Syracusa and getting some theory revision done.

Day 4

Sunrise at sea

We left Sicily behind as the sun was rising and headed for the end of Italy’s boot where we would anchor for the night. It was the furthest we had been from land so far. We watched Mount Etna fade until there was only sea. It was then that we were joined by a swallow, who flew straight into the boat and made himself at home, much to Paul’s dismay. ‘That bird is going to poo all over my boat!’ Adam and I were a little less worried about the poo, and welcomed the bird to rest. It even sat perched on my hand and let me stroke it. I was a Disney Princess for a good five minutes! With the sight of Italy’s mountainous landscape came some big ships to avoid. And avoid them we did! The anchorage was beautiful, surrounded by mountains, and we were treated to another stunning sunset.

A little swallow on the boat

Day 5

It was time for some home comforts-a shower! We sailed to Roccella in glassy still waters, spotting jumping fish (but not catching anything) and a sun fish, and entered the marina. We checked in and then spent about three hours washing! It was Easter back in England so we treated ourselves to a chocolate bar and Paul surprised us with a chocolate cake. It felt like real luxury!

Chocolate cake at Easter

Day 6

The storm was fast approaching and we wanted to make it to La Castella, somewhere that sounded like a pretty place to wait out rough weather. The seas were starting to get choppy and it was obvious a storm was on it’s way. The entrance to La Castella was interesting. There were breaking waves all around the entrance and hardly any depth beneath the keel. Mooring was tense, with wind coming from the wrong direction and Paul’s (in)competent crew messing up the mooring lines. Luckily no damage was done and we were safely tucked away from the storm for the night.

La Castella

Days 7 and 8

The weather was pretty miserable but we had exploring to do. La Castella is a typical seaside town with a beautiful castle jutting out into the sea. With crashing waves surrounding, it was an impressive sight. We ate crepes in a cute little cafe and spent the afternoon revising. The next day the weather was worse. We enjoyed the dramatic waves crashing over the harbour walls but we were getting restless. We all wanted to get moving. We spent some time on chart work (and I spent some time getting incredibly frustrated at my mathematical abilities-sorry to all of 2N for ever making you do maths, but I promise you will be thankful that you are better than me when you decide to sail the world!) The next day conditions looked a little better so we decided to make our way to Crotone.

Reading the charts

Day 9

The seas were a little churned up so we had a bumpy but thankfully short ride. We had fun watching how the boat almost completely stops when you heave to-the perfect chance to make a cuppa. When we reached Crotone the swell was still pretty big. We moored up in the marina and headed out for dinner which was a rare but well deserved treat. We had amazing Italian pizzas in a pretty, bustling town.

Day 10

Today we provisioned and worked on some motoring skills. My confidence was growing but I still wasn’t sure I would ever be able to bring the boat alongside with smashing into something. The thought of taking the ICC made me feel sick and I was finding sleeping hard, putting way too much pressure on myself. We untied from the dock just before sunset to embark on the 37 hour passage to Greece. We watched the lights from land disappear until it was just us and a sky full of stars. I have never seen stars so bright, and the luminous plankton came out to play in force, so that the sky and the sea were covered in a mass of light.

Day 11

Drinking a third of a beer in the middle of the ocean

The shift patterns started and the night passed quickly, with the hardest part being the 8 hour stint in the middle of the night. The few lights we spotted on the horizon gave us something to take our minds off of how tired we were and we narrowly avoided a fishing boat that changed direction at the last minute, making me more than a little nervous! The sea had calmed completely and we spent the whole day motor sailing. We spent time revising and practising knots and before we knew it the second night was upon us.

Day 12

We decided to shorten our shifts-4 hours on, 2 hours off. We were joined by three birds. Two swallows that huddled together on the redundant genoa sheet and another that sat with us on the spray hood, keeping watch. He was great company through the unplanned long shift that Adam and I battled to stay awake through, as we worried that the skipper had in fact died when it was impossible to wake him! With morning light came our first sight of Greece. We were exhausted as we motored into Lefkas, but what better time for me to attempt a Med mooring. With no mooring experience. On a busy town quay. With a row of spectators. Just after being informed that our bird friend for the night was found dead in the morning. Let’s just say there were a few tears, a bit of shouting and a lot of mistakes. My apologies to Paul whose nerves must have been in tatters. After roughly five attempts I stomped it.

Day 13

Sailing in Greece

We had a whole day of ICC practice planned (I think Paul was slightly concerned at our lack of ability!) We drilled points of sail until we had the boat sailing itself and were steering with our eyes closed. We perfected man over board by sail and demonstrated further our lack of competence-going through Lefkas canal, with high winds blowing us off the dock in a tiny space with a huge motorboat blocking the entrance. One minute I feel confident and the next I feel like I don’t have a clue. When we were through the canal it was a different story entirely. The winds dropped and we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and azure blue seas. We anchored in Nidri bay and headed ashore for dinner.

Day 14

With only one more day till ICC I was starting to panic. We spent the morning failing many times at picking up a mooring buoy (and feeling thankful that in his frustration Paul hadn’t yet thrown us overboard) and then sailed to a neighbouring island to work on our mooring alongside skills. With patience thinning it was hard going, and the pressure didn’t help, but we could moor the boat successfully and I was feeling more confident in the driving seat. Sailing between the islands was more complicated than elsewhere, with more traffic and depths to worry about. We learnt quickly that collision regulations aren’t always followed.

Sailing in Nidri

Day 15-The ICC

It finally arrived. Our last full day and the day we hoped to become proper skippers. But that’s quite enough from me for now. Stay tuned for our account of taking the ICC. Beware-there were failures, triumphs and tears, lots of tears.