The sail of the century

For Phil Johnson, buying a boat in Greece proved almost as much of an adventure as sailing her

Tomorrow is a momentous day in Greece. Not only does May Day coincide with Greek Easter, it also marks the start of the sailing season. Nowhere in the European Union can rival Greece as a venue for messing about in boats, and nothing could be better than owning your own Greek yacht. At least that was what I'd thought when I'd asked my wife Fiona and two teenage sons to go to Athens to buy a yacht without me. I had planned to go with them, but the demands of work left me at home in a newsroom in rainy Norwich instead.

Tomorrow is a momentous day in Greece. Not only does May Day coincide with Greek Easter, it also marks the start of the sailing season. Nowhere in the European Union can rival Greece as a venue for messing about in boats, and nothing could be better than owning your own Greek yacht. At least that was what I'd thought when I'd asked my wife Fiona and two teenage sons to go to Athens to buy a yacht without me. I had planned to go with them, but the demands of work left me at home in a newsroom in rainy Norwich instead.

Six months later I was standing at the harbour on the island of Aegina, searching for a boat I'd been promised would be ready for our maiden voyage to Corfu. The broker had arranged to move her the few miles to the boatyard here as moorings were cheaper than the premium rates in Athens. We also wanted her anti-fouled and the engine serviced.

Fiona and the boys had found plenty of boats in Athens, chained to the quayside like dumped dogs in need of new owners. The Greek-built Maistrali was 31ft long; she'd seen better days, but after weeks of faxes, e-mails and phone calls, she was ours.

When Fiona and I, plus our friends Mike and Fran, arrived at the dusty boatyard in Aegina to take delivery, we couldn't find her. Our boat was missing, and so was the boatyard owner. "Gone. Maybe here tomorrow," muttered a local. After a search we eventually found Maistrali - not in the water, as we'd been promised, but high and dry on wooden stakes. Worse was to come: the paperwork had vanished. Missing papers can turn a Greek adventure into a Greek tragedy before you can say baklava. Luckily we'd brought copies.

We spent our first night aboard Maistrali on her wooden cradle. We hardly dared to move in case she toppled over. Luckily Mike and Fran have a sense of humour, and Mike has an uncanny ability for finding great food. He discovered a small restaurant behind the boatyard. It served us the best Greek meal we'd ever had, despite the menu being hastily written in ballpoint on a piece of torn cardboard.

The next day was frantic. We had just six days until our booked flight home from Corfu. I'd been told the trip might take nine or 10. The prevailing wind was against us and there was the Corinth Canal, famed for oil tankers and cruise ships that could crush us like a monster from the Odyssey.

There was also the question of experience. We have a small sailing boat at home, but that's on the Norfolk Broads, where the biggest danger is a hire cruiser on a pub crawl. Originally we had planned to hire a skipper for the trip, but a visit to the London Boat Show saw me signing up for a week's course in the Canaries. I would learn all I needed to know, and hopefully get my "day skipper" qualification as well.

I did, but I was still very nervous. Fiona had sailed dinghies since she was a child, Mike too had some experience, but there was plenty that could, and would, go wrong.

After an hour with the port police, explaining missing papers and why we had photocopies instead of the originals, we set off. Fiona took the tiller and we started to relax, until Fran asked a gut-wrenching question from inside the boat. "Should my feet really be covered in water?" We were in deep water, in deep trouble and four miles from land. We searched for a leak, later discovering that the engine cooling pipe had burst, pumping in sea water. I switched on the bilge pump and we headed back. A few hours later, and a few hundred euros lighter, we were off again.

From the warnings we had heard about the Corinth Canal, we were expecting it to be the mouth of hell: "You'll have hours of waiting," and, "Oh God, the bureaucracy." Yet we went straight through. It was like slipping through a gap left by a wedge cut from a giant cheese. With the walls towering above us, it felt as if we were passing through hundreds of years of history - until we were brought abruptly back to the present by someone bungee jumping from the railway bridge across the top.

We spent the night in Corinth: hardly a postcard port, but a welcoming, working town with friendly people. Good job too, because the next morning the engine wouldn't start. Mike found a mechanic who didn't speak English, but his friends phoned our engine-makers, Perkins in Peterborough, to ask for help. Eventually, with sign language and grunts, and even more euros, we were underway again.

As we left Corinth we were alone. The radio was silent. The sea was bathtub flat. The colour of the water and the warmth of the sun were unforgettable. I looked up to see the rest of my companions naked, soaking up the sun. I thought, you can't do that on an aeroplane.

Eight hours later we were approaching Trizonia, a small island with a half-finished marina and a legendary restaurant. All seemed well until we were suddenly hit by fierce winds howling through the Gulf of Patras. After a nervous hour with the hatches battened down and waves breaking over our bows, we were safely moored up in the island's harbour, amazed at how such a sweet, soft sea could become so angry, so quickly. Still, it was less alarming than air turbulence.

Somewhere near the top of a hill, past a small, beached, rusting car ferry, lies Lizzie's Yacht Club - the restaurant run by the wonderful Alison Fraser, who offered us use of a shower, and cooked us fabulous food. We were happy: two days in, our little boat tied to the quayside below us, bathed in Mediterranean moonlight. Somewhere above us a plane crossed the sky. They'd reach their destination before we'd even eaten, but we were savouring the journey.

The next day we stopped at Navpaktos, a marvellous medieval walled port with a working town behind it. We left Maistrali and explored the streets. There were fruit and vegetable stalls spread along the pavements and a barrel-organ player complete with a monkey, but a total lack of kettles. We wanted to get one for the boat, but failed, and had to carry on boiling water in a saucepan.

Escorted by dolphins we passed under the new Gulf of Patras bridge, a massive feat of engineering. Then we ran the gauntlet of the ferries below it, racing backwards and forwards. They were earning all they could in the last few weeks before the bridge opened and ended their trade.

That night we stayed in Messolonghi, where Byron died (see page V). To reach it you travel a few miles down a narrow canal, alongside salt pans and small wooden shacks on stilts: it all looks more like Asia than Greece.

Anxious to meet our deadline, we left at first light. As we cast off, a large turtle swam underneath Maistrali to bid us farewell. The warmth of the morning sun was magical. Then I felt a hideous chill. Looking back at the previous day's route, I realised that in my over-confidence I'd marked a course on the chart that had gone right over the mark of a dangerous wreck. I'll never know how close we had come to disaster the evening before.

As we inched our way into the Ionian Sea we realised we'd left serenity behind. Apart from the ferries under Patras bridge and the odd fisherman, we'd seen no more than two or three boats at sea in as many days; but as we passed Cephalonia and Ithaca, we were no longer alone. There were scores of yachts playing in the sun. Still, stacking over Lefkas, waiting to go through its narrow channel, is preferable to being strapped into an Airbus banking over Corfu.

The last two days saw us swimming in deserted bays above sparkling starfish on soft white sand, and sleeping under the stars in Parga. We moored up with just hours to spare. Maistrali had brought us safely to Corfu, thanks to my instructor in the Canaries and a perfect crew. Sure, we could have done it in 45 minutes, but then you don't usually get memories that will last a lifetime on an aircraft.

New arrivals

The Midas touch has eluded many of the airlines that have tried flying between the UK and Greece; even Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic gave up trying to make money on the London-Athens route. But GB Airways believes it can turn a profit on its initial venture into Greece - and the first scheduled link between the UK and Crete, serving the palace at Knossos.

The maiden Gatwick-Heraklion flight takes off next Tuesday, 3 May. As with GB Airways' other services, it is sold through British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). The service will operate on Tuesdays and Fridays through the summer. One problem for travellers could be the arrival time of the homeward flight, which is due in to Gatwick at 12.20am.

Strong demand from travellers to Halkidiki has helped persuade BA to resuscitate its London-Thessaloniki service. It now operates four times a week from Gatwick, competing head-on with the existing five-a-week service between the same airports on Olympic. But neither airline serves the route on the busy travel day of Friday.

The precarious state of Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; olympicairlines.com) is a subject of constant debate by frequent travellers between the UK and Greece. The loss-making national carrier is likely soon to shrink in size, and some have suggested that any buyer will "strip" the airline's valuable slots at Heathrow and elsewhere. At present Olympic flies three times a day from Heathrow and six times a week from Gatwick. It also flies non-stop from Manchester to Athens, in association with Hellas Jet (0870 751 7222; www.hellas-jet.com).

Meanwhile, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) has moved its first flight of the day to the Greek capital even earlier. The 6.45am departure from Gatwick should have you touching down in Athens at noon. But easyJet has ditched its overnight flight from Luton, leaving a single afternoon departure.

The three hours-plus flight time even to the Ionian Islands tends not to work well for no-frills airlines, which is one reason no other operator has come in with low-cost flights to the popular destination of Corfu. Yet the rapid spread of no-frills flying in Germany has opened up opportunities for British travellers.

Starting next Tuesday, Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com) will fly to Corfu from Cologne - a city that is easy to reach from airports across Britain. Note that the flight from Corfu reaches Germany too late for a same-day connection. If you are tempted by this option, make the most of the chance of a stopover in the fine city of Cologne.

Simon Calder

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