The Aegean on an even keel

Where to learn to sail in perfect conditions? The Peloponnese, says Louise Jury
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The Independent Travel
The first day out on the water, the breeze died and sailing class adjourned to theory on land. On the second, gusting force four winds capsized even the experts.

As a novice dinghy sailor, it was gratifying to watch the big boys falling in. It was also terrifying. Swerving in and out of the waves, with water skidding the surface of the dinghy in sheets, there seemed every chance of plunging beneath at any moment. The wind was God. It was nerve-tinglingly invigorating.

Despite growing up only a mile from the sea, I had never sailed before. In my mind's eye, sailing was a cross between an Arthur Ransome adventure of jolly little boats on English lakes, and sophisticated, chianti-fuelled trips in the Mediterranean.

Then a friend who had spent her childhood messing around on rivers found a holiday firm that undertook to remind her how to do it all over again, and to teach me from scratch. My opportunity had arrived. I had only hazy notions of what I was letting myself in for. But one week after walking into the travel agent's, we were on a plane to Greece.

A two-hour coach transfer from Athens took us across the Corinth canal, through winding mountain roads to the Peloponnese town of Portoheli, where the subtle boat-navigating arts of tacking and gybing were to be imparted.

Starting with the basics, we learnt how to rig Toppers and Wayfarers, progressing to Lasers and faster, trickier boats with alarming-looking harnesses for the more ambitious. With varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm, we caught the wind and spun to and fro in the large bay where - for strange reasons of the junction of tidal patterns - there is virtually no tide to worry about. This is particularly useful for beginners.

For lunch, there would be either a buffet meal in our hotel, or sandwiches and beer from the beach bar, as the dinghies bobbed in rows along the shore. At the end of another afternoon on the water, the half-board arrangement meant dinner was sometimes at the hotel, sometimes in a local restaurant.

Many guests ate together, and the spirit of sporting bonhomie was infectious - and in some ways difficult to escape (though if you were not a gang sort of person you would not feel obliged to join in). Some made their own explorations of what Portoheli had to offer: a smattering of small, friendly restaurants, with the far corner of the harbour being a favoured spot.

On the hottest days, the sun leapt off the waves like fragments of a shattered mirror as the boat flew with the wind. Warm rays on the face seemed to drain any memory of work hassles.

The more competitive sailors shed the tensions of life at home by engaging in one-upmanship on the water. "Luff him up," they yelled, a baffling cry to novices, and a technical procedure which I was never to negotiate but appeared to be a devious means of putting your rivals off while speeding ahead yourself. For the dinghy equivalent of boy racers, vying for the number one position was all.

We travelled in October, at the end of the season, so not every day was sunny, though it was never cold. A disadvantage was more erratic winds than during the summer. One cloudy day we embarked on a day sail out of the bay into the open sea to find ourselves becalmed. Only the motor launch which accompanied the flotilla for safety reasons saved us from a dull day bobbing helplessly on the water. Travelling out of season did have the advantage of cutting numbers. Tuition was personal, and there was never a shortage of equipment. If a break was desired, the alternative of windsurfing - with tuition - was always on hand.

The lure of the water was such that all dreams of exploring the Peloponnese, home of some of Greece's richest ancient treasures, vanished. Epidauros, where the ancient Greek theatre is still in use - notably last year, when Peter Hall directed Britain's own National Theatre company in Sophocles' Oedipus plays - or Mistras, a medieval town with a large castle, will have to await a return trip.

Using the Flying Dolphin, a giant, bug-like hydrofoil that once belonged to the Russian army and now dwarfs Portoheli harbour, it is possible to visit nearby islands. An alternative is to share a water taxi for a visit to Spetses, as we did. The bright lights and bars smack of all the best and worst of a night out in Greece, but wander the back streets, or the coast where John Fowles set The Magus, and quieter restaurants can be found. We ate at a table on the shingle with the waves lapping gently just feet away. And in the morning, we were back on the water.

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