A calm and placid sea?
By reputation it is, but the reality is very different. Bounded by Europe, Asia and Africa, the waters of the Mediterranean – three miles deep in places – are frequently disturbed by sudden and surprisingly strong winds that blow from the land towards the centre of the sea. Many of these winds have names, including the Scirocco (originating in the Sahara), the Meltemi (Greece and Turkey), the Bora (Croatia) and the Mistral (southern France). The difference in temperature between the land and sea also creates more localised breezes, which are generally northerly in the morning, variable at midday and strong southerly in the afternoon. All this can make for extremely challenging sailing. Serious yachtsmen also need to be mindful of the strong surface current, especially in summer, caused by the Med's surface water evaporating faster than rivers can replenish it. The current flows from west to east at between one and two knots along the North African coast, before splitting into two near Sicily. That said, there are plenty of relatively placid stretches of water which are ideal for beginners, and more often than not they're located near some of Europe's finest mainland and island resorts. The beautiful people commonly associated with yachting certainly know where to strut their stuff.
The most popular learn-to-sail venues in the Med are the Ionian Islands, off northern Greece, where the calm harbours of Lefkas and Meganissi provide many with their first experience of warm-weather sailing. Corfu, Ithaca and Cephalonia are other favoured destinations in the north, while the Peloponnese peninsula and the Saronic Gulf in southern Greece offer calm waters and light winds that are perfect for learning the ropes. Much of the Croatian coastline between Pula and Korcula, and the waters off Turkey's Gulf of Fethiye and Datça Peninsula, are equally kind to beginners, with idyllic weather and scenery to match. To the west, the relatively placid waters around Majorca, the Costa Smeralda and offshore islands of north-east Sardinia, northern Sicily and the Cote d'Azur (when the Mistral isn't blowing) are also safe bets for novices, who need never stray far from a port with all the necessary amenities.
And where do you go if you know what you're doing?
The two Greek island groups of the Cycladese (notably Mykonos and Santorini) and the Dodecanese (Rhodes and Kos) lie in the path of the Meltemi wind that blows from the Balkans and demands an experienced hand on the tiller. Rock formations, narrow harbour entrances and lengthy distances between safe ports are other factors that make these locations out of bounds to novices. Challenging but exhilarating sailing areas can also be found off the smaller, less accessible Balearic Islands; the barren, beautiful 100-island archipelago of Kornati in Croatia; Elba and the "Seven Sisters" group of islands between Tuscany and Corsica, and off the eastern coast of Spain.
Valencia was chosen as the venue for the America's Cup in 2007 because of its regular pattern of strong winds. The fact that crucial races had to be cancelled because of the lack of wind demonstrates the capriciousness of sailing: nothing is ever predictable at sea.
I'm an absolute beginner. How do I learn?
Before you go out to sea on your own, you need to know the ropes, such as how to park and anchor a boat, and avoid any dangers such as submerged rocks. These skills can be learnt by doing a practical training course in the UK, or by including a course in the Med as part of a holiday at a centre affiliated to the Royal Yachting Association (0845 345 0400; www.rya.org.uk).
You need less experience for a flotilla sailing holiday than a bare boat charter. Your holiday provider will advise you how much experience you need, and whether a formal qualification is required. RYA qualifications include Start Yachting, Day Skipper Practical, International Certificate of Competence and the Competent Crew Certificate. Prices vary according to where you take the course, but an RYA Day Skipper course is likely to set you back around £400 to £450 in the UK and £450 to £600 in the Med, depending on which month you go.
Once you have demonstrated your mastery of the basic skills, you can join a flotilla (typically, five to 10 yachts) with an experienced skipper in a "flagship" leading the way across undemanding waters. You can fill the cabins with family or friends, or take pot luck on your boat-mates if you can't round up enough people to fill every berth. As the flotilla advances, regular briefings are held to discuss weather conditions, rendezvous points and dinner arrangements. All the boats are linked by radio and mobile phone, and the flagship usually carries an engineer, in case of breakdowns or accidents.
An engineer? I thought we were learning to sail?
A yacht's engine is arguably more important than its sails, because the wind can never be guaranteed (as in last year's America's Cup), and when it blows with gusto, learners can quickly get into difficulty. When this happens, the most sensible course of action is to haul in the canvas and chug back to port under engine-power. As with hiring a car, you pay for fuel. You start with a full tank (of diesel), and refill the tank on your return. Unless you encounter a week of totally windless conditions it's unlikely that you'll burn more than the tank's capacity of 60 litres, which costs about £100.
What's the next step?
Once you have a Day Skipper certificate you're eligible to charter a boat and start sailing independently – "bareboating" as it's known in the trade. Skilled yachtsmen would consider nothing else, because the relatively slow-moving, safety-first flotillas tend to steer clear of the stronger breezes that tend to develop from mid-afternoon onwards. These winds turn yachting from a gentle, sociable pastime into a thrilling adventure sport for those who know what they're doing, but they do play havoc with the gin-and-tonics.
Is it expensive?
An activity that has famously been described as like standing under a cold shower tearing up £10 notes is no longer the preserve of the wealthy: entry-level deals can cost less than a week's skiing in the Alps, and in a highly competitive market they're becoming more affordable every year.
The cost of a sailing holiday is influenced by many different factors: the time of the year (the further away from August, the cheaper); the quality, age and size of the yacht you charter; the length of the cruise (two weeks can be much more economical than one); the level of tuition and assistance required; the hire of extras, such as motorised dinghies and windsurfing equipment; and the destination (flights to Athens tend to be much cheaper than to Rhodes).
There's an almost infinite variety of packages available from dozens of specialist companies: some all-inclusive, others covering only the hire of the yacht; some partly shore-based, others exclusively at sea.
Sunvil Sailing (020 8758 4780; www.sunvilsail-ing.co.uk) has a selection of entry-level deals for almost all pockets. A week learning to sail in the Ionian Islands as part of a flotilla starts at £559 per person (rising to £834 in peak season, which coincides with the school holiday period between mid-July and the end of August.)
There's an additional £70 local cash payment to cover breakfast and lunch on board, u o yacht damage waiver, mooring fees and certification. For the more experienced, a week's bareboat charter starts at £453 per person (£588 in peak season), based on six people sharing a Discovery 3000 yacht, which might get a little cosy at times. Prices include flights (Gatwick to Preveza, on the Greek mainland, with a £35 supplement if you fly from Manchester) and transfers, but boat insurance, fuel, cleaning and laundry costs an extra £95 per head, payable locally.
Sunsail (0844 463 0016; www.sunsail.com), one of the largest UK operators with four beach clubs in Turkey and Greece, offers fortnight-long holidays combining tuition and numerous other shore-based activities in the first week, followed by a week at sea in a flotilla. A fortnight at Club Perili in south-west Turkey costs £889 per person, including flights, insurance and yacht fuel, based on four people sharing a three-cabin yacht. In August, the price increases to £1,399 per head. This summer, the company is opening new bases in Tropea, on the southern Italian mainland, and Palermo in Sicily, providing easy access to the Aeolian and Aegedean Island groups, and bringing even Malta and Tunisia within reach of the bareboater.
Several companies have a pool of local skippers on standby for learners who lack the confidence to pilot their own boat, even after completing their tuition. The cost is in the region of £100 per day – a popular option, too, for those who are content just to be on board a yacht in the Mediterranean sunshine, within reasonably easy reach of a deserted cove or a quayside taverna, and don't really care whether it actually moves or not.
Where's best for a bareboat charter?
Sailing Holidays (020-8459 8787; www.sailingholidays.com) is the largest British-owned yacht charter company, with 45 new boats in its own 160-strong fleet, based in Greece and Croatia. Its main base is on the Ionian island of Lefkas – an ideal flotilla holiday location – but bareboaters prefer its mainland base at Kalamaki, near Athens, which gives access to the beautiful islands of Poros and Hydra in the Saronic Gulf (where the sailing is straightforward) and the Cyclades group to the south-west, where the open sea and the influence of the Meltemi can make things more interesting. A new, Bavaria 37 mid-sized yacht, with three cabins sleeping up to six people, can be hired for a week in June as a bareboat for £1,150, rising to £1,630 during the August peak. This includes the hire of a dinghy and outboard, but not air fares and transfers, but even in August it should be possible to get a flight to the Greek capital for around £200, with transfers adding little more than £20 to the cost. The equivalent prices for a large, two-cabin yacht sleeping four are £980 for a week in June and £1,370 in August.
Some of the larger companies offer "one-way" options for accredited bareboat sailors, who can charter a yacht in one port and drop it off at another, enabling them to cover a greater distance and see more of the country they're visiting. In common with other companies, Sailing Holidays add a one-way charge of £250-£300, depending on the distance travelled.
Sounds like hard work. Can I hire a crew as well?
If money is no object, and you want to experience the thrill of serious yachting in a stress-free, luxurious environment, a handful of companies offer private yachts, complete with a professional captain and chef, who remain on board throughout the trip. At their bases in Athens and Kos, Moorings (0844 463 6903; www.moorings.co.uk) can provide a 55ft monohull yacht or a spacious 47ft catamaran, each with air-conditioned double cabins and en suite showers and toilets. The cabins are equipped with televisions and DVD players.
The boats carry snorkelling gear, kayak, sailboards and an inflatable dinghy with an outboard engine. All meals, snacks and beverages are included, but the price doesn't include flights or transfers, and at the end of the voyage the crew will expect a gratuity of 10 to 15 per cent.
And the bottom line?
A week in the Aegean in June, in a Signature 470 catamaran, costs £10,871, which works out at £1,811 per head if you take the maximum of six guests. In August, the price goes up to £11,550 per yacht per week – or £1,925 each. Do I hear the sound of £10 notes being torn up?
Any hidden costs?
Bareboaters in some countries are charged for anchoring at marinas and quays. A berth in a town pier in Italy, France or Croatia costs around £20 per night, and good marinas charge around £35. Generally, there are no charges for dropping anchor and coming ashore in a dinghy, and in both Turkey and Greece mooring fees are minimal.
Anything more traditional than an ultra-modern yacht?
Gulets are classical, wooden craft that have been remodelled for modern cruising, successfully cornering a large chunk of the country's sailing market. Elegant but sturdy, they measure up to 130ft in length and ply the waters of Turkey's luminescent Lycian coast between early May and late October. Equipped with anything from four to eight guest cabins, the boats are locally crewed, and propelled by sail, engine or a combination of both, depending on the conditions. Guests are invited to learn the ropes and take a hand at the helm, but the majority prefer to fill the gaps between meals – three per day as well as afternoon tea – by doing as little as possible.
Among many companies offering gulet cruise holidays, Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk) is operating three vessels this summer, along five different routes between early May and late October. A typical peak season deal is the cruise from Gocek to Kalkan departing on 19 July. The cost is £1,050 per person, based on two sharing a cabin, which includes flights to Dalaman from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester; transfers to and from the boat, and seven nights' full board, consisting of three meals a day, mineral water and afternoon tea and cake. A white-knuckle voyage this is not.
Big as well as beautiful
More photogenic than any of the billionaires' super-yachts that clog up the Mediterranean's fashionable harbours are two tall ships – the Royal Clipper (left) and Star Clipper (right) – which have added a wind-assisted dimension to luxury cruising. The flagship is the towering, five-masted Royal Clipper, the largest sailing vessel to be built since 1902, which carries up to 228 guests and nearly half as many crew around the coasts of Italy and Croatia. The tallest of the ship's masts is 197ft; it has three swimming pools, a spa, a health club, and an extraordinary array of 42 sails, which are unfurled by the crew, more as an entertaining deck-show than a serious attempt to catch the wind.
If possible, the Royal Clipper, along with its smaller sister, the Star Clipper, does some genuine sailing on each voyage, but relies on its engines to keep to schedule. The two clippers (01473 292029; www.starclippers.co.uk) ply a permutation of routes, encompassing many of the Med's glamour and beauty spots, generally starting their voyages at Civitavecchia, near Rome.
There are five Royal Clipper cruises this summer, beginning on 28 June, when the vessel will take 11 days to meander to Venice, via Ponza, Capri, Sicily, Corfu, Dubrovnik and the Croatian island of Hvar, although ports of call may vary. The cost, based on two people sharing a cabin, is £1,860 per person, which includes all meals but not shore excursions, port charges, flights and transfers.
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