Katapola Harbor, Amorgos Island, The Cyclades, Greece
36 50 N 25 52 E
Our ups have been really high these last several days, but the lows, alas, have been equally deep.
The Greek islands in the Aegean really are as extraordinarily beautiful as they say, but moving through them from east to west is exhausting. Some of the passages have been difficult for us, especially Alexander.
First the high. The islands are beautiful. For the last several days we’ve been on the island of Amorgos, located in about the middle of the Aegean between Turkey and Greece. It’s typical of the Greek islands in that it is mountainous, rocky, and mostly barren, with splashes of green cultivated land here and there. Some of the villages are near the sea, but the older ones are perched high in the hills, placed there many years ago as a measure of protection against pirates and other invaders from the sea.
Like most of the Greek islands that we’ve visited, there haven’t been so many tourists around on Amorgos. That’s partially because we tend to favor islands that are less tourist convenient to begin with, but also because tourism is down in Greece, attributable to economic issues here and abroad.
We’ve gone on three hikes here, one short and downhill, a long one along a mountain ridge to a village in the north, and a medium one to a village in the south. After our rough sails, the hikes have been cathartic.
The first hike, the short one, to warm us up, was down through a ravine, a two-hour hike from the island’s “Hora,” to the village of Katapola, where Leander was Med moored. The path was paved and walled. Walking into the setting sun, there were deep shadows, yellow and purple hues, and goats cling-clanging across distant ridges as the day ended.
The long hike began at a monastery, Hozoviotissis, that is built into the side of a cliff. (The Greek islanders have a habit of erecting beautiful white – always bright white – monasteries and churches in the most out-of-the-way places. You see them perched at the tip-top of mountains and on lonely rock outcroppings accessible only by boat, and stumble upon them in isolated valleys miles from anything.) Hozoviotissis is something special among them. Its multiple floors adhere, somehow, to a cliff face. You climb up through simple walkways that lead to cozy living quarters and handsome chapels, with the sheer cliff face always serving as one of the walls to remind you that the entire structure is floating in space.
The path departs from the monastery and leads along the side of the hill to a ridge that runs the length of the island, and ends at a village in the north called Agias Annas.
The views were wonderful. The mountains rise dramatically from the sea, straight up in places, and roll and drop again inland, sometimes leading to steeply walled gorges and once cultivated terraces. These fields must have been hard to work. Now most of the land is abandoned, with younger generations off to Australia or America and an easier life.
The next day we walked down towards the southwestern part of the island, to a village called Vroutsis. It was a hot day for a walk, but not stifling, and in the heights there were good breezes to cool us off. We were going to Vroutsis to pick up our laundry from Manny and Rita, transplants from CA who had taken us under their wing and were helping us about the island. They did five loads for us, and in return we helped Manny install piping to irrigate his garden. They gave us a ride back to the boat back across the island. It was a nice way to finish the day.
And now a word about the lows. We’ve stayed for several days on Amorgos because not only is it objectively beautiful, but because we really needed a break from the sailing.
In the summer, the Aegean is dominated by a north wind called the “Meltemi.” The Meltemi usually starts fitfully, irregularly, and modestly during June, sets in for real during the middle of July, and wreaks havoc for a couple of months before slowly calming down in September and October. On bad days, it can blow 30 to 40 knots, or more.
As always, it isn’t the wind alone that kills you, but the seas it creates. Like the Red Sea, the Aegean isn’t big enough to allow the sea to get itself organized. It is crowded with islands and irregularly-shaped land masses. When the wind builds up, the seas bounce this way and that in a disorderly manner, creating a large-scale washing machine effect, with short, boat-stopping waves, often coming from several directions. But with the Meltemi, the predominant wave set is from the northwest.
So to review, strong wind from the northwest, confused seas led from the northwest, and Leander travelling, of course, to the northwest.
It’s been hard on the boy.
After leaving Marmaris, Turkey, in May, we began doing bite-size passages, sailing only by day, making our way across the Aegean. We had easy sails and pleasant stops on the islands of Symi and Nysiros, and were aiming to make it to the island of Naxos, in about the middle of the Aegean, where we would leave the boat for two weeks to go home to the U.S. for our respective college reunions.
The wake-up call came on one particular day, when we tried to make it from Nysiros to Astypalea, a forty mile passage due west. The wind was supposed to be moderate and from the northwest, which should have allowed us to get where we wanted to go. Instead, when we got out of the harbor, the wind was more than moderate, and coming straight out of the west.
The wind and waves wouldn’t let us go where we wanted to go without making us work hard at it. Talk about trying to put a square peg in a round hole – we tried all manner of approaches to cut through the wind and waves; tack this way, tack that way, hide behind this island for a while, reduce sail and try to motor into it at an angle.
“No, no, no,” said the west wind. “Can’t come this way,” said the roiling seas. “Go somewhere else.”
We were taking a beating, and Alexander began to have a hard time. When Sima and I feel sea-sick, we lie down, eat some food, catch our breath, and we can usually get through it. But Alexander doesn’t know anything about that, and had no clue why he didn’t feel so good.
Seasickness, we’ve learned, is extremely rare in children under two. But Alexander is special.
He would be up and playing, and then his movements would begin to slow. He’d start to look a bit confused, and then begin to cry. Shortly thereafter he’d get very sick – crying, throwing up, crying some more, coughing, howling in discomfort. Sima would help him through it, but it was hard for her too. Alexander wouldn’t cooperate by throwing up in the bucket, nor provide much indication as to when he was about to get sick, and so would cover himself and often Sima with his breakfast or lunch. Sima would then try to clean him up, in the pitching boat, as she too fought off sea sicknesses.
Alexander would do better after throwing up, but then would want to play again. He couldn’t sit still. So he’d start to get overwhelmed again, and cry. And then get sick once more, not too long after Sima had worked to clean everything up.
Seeing as we made little progress after a couple of hours, we gave up trying to beat our way west toward Astypalea, and instead turned northeast, to the island of Kalymnos on a much more comfortable point of sail. We stayed in a harbor called Rina for several days, and then left the boat there to come home to the U.S.
When we came back to the boat, the difficult passages continued. Generally, the wind would come from the northwest, but if it shifted more northerly, we’d go west, and if it went west, we’d go north. We zigzagged from Kalymnos north to Patmos, and then southwest to Levitha, and then west to Kinoros and finally here to Amorgos. The trips from Kalymnos to Patmos, Patmos to Levitha, and Kinoros to Amorgos were particulary hard.
But having made Amorgos, the worst of it should now be behind us. The part of the Aegean we have just crossed is basically a funnel of wind and waves, sweeping in an arc from the north to the south. In this funnel, there are no large islands to break the progress of the Meltemi, and the large islands on either side of the funnel serve to focus the wind and reflect the waves. As we looked at the weather charts each day, we saw that this funnel was often marked with bright yellows and reds of high wind and wave strength. But now that is behind us.
We’ll see how Alexander does going forward. Typically, Sima and I adjust to the roll of the ship. We hope he does the same. But if he does not adjust, another solution must be found.
For now, however, everything is sweetness and light, and Alexander’s few hours of discomfort seem a distant memory. Leander is Med moored in front of some quiet restaurants. We go for our hikes in the day. In the late afternoon, we visit the beach, where Alexander collects shells, digs holes, and plays with the local children. At night we sit in the cockpit, cold beer in hand, to watch the European Championship soccer games broadcast on big-screen TVs in the restaurants across the quay.
As always, we’ll take it step-by-step. The best path forward will become manifest.