Genevieve Leaper and her partner, Aleko, spring into action after seeing more floating litter than seabirds on a voyage across the Mediterranean…


Contrary to expectations, my first introduction to sailing in the Mediterranean was disappointing. Aleko was returning home to Greece after a three-year voyage in his Nicholson 32 Beduin.

I’d joined him in the Azores and enjoyed the islands and the Atlantic but was unimpressed with the Med. Motoring for hours on end through an airless calm laden with Sahara dust, I was hot and bored.

What shocked me though was that we saw more floating litter than seabirds or any other life. Since then I have come to love sailing in the Aegean and there is wildlife; seabirds, cetaceans, turtles, even the rare and endangered monk seal.

But in coastal waters the plastic pollution problem is even more apparent – so many lovely beaches utterly spoiled by the shameful evidence of how we treat the marine environment. And there’s no hiding the beer cans on the seabed of the anchorage when the water is clear as glass.

The tourist beaches may be bulldozed clear of rubbish at the start of the season but the wildest places, that should be the most beautiful, show the extent of the desecration. So, the remotest islands and anchorages are where we try to do a little beach clean, just a few bags every cruise.

Article continues below…

Aegean Sea

Our longest trip yet had taken us across the Aegean Sea from Milina, Aleko’s home village in the Pagasetic Gulf, to Chios and Samos near the Turkish coast.

We’d been away for nearly a month, venturing as far south as Lipsos and Agathonisi in the Dodecanese. It was fun exploring ashore, the islands beautiful with spring flowers, and we enjoyed the sailing too.

We had seen common, striped and bottlenose dolphins, large flocks of shearwaters and sailed through a mass migration of painted lady butterflies.

Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba), one of three species we see regularly around the Aegean islands

Returning via Lesvos and Agios Efstratios, Beduin was now back in the familiar waters of the Northern Sporades.

Having detoured into Ormos Klima on Peristera to check it out as a possible future anchorage, we decided to stop for lunch.

The state of the beach was a good clue that this east-facing bay was quite exposed to the prevailing winds. It did not take long to load up our paddleboards with several bags and bundles of rubbish, though this made no noticeable difference to the appearance of the beach.

We usually find that containers to put the rubbish in can be among the general detritus in the form of polythene bags and fish-boxes, along with plenty of net and rope to secure larger items.

The huge plastic barrels from fish farms can be tied to the pushpit – often prompting queries as to what is stored within.


Beduin anchored in Ormos Klima, Peristera. The reality from the top of the beach

Although beachcombing is not the same as when I was a kid – when it was all about mermaid’s purses, shells and cuttlefish bones – I am still fascinated to see what the sea has thrown up.

You never know what you might find, though most of it is depressingly familiar. In Greece, as just about everywhere, there is a vast amount of lost or discarded fishing gear, along with plastic bottles of all descriptions.

The best items, of course, are anything that can be re-used or re-purposed, from lengths of rope to the occasional unbroken bucket. Beduin sports a collection of fishing buoys as boat fenders and at home I have a splendid hammock cut from a section of trawl net.


Seine net fishing boat off Evia with lamp rafts and a stack of polystyrene fish boxes – many of these boxes end up in the sea

The quantity of shoes puzzles me. Why do so many people lose them? The main difference between beaches at home and in the Med is the footwear; Scottish coasts are dominated by wellies while Greece has a higher proportion of flipflops. Trainers are ubiquitous.

Given I can only remove such a tiny amount, I would like to know whether all plastic waste is equal. Should I fill my bag with small pieces of plastic like bottle tops or one large chunk of expanded polystyrene?

Greek fishing boats use polystyrene fish boxes for insulation and inevitably many end up in the sea, rapidly disintegrating to small particles. Approaching Pelagonisi the previous year we went to investigate a large white object which turned out to be a whole package of fish box lids, still wrapped in polythene and quite tricky to catch.

We occasionally fish things directly out of the sea. I might claim to chase balloons because they are such a menace to turtles, but I admit it’s partly for fun. It’s good man overboard recovery practice, even if the techniques are not quite the same.

A worry

The recent finding that the most common plastics, such as polyethylene, emit dimethyl sulfide (DMS) which actually attract birds is particularly worrying.

This chemical is produced by phytoplankton when eaten by zooplankton and therefore DMS should indicate a concentration of prey. Birds like shearwaters and petrels, which have a good sense of smell, will home in on the plastic expecting food.

Large dead loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) on the a beach in Ormos Klima, Peristera

I’ve always tried to pick up any fishing line, having seen many entangled birds and a seal with a fish hook stuck in its head. But are there other items we should concentrate on? Bottles are easier to pick up than plastic bags but are those slimy bags more likely to be eaten by wildlife?

The saddest finding on Peristera that day was a dead loggerhead turtle. Long dead, there was no way to tell how it died but I couldn’t help connecting the knowledge that many die from ingesting plastic with the fact that I have seen almost as many dead as live turtles in Greek waters.

On the passage from Agios Efstratios to Pelagonisi just a few days earlier we had recorded one dead turtle as well as a live juvenile loggerhead.

Pagasetic Gulf

On the way into the Pagasetic Gulf we stopped in the picturesque Agios Kyriakis to visit the Port Police for the annual stamp in the boat’s paperwork.

Two fishermen were sitting on a bench in the harbour as we tied up alongside the quay. Beduin has something of the sea-gypsy look anyway and was now displaying our beach clean results lashed to the rails.

Aleko overheard one of the fishermen say: “Look, environmentalists… but still, they’re doing good, no one else collects the rubbish.”

Nicholson 32 Beduin, enjoying a fast run on the way home towards the Pagasetic Gulf. We do go sailing as well as collecting rubbish!

I suspect this inspired the skipper to get carried away later that day. There was no wind so we anchored for a swim at a small beach near Trikeri island. Paddling ashore after lunch I thought we were just going to collect a couple of bags of rubbish as usual.

There was a huge mound in the middle of the beach, all tangled up in a long length of plastic pipe, probably from a fish farm. Obviously we couldn’t do anything about that – or so I thought.

Aleko couldn’t resist the challenge. He started by tying it up in a tighter bundle, then fetched our longest shoreline. After lifting the anchor we motored ahead to haul the raft of rubbish off the beach – leaving an unfortunate trail of polystyrene in its wake.


A bag of rubbish collected in Ormos Klima, Peristera

We couldn’t tow it until he had lifted it partly out of the water to reduce the drag. Beduin has a solar panel on a frame above the pushpit so Aleko took ropes over the frame – which was bending alarmingly – to the sheet winches.

Finding the winches insufficient, and harder work than sheeting the genoa in a strong wind, the anchor windlass and main halyard were also brought into play.

It didn’t matter that he had effectively put both sails out of action until the afternoon breeze came in. By the time we had freed one sheet winch to set the genoa we were nearly home.

The problems didn’t end once we were alongside in Milina harbour. I confess I felt a little irritated at being left to do all the packing up while the skipper was occupied with transferring his trophy to the quayside; using the boom and mainsheet as a crane.

Causing a stir

It was only later in the afternoon as people started to wander down for a drink in the harbour taverna that I realised it was good to be conspicuous. Quietly getting on with it might satisfy our need to do something but is not the most effective tactic for achieving results. This time people couldn’t fail to notice.

Reactions varied from approval to amusement and a few critical comments about dumping an unsightly mess on the quayside. When it had dried out and the council wouldn’t collect waste that wasn’t by the roadside bins, Aleko took it to the municipal tip.

It does sometimes seem pointless, the amount we can collect is such a tiny drop in the plastic ocean. But imagine if everyone filled a bag or two now and again – then it really would make a difference.

But please don’t follow the example of a yachtsman whose blog I came across, who proudly described cleaning a beach and hiding the rubbish bags at the back of a cave! Out of sight may be temporarily out of mind but is certainly not out of the environment.

Obviously it’s important to stop any more waste going into the sea in the first place and even more essential to reduce the amount manufactured.

But even if we stop dumping tomorrow, what is already there is not going away. A sign at a popular coastal nature reserve near my home reminds dog walkers ‘there is no dog poo fairy’. Well, there is no plastic bag fairy either.

There are signs of changing attitudes. The people of Alonissos, the neighbouring island to Peristera, are working to make their island a plastic bag-free zone.

Aleko asked a fisherman if there was a bin to leave a bag of rubbish he’d just collected. The man was helpful but then blamed the Turks; “they throw everything in the sea and it all ends up over here”.

Certainly the writing on various containers betrays a Turkish origin but most we find is undoubtedly home grown; from tourists, locals, fishermen, yachties and beachgoers, not to mention everyone ashore whose litter is washed down rivers.

Rubbish Regatta

It’s all very well to draw attention to the problem and Aleko reckons a few more people in Milina have started collecting litter. But maybe we could encourage more people to get involved by making it fun.

So I have an idea for a Rubbish Regatta – a sailing race to a local beach or island where each crew must collect at least one bag of rubbish. There would be a genuine race to attract the competitive sailors but generous time allowances for every extra bag filled and prizes for the enthusiastic collectors.

For logistical reasons we haven’t managed to organise the regatta in Milina yet, but if anyone would like to steal my idea I’d be absolutely delighted!

Why not subscribe today?

This feature appeared in the September 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

Subscribe, or make a gift for someone else, and you’ll always save at least 30% compared to newsstand prices.

See the latest PBO subscription deals on