Newly-qualified RYA Day Skipper Laura Hodgetts charters a yacht around the Sporades islands and the Gulf of Volos
Several times when skiing in the French Alps, I dreamt of having clear slopes to practise my skills without more confident skiers whizzing past on dead runs.
Fast-forward to a pre-season Volos and switch the skis for a yacht and my wish had come true. Stunning deepwater bays and harbours, deserted apart from a few friendly locals, calm seas and a good sea breeze made cruising the Greek Sporades islands, in the northwest Aegean, quite a surreal experience.
There were still plenty of challenges for a novice skipper – but rather than having to contend with tides, the busy waters of the Solent and ‘parking’ alongside bustling marina pontoons, I was mooring stern to against clear concrete harbours and anchoring in secluded bays with a shoreline tied around a rock.
Fresh from the RYA Day Skipper Theory course and nine months on from the Practical, I had the basic skills required to charter a yacht, yet faced the reality of a pricey sail around an unknown – albeit beautiful – cruising ground on an unfamiliar boat with friends who were inexperienced sailors.
MIXit Sailing Holidays provided a solution. Run by Phil Elliott, the Volos-based charter company offers tuition to assist new Day Skippers and to help more experienced sailors break away from the flotilla.
I jumped at the chance to join Phil and Yachtmaster instructor Carl Derham, along with my husband Drew and two friends, for a week’s charter at the end of May. As co-skipper, I was expected to take charge, with Carl on hand for advice and local knowledge.
Drew, Nick and Wendy were trained up as crew, while Phil joined us for his springtime trip around the Sporades, which enables MIXit Sailing to advise customers with first-hand local knowledge.
Prior to the trip I’d prepped my three crew, saying we’d be getting fit hoisting the mainsail, packing fenders away when heading out to sea, flaking the mainsail each night and using a sail cover…
The handover of the Beneteau Oceanis 40 Anassa proved this unnecessary – the yacht was set up for easy sailing with push-button winches, push-button anchor controls and lazyjacks. Fenders were stored clipped along the guardrail – Greek style – due to the charter yacht’s lockers being full of holiday essentials like snorkels and a barbecue.
During the comprehensive check-in we were shown how to start Anassa’s engine, control the navigation lights, find buoyancy aids, access the engine, monitor batteries, switch between the two water tanks, open and close the holding tank.
Like many Greek boats, Anassa had 80m of anchor chain aboard. Carl made sure we had various connectors for harbour taps.
We unloaded a shopping haul from Lidl and a local supermarket. MIXit Sailing’s provisions list included cleaning products, bin bags, insect repellent, six cases of bottled water and advice not to go crazy as we could buy fresh produce en route.
We each put €50 in the kitty, and olive tapenade, feta cheese, tzatziki, local honey, thick Greek yoghurt and tinned peaches were among our victualling essentials.
Boasting a rich history steeped in mythology, Volos is located at the head of the Pagasitic Gulf, in the foothills of the 1,624m Mount Pelion.
The bustling city – Greece’s fifth largest – has yachts lined up stern-to along the quay, and laid moorings tailed to small buoys.
We cast off, leeward line first, holding the boat on the windward line while the bow lines and lazy lines sank and then engaged forward gear once the ropes were below keel level.
Out of the harbour we hoisted the mainsail (at the touch of a button), clipped up the fenders, unfurled the genoa, turned the engine off and set sail.
As Phil had promised that our week would involve brushing up on skills, gaining valuable experience and sea miles (‘maybe even some swimming!’), I’d expected more work than play, but need not have worried, Carl and Phil were great company and our travels provided plenty of chances to practise Mediterranean mooring and anchoring without feeling like we were on a course.
The manoeuvre that causes most angst for newly-qualified skippers from the UK – and is used everywhere around The Sporades – is reverse mooring; using an anchor and two lines ashore.
I hadn’t tried this before so having Carl to demonstrate, before practising in varied conditions, was invaluable.
Another technique used regularly here, not the Solent, is getting a crew member to swim, or row, ashore with a line to tie around a tree or rock.
In May, the water temperature was initially bracing. Peak season, Carl said you’d be desperate to cool down, and diving in wearing fins and a bowline-tied rope loop was the quickest way to attach the shore line.
Throughout the week we went over navigation, boat handling and passage planning, all intended to build confidence ahead of bareboat chartering – the cheapest option for future sailing holidays.
Passage planning was easy without tides and low water to worry about and with so many potential anchorages and harbours.
We cross-referenced Poseidon System’s North Aegean forecast (Poseidon.hcmr.gr), with windfinder.com and Meteo.gr for the North Aegean region – remembering UTC is two hours ahead. Then we plotted a course to an overnight location – with less than 5 knots of wind expected, accounting for rocky headlands and magnetic variation.
The West Aegean Cruising Companion by Rob Buttress provided extra information.
No need to calculate the depths for anchoring: with Anassa drawing 2m, we could happily anchor in 3.5m. We scheduled harbour visits around topping up water and supplies and always had a backup plan for a weather change.
None of the harbours charged mooring fees, although if you use a taverna’s taps, electricity or showers it’s polite to eat there.
With a main meal priced around €7-15 this was a bargain and ‘poli nostimo’– very tasty.
North of Evia and just a few hours from Volos, Pigadhi is at the head of a quiet, south-facing bay. We had the quay to ourselves and, after unclipping and adjusting the fenders, we prepared our mooring lines and drew up alongside.
Taverna owner Christos awaited our lines.
Phil explained that peak season you could expect menus, but out of season it’s best to let the chef bring you what’s available – and we enjoyed feta salads with fresh olives, calamari, fried fish, halloumi and a surprisingly tasty offal sausage.
Phil and Carl taught us how to say thank you – ‘efcharistó’ – and phrases like ‘ena nero parakalo’ – one water, please.
After a calm night, Carl demonstrated stern-to mooring in the still empty bay: move the large fenders astern, ‘oxo’ the stern lines on the aft cleats and thread outside the yacht, ready to step ashore with.
We motored 40m away and lined up the yacht with the quay end, lowering the passerelle to above-concrete level. Carl advised us to account for leeway.
With a crew on the bow operating the anchor, the skipper signalled thumb down – drop anchor – and reversed slowly back, keeping the quay sides evenly in sight. If you see one more than the other, straighten up.
Two lengths of the passerelle away, we stopped the anchor: palm up. A crew member with the leeward stern line stood on the passerelle ready to step ashore and slip it through the metal ring, holding the line at 90° to avoid taking the boat’s full weight.
Then we were off again with me at the helm. We didn’t use the cockpit anchor control as a crew on the bow could also ‘flake the chain’ that built up. As a safety aspect, the anchor person should be the only person in control of the winch.
If the pontoon came too close, we raised the anchor to ease away. With the engine ticking over in reverse, the anchor down and one shore line attached, Carl encouraged me to leave the helm to attach the second stern line to show that Drew and I could manage double-handed.
Once both stern lines were back aboard, oxo’d on the cleats, I increased power astern to ensure the anchor was embedded, adjusting the lines. The passerelle was lowered to the wall. If squeezing between two yachts, it is important to ensure your anchor and chain do not overlap anyone else’s.
The pretty anchorage on the south side of ‘Mouse Island’ is a favourite of Carl’s, just off Evia’s north coast. I motored in slowly with crew on the bow looking out for rocks underwater.
After selecting a spot in 4.5m of water, near suitably large rocks ashore, I motored into the wind and dropped anchor, letting it pile up before reversing back – 60m of chain later.
Palm up, I stopped the anchor and increased the revs – lining up a landmark with part of the boat to check we were
stationary. A shoreline was secured around a winch and a large bowline loop tied to the other end was taken ashore by tender, placed over a rock and winched in.
When anchoring in a crowded bay, Carl advises using two shorelines, each at 30°.
We swam in the turquoise waters and attached an outboard engine to the tender to explore further. Dinner was chicken wrapped in bacon, stuffed with mozzarella.
When the sea is particularly ‘san lathi’ or oil-like, it’s said to be the best time to spot dolphins – and, sure enough, two pods of Risso’s dolphins joined us en route to Agnontas.
The small fishing harbour on Skopelos Island’s south coast is sheltered except to southerly winds. Even in August, Carl has always found room here.
Named after an Olympian of ancient Skopelos, Agnontas is close to a rocky headland where Mamma Mia film stars jumped into the sea.
We moored stern-to the quay, leaving the seaward end free for ferries. The village is still under repair after being flood-damaged by torrential rain, which destroyed a popular seafood restaurant.
As the first visiting yacht of the season, the keycard required to access the quay’s water and power was not in the shop as usual. Carl and Phil’s contact in Skopelos drove for 40 minutes to bring a keycard.
We enjoyed stuffed calamari, feta salad and small fried fish while watching the sun set.
The following morning, Carl gave all the crew practice in mooring alongside.
At sea, we took turns at the helm and, when tacking, shouted ‘Crew ready about; helm to lee; lee ho!’ Carl made a game of naming boat parts, we tied knots and undertook three-point fixes – with lots of cocked hats achieved due to the many hard-to-identify rocky peninsulas.
We practised sailing onto a mooring buoy and man overboard drills – using a rope-weighted fender. Nick tested our skills by jumping overboard while sailing.
With one crew pointing at the MOB, we put the engine on, hauled in the mainsail, furled the genoa and manoeuvred upwind to drift down to Nick, keeping the wind on the yacht’s beam. In calm conditions, he drifted astern and climbed aboard.
There was more urgency, Nick felt, when Carl’s hat flew overboard and another rescue was required.
4 Peristeri Bay
Part of a National Marine Park, Peristeri Bay is the largest and most sheltered inlet on the south coast of Peristera Island. The bay’s irregular shape dampens the swell that affects the other two coves; hills protect from the worst of the meltemi winds.
We motored into the inner bay, with white houses dotted along the hillside. Just a dozen residents inhabit the island.
It’s a popular haunt for charter yachts, but on our visit there was just one fishing boat. Careful to avoid rocks at the ends of the beach, we went in to 3m depth, selected a good rock ashore, motored out and reversed slowly, dropping 70m of chain.
As the sand and weed holding wasn’t so good, we first dropped 10m before backing up to ensure the chain was pulled flat, not upwards.
During our first attempt, we changed our mind about the rock, ran out of anchor chain trying to reach another and the wind shifted. We just raised anchor and tried again.
In 4m I stopped the anchor and, with the engine ticking over in reverse, Drew was dispatched in the tender with the shore line. This was winched in and transferred to a cleat. If possible, anchoring with the bow into the wind and a line ashore is the goal.
While setting up a beach barbecue, there was much amusement when Phil shouted: ‘There’s a snake, it’s a big one’ as a tail and then a friendly cat emerged from a bush.
At night, we saw phosphorescent algae.
5 Steni Vala
On the eastern side of Alonnisos Island, just one section of concrete at Steni Vala is deep enough for yachts to moor straight up to, outside Icarus café bar. Other sections have rocks underneath so yachts end up 10m away, with a dinghy connection to the harbour wall.
Around the corner is a little bay, just a 10-minute walk to Steni Vala, that’s often empty bwhile the harbour is packed full.
I motored close to the rocky wall opposite the quayside, keeping an eye on the depth, and lined the yacht up. Signalling thumb down I manoeuvred back between a yacht and a fishing boat and stopped the anchor two to three metres from the harbour wall.
A friendly expat caught our lines. There were housemartins nesting over a café bar light (with the bulb taken out to avoid cooking the bird’s eggs), drinking water on the dock, a traditional taverna, showers and supermarkets ashore.
Shelter from the meltemi is good, but Steni Vala should be avoided in strong south-easterlies.
6 Neo Klima (Elios)
A visit to the outer island Kira Panayia was hampered by a forecast showing east-southeasterly winds increasing through the night.
The day’s west-south-westerly conditions better suited a sail back towards Volos, so we headed for Neo Klima – also known as Elios – north of Panormos on western Skopelos. On the way, we practised goosewinging: at last, a dead run all to myself!
In our week of sailing we only ever saw one or two yachts in the far distance. Carl rigged up a preventer (line from end of boom to forward cleat to prevent a crash jibe) and we cruised with genoa and mainsail on opposite sides for half an hour before the wind changed.
The small, rocky Dasia Island showed we were just 1NM away from Neo Klima. Here the previously-shallow harbour has been dredged to 2.5m, although yachtsmen are advised to be cautious.
We were all set to moor stern-to the scenic empty harbourside when a sudden change of plan saw us moor alongside.
Unfortunately, this resulted in a scratch to Anassa’s port quarter as I had not noticed the large fenders were still astern.
Carl and Phil reassured me it could be easily remedied – a lesson I won’t forget!
A golden retriever puppy slept outside our boat that night. Phil and Carl refused to take him home so we set sail the following morning after buying our new pal a can of dogfood.
7 Koukounaries Bay
Heading back to the Pagasitikos Gulf, we stopped at Koukounaries Bay, Skiathos Island; said to be Greece’s nicest beach and the seventh best in the world.
Some three hours from Neo Klima, the 1km sandy beach has a nature reserve and lagoon buffering it from a lively town. A route plotted on the Navionics boating app took us directly to the bay, with its prominent Skiathos Palace Hotel landmark.
As Carl advised, ‘when the wind is light you have no idea where anyone’s anchor is, so stay well clear of everyone.’ I found a good spot in 5m depth and motored back into the wind to 8m before reversing with 40m of chain. As the anchor bedded in, the yacht’s nose turned back into the wind.
We went ashore in the tender and stocked up for a tomato-based sausage stew and then left the anchorage under sail.
With the engine on to assist the battery operating the anchor control – engine revving at 1,500rpm – we brought the anchor up to 20m and hoisted the main, leaving the mainsheet and reefing jammers off so if the anchor turned the yacht, the sail wouldn’t power up.
As soon as the crew on the bow spotted the anchor in the water they signalled ‘up’, I steered away from the wind: a big wheel movement to starboard, we sheeted in, and were away. Two crew on the bow meant one could flake the chain while the other with the control watched for the anchor.
8 Trikeri Harbour
Trikeri Harbour on Palio Trikeri island saw us mooring stern-to between two other yachts overhanging the quay’s sides.
On the eastern side of the Gulf of Volos entrance, the island is connected to the mainland via a ferry. Like most bays on this coastline, it is sheltered from the meltemi, exposed to westerly and southerly winds.
We crossed our stern lines and, after a peaceful night, woke early for a 20-minute walk to the island’s monastery.
We found flag-decorated gardens with starlings sweeping about, and kittens. Back aboard, we released the leeward stern line first and raised the anchor to pull forward.
9 Zasteni Bay
We practised points of sail around Trikeri island, then found an idyllic lunch spot at Zasteni Bay. After sussing it out, we motored back to 7m depth, turned into the wind and dropped 40m of anchor chain while stationary.
We reversed, dropping more chain until we were in 5m depth, before hauling in 5m to avoid the shallows. Once stationary, it was engine off, holding tank closed, a battery check and time for a swim.
10 Last stop – Kottes
Best food of the trip – high praise indeed – was found at Tseta Taverna at Kottes, on the Pelion peninsula, attached to the mainland via a rural winding road.
Run by a lovely Greek couple, the taverna overlooks the picturesque, deep-water harbour. We enjoyed crayfish linguini, stuffed calamari, feta and beetroot salads, fresh olives, freshlycaught fish, houmous and fresh bread.
Dessert was Greek yoghurt and sweet fruit.
The next day, a three-hour sail took us to Volos. Carl picked up the laid moorings that were linked to the quay by a lazy line, using a boat hook and wearing gloves as these can be covered in sharp shellfish. I reversed back between two yachts, surprisingly smoothly.
Ready for next time
We covered 150NM in our week-long trip.
Yachtmaster instructor Carl said: ‘It’s so easy around here. Everything you’ve done in your Day Skipper course is way more than you need to sail around here.
‘We’re on the edge of the meltemi wind that blows from Turkey down the Aegean all summer long. Here, it’s gentle winds: out in the mid Aegean it can be really strong.’
Former IT engineer Phil, who has lived in Greece for almost 10 years, added: ‘The Gulf of Volos and the Sporades Islands are one of Greece’s best-kept secrets and customers come back again and again. We know all the special places and we would like to welcome a few more people here.’
Carl advised bareboat charterers to research their destination thoroughly in advance, with a rough route plan and alternate options.
Both warned me of the ‘RYA skills fade’ – ‘if you leave it a year between trips, you will have forgotten everything – try to go within six months.’
Despite being far easier sailing conditions than the Day Skipper course had prepared me for, it was still a big – albeit enjoyable – learning curve, and I’m glad Carl and Phil could show me the ropes. Efcharistó!
How we got to Volos
Peak season you can fly to Volos from London (via Skiathos). Pre-season, we flew to Athens (Thessaloniki is also an option) and hired a car for the four-hour drive. Coaches also run regularly.
MIXit Sailing Holidays has access to 40+ charter yachts, from 36-52ft. Anassa costs from €1,365 to €2,640 for a week’s charter – plus a €2,000 deposit and €100 service pack. An instructor/skipper on board costs €150 a day. Find out more at www.mixitsailing.co.uk
A Day Skipper Practical course gives PBO news editor Laura Hodgetts first-hand insights into man overboard recovery, mooring alongside under…
From next year, the distinction between Tidal and Non-Tidal RYA Day Skipper Practical courses will end.
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