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The ins and outs of sailing around the Mediterranean Sea

by Adrienne & Steve of SV Seaforth 2 Mar 2020 19:50 UTC
Local fishing boats © Adrienne & Steve of SV Seaforth

Sailing a yacht around the Mediterranean Sea is a dream or lifelong aspiration for many sailors. It sounds exotic and marvellous, sun-soaked and sophisticated, glamorous and exciting.

And it can be all of those things. But long term cruising around the Mediterranean is like long term cruising anywhere - there are ups and downs, excitement for good and bad reasons - and generally as much fun as you want to make it.

So, in 2018 we flew to Spain to join a good friend on his recently purchased yacht to help him sail it around the Mediterranean. Boat brokers the world over have a bit of a reputation (and with some of them it is richly deserved).

European boat brokers (and even contractors and service agents) appear to be a different animal entirely. Without someone looking over their shoulder and pushing them along (badgering them basically) they can have a bit of a laissez faire attitude. Issues that can be very important to a new boat owner either get lost in translation, mislaid or caught up in the mañana attitude where it will be dealt with "tomorrow". It's a different culture.

With the boat mostly sorted we set out to explore the Mediterranean coast of Spain around Barcelona. Interestingly, it's not very interesting. It's a long expanse of straightish coastline with marinas in artificial harbours constructed every 20 miles or so. Luckily, the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Formentera) are only 120 miles or so offshore from Barcelona.

Palma de Mallorca is a major yachting centre and there are many very large and expensive bing shoulders with tiny local fishing boats and just about everything in between. Out of Palma there are many beautiful little coves and bays around Mallorca and we circumnavigated the island, exploring as we went.

For tax purposes we needed to get the boat out of EU waters, so from Mallorca we set off for Tunisia in North Africa. After a two day passage we arrived in Tabarca, a little fishing port in Northern Tunisia.

Somehow during that two day passage we had managed to travel back in time about 30 years. Life in Tunisia was certainly a little more basic, but the people were friendly and welcoming and the food was fresh and cheap. As visiting foreigners in a small town we were a bit of an oddity to start with but in the two weeks we stayed in Tabarca we made friends and found some real characters.

Tunisia has its modern marinas as well, as we found when we moved to Monastir, where we spent an enjoyable and more modern feeling couple of weeks.... including Christmas Day, although Christmas in a Muslim country is an entirely surreal experience.

Some of the best examples of Roman civilisation construction are to be found in Tunisia. We were amazed at the underground houses in Bulla Regia, complete with beautifully intricate mosaic flooring, and the massive amphitheatre in El Jem, only slightly smaller than the Colliseum in Rome but more complete and in much better condition.

After filling with cheap diesel we left Tunisia for Sicily, arriving in Palermo just before New Year. Sicilians certainly know how to party with massive free concerts, cheap wine and excellent street food. The boat was based in Palermo for a couple of months while the skipper returned to NZ for some family business, so we took advantage of cheap flights and buzzed around Europe for a few days in cities like Athens, Budapest, Prague, Dublin, Edinburgh, Marseilles, Berlin, Krakow and Vienna before returning to the boat.

Reunited with the skipper once again we did some touring around Sicily before sailing off to the Aeolian Islands (Lipari, Vulcano, Stromboli, etc) and then on to the infamous Messina Strait and down to Syracuse, the hometown of Archimedes the Greek mathematician, engineer and inventor.

At this stage we were still fairly early in the European cruising season so there were not many other yachts about, but we did meet up with an Australian couple (and their dog, Sally) whom we had first met in Monastir, Tunisia. We were able to offer them some assistance when their tender and outboard were stolen while locked to the town quay.

We cleared out of Italy and sailed across to Greece to the Ionian Island of Kefalonia and from there we sailed southward around the Peloponese Peninsulas, taking in places such as Olympia (the home of the original Olympic Games), Methoni, Kalamata (famous for its olives), the fortified village of Monemvasia, and Porto Cheli.

Here we were joined by guests and we spent a pleasant week cruising up to Navplion and back before heading to Poros, Aeigina Island and sidestepping Athens to head northward up the Evia Channel toward northern Greece.

With guests departing and new ones arriving on the way, we met fellow cruisers and spent an enjoyable time around the "Mamma Mia" Islands of Skiathos, Skopelos and Alanissos where they had filmed the two Mamma Mia movies (complete with requisite viewing of the movies and compulsory singalongs).

From here we sailed southwest to Skyros (where they play the 2001 Space Odyssey theme music whenever a ferry approaches the dock) and on to Chios. The southern half of this island is the only place in the world where they grow Mastika trees which produced the original chewing gum from Ancient Greek times. The mastika gum is now used as an ingredient in pharmaceuticals, food products and they make a very unusual and extremely tasty liqueur from it as well.

The island of Chios sits only about three miles from the coast of Turkey so we hopped across the border and cleared in to Turkey at Çesme. We then hopped down the coast to Kusadasi (close to Ephesus, an amazing Roman era city), Didyma (where there are some stunning Greek ruins) and southward to Bodrum, which used to be called Halicarnassus in ancient times and was known as a party town... not a lot has changed.

From Bodrum we sailed westward back to Greece, past the island of Kos (famous for lettuce) and through the Dodecanese Islands to the Cyclades Islands of Naxos, Paros and Mikonos.

We continued westward to Kythnos and eventually back to mainland Greece at Porto Cheli before hopping to Athens to drop guests off and pick up new ones. Next we navigated the Corinth Canal and sailed into the Gulf of Patras, stopping at Galaxadhi to tour the ancient site of Delphi, visiting the harbour within a castle at Navpaxtos, and then passing beneath the Rion-Antirion Bridge and back to the Ionian Sea.

Ithaca, Levkas, Preveza and Corfu were all on the agenda before finally preparing the boat and putting her safely on the hard at Preveza at the end of the European cruising season at the end of October.

During the fourteen months we were sailing the Mediterranean we found beautiful islands, clear water, asurprising amount of marine wildlife (including many fish.... most of which were quite small by NZ standards), ancient ruins, modern developments, large cities, small towns, tiny fishing ports, glamorous super yachts, moderately sized yachts, tiny fishing craft, chartered yachts, private yachts and tour boats, beautiful people and good honest hard-working folk.

There were light winds, no winds, high winds (at times for days at a stretch), steep seas and flat water. We met some fantastic people both on the water and off and got to share our experience with some of our friends who helped to keep our eyes open and to keep the wonder alive.

It was a challenging place to sail at times, with changeable conditions, high levels of marine traffic and surprisingly vague charting, but overall it was an extremely rewarding experience.

Having spent only a relatively short period of time in the Med, we found that there is so much to see and do, so many places to go and explore and such a wide variety of activities and experiences to be enjoyed within the Mediterranean.

From the food to the culture, the history and the attitudes of the people, there really is so much to learn and experience. If you have any interest at all in experiencing the Mediterranean from the water, we would strongly encourage you to follow your dreams and find a way to get there to experience it.

You don't need a big ocean going yacht to do it either - 38-42 feet of standard production boat is all you need, and there is a huge number of such boats for well under NZ$100K for sale all around the Med. Most major anchorages are 30NM/half a day sail from each other, you tie up at the town quay for a small fee or free, and food and drink at the adjacent taverns is fresh and reasonably priced.

You can cruise here with a lot smaller and simpler boat than you would need for the Pacific. So, the old mantra stands - go small, go cheap, go NOW! Just keep a wary eye out for those European boat brokers though!!

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