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Sailing in Greece

This page describes the more general aspects of cruising in Greece, weather, when to go, yacht support, and travel. The right hand menu leads to  pages describing each region in far more detail.

The law outlining what is required of leisure boats, written in Greek of course, is not published to visitors. You will get conflicting instructions from officials about what is required. Unexpected expenses are sometimes incurred if you don't read the small print. Keep smiling; sanctions for "breaking the rules" are very rare indeed.

See Greek Culture, Rules and Regulation for Yachts for more detail.

Mediterranean - Features Common to all Regions

Greek Sailing Weather

The weather is typical Mediterranean. For a couple of periods each year temperatures may exceed 38ºC, uncomfortably hot, especially in the Saronic and around Khalkidiki. For wind forecasting, it’s convenient to think of only two sorts of weather: settled, and unsettled. In settled weather, normal in summer, an overlay of northerly winds cools things down a bit at sea. These northerlies are particularly strong in the Aegean, where, known as the "meltemi", they will often reach  F7 for 2 or 4 days at a time in high summer.  Downwind of high ground, very strong gusts may occcur.  There is a very convenient SMS weather forecast service - provided by Poseidon, in addition to its web forecast service. Also have a look at http://cirrus.meteo.noa.gr/forecast/bolam/index.htm. Similar graphic web based forecasts are available from Hellenic National Met Services

Settled weather. Settled weather is nice, the sky is blue, the winds do what the pilot book says (quite a lot in some areas!), and all the regular anchorages are fine. From mid May to late September settled weather dominates, with only rare sessions of unsettled weather. South of latitude 38°N (Gulfs of Patras and Corinth) the season is noticeably longer, some 2 to 4 weeks at each end.

Unsettled Weather. Unsettled Weather is when there are significant clouds around (ignoring the usual mainland thunderstorms) which may last two to four days. Then anything may happen, including occasional very vicious and unpredictable winds from unusual directions. Unsettled weather is quite common in winter. From October through to April two or three sessions of unsettled weather a month are likely, a bit like English summer. Except the winds will be vicious. May and September are transitional months, when there's a 50% chance you'll find a session of unsettled weather in a two week period.

Greek windsThe Northerlies. Summer is dominated by northerly winds (afternoon "maistro" in the Ionian, the day long “meltemi” in the Aegean), which blow quite strongly for two to four days at a time, sometimes longer. These set in by the end of June and continue until early September. The strength varies widely between areas, lightest in the Ionian, Saronic and N Greece, strongest in the mid Aegean. "Meltemi alley" is illustrated here with a picture from www.poseidon.ncmr.gr. The orange is F7, a fairly common occurrence. To cross to the delightful Dodecanese, it's best to wait for a lighter wind period, or do it with the wind on the beam. Then enjoy the flatter water and brisk breezes of the Dodecanese and the Eastern Sporades to the north.

Local Weather Effects. At these latitudes, amateur analysis of synoptic charts doesn’t work well. Small pressure gradients cause big winds, while diurnal heating and physical geography have strong local effects. A forecast F5 will blow at F7 when backing around a small island, and F3 veering around the other side. Downwind of a ridge will amplify a F5 into a local F7 (Vassiliki in Levkada, Mani in the S Peloponese) with lots of gusts to add interest. Deep bays may have consistent daily thermal winds blowing against the general northerly trend; afternoons with southerly F4 or F5 are common in the bay of Kalamata and the Argolic gulf. 

When to Go

The main sailing season is between 15 April and 15 October. Outside this period there is plenty of settled weather (with light winds) but the likelihood of meeting unsettled weather with its really vicious winds during a two week cruise is high, so look for weather windows and keep within range of good shelter. Tourist activity is thin before 15 May, then moderate, jumping to a maximum in peak season (15 July to 25 August), then remaining busy until 15 October. Everything works during that period. After then, away from towns, things are very quiet indeed, especially during the olive harvest.

The Sailing

Greece has long periods of warm settled weather, magnificent scenery, historic sites going back four millennia, villages with character, tatty towns with little high rise development, and welcoming people. There's also a strong sense of security. This is the stuff of big tourism – a major industry.

With thousands of miles of deeply indented coastlines and over sixty islands (ranging from the primitive to the height of sophistication) Greek cruising offers enormous variety. Sailing is easy, though some areas have challenging winds. No passages need to be longer than 70nm, the water is warm. Only two places have significant tidal currents. Most areas are rich with ports and anchorages, so it’s easy to see why the Inland Ionian and the region around Athens have become very popular. Both are crowded with yacht traffic in peak season, as hectic as parts of the western Mediterranean, but much cheaper, since there are few marinas. Even in popular regions it's still possible to escape the crowds, and away from these regions there are relatively few yachts.  All together, Greece has one of the world’s great cruising areas, one which would take years to explore thoroughly. Greek Cruising Regions

Comparing the Regions.

The Ionian, north of Zakinthos, is deservedly popular, sheltered, with light winds, but very crowded in peak season. The Gulf of Patras and W Peloponnese are coasts of passage, with persistent moderate westerlies or north westerlies. The attractive S Peloponnese coast has many sandy beaches and coves, an earlier start to summer, and relatively few yachts. The E Peloponnese has convenient southerly winds, blowing towards the Saronic Gulf and Athens area, which is very sheltered but very crowded in peak season. In the Aegean, regular brisk northerlies cut in.  Sailors comfortable with Caribbean trade winds will feel at home in the Cyclades, a magnificent archipelago of great variety. Smaller boats may prefer to coast hop inside Evia to the popular N Sporades, and along the N Greece coast in order to escape the meltemi. And at the end of the road are the delightful Dodecanese chain of islands. Such a shame it is such a regulatory fuss to shuttle between Turkey and the Greek islands; to be able to do that without bureaucracy would create a perfect cruising ground.

Yacht Services

Specialist yacht services are only well developed around Athens and Levkas, where a very good range of chandlery is available. Compared with most other EU countries, getting reliable repairs or yacht work done on time without close supervision is not easy. Simple fishermens' chandlery is cheap and available everywhere. Electronic services are more difficult to track down. Some other limited services:

Ports, Harbours and Marinas

Full service marinas are few, often simple, and don't offer the sophistications (swimming pools, club houses) reached in other countries. There are many small quaysides which don't charge fees. Others (usually those with recetly dredged quaysides or pontoons with water and power) charge variable fees for "services" in season. Some are marinas in waiting, with no management or services yet in place — very cheap harbours. Fuel is usually delivered by tanker, though some places have fuelling points. Island water supplies are also often by tanker. Self sufficiency is useful outside the busy areas.

Travel

Airports. Only Athens and Thessaloniki airports offer reliable year round daily international scheduled flights. Internal flights feed islands and a few mainland airports on limited days of the week, and are sometimes seasonal.

  • Scheduled Flights. From UK, maximum flexiblity is offered by BA from LHR to ATH, with three flights a day out of season, four a day over summer. Early one way bookings are usually just over £100. Bookings rise in price as the plane fills, sometimes reaching £300 one way. Easyjet and Ryan Air add more options.
  • Athens Hotels. When using Athens airport in combination with long ferry or bus rides, it's often convenient to rest up near the near the airport. A favourite place for many sailors is Peri's Hotel. His 2013 price of €80 for a double bed and light breakfast included hotel pick up and drop off. Otherwise, Athens hotels close to Plaka (convenient for airport buses) range from €50 a night upwards, including light breakfasts.
  • Charter Flights. Charter flights are seasonal (April or May to September or October), cover a much wider range of airports, but usually only on certain days of the week. Busy charter airports are Corfu, Athens, Aktion (Preveza), Kos, Rhodos. "Consolidators" often run a market for spare (and cheap) last minute one way charter seats for these airports. When bought well ahead, these flights are usually only sold as returns from UK to Greece and back, and will be priced from £300 upwards.

Bus. The most reliable transport system in Greece is the long distance bus service, linking outlying towns with bus stations in Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras. The Athens bus station (Kifissou) is linked to the airport by express buses (X93) which leave every 20 minutes during the day, or 45 mins in the small hours of the night, taking 1 hour for the trip. 

Ferries. Islands are served by ferries which depart from Piraeus (Athens port), connected to the airport by the X96 express bus service.

The Way of Life

People and Politics. War, followed by civil war, caused large numbers of young Greeks to emigrate from 1940 onwards. Life for the remainder was harsh. After a period of variable democracy, a military junta ruled, embedding a ‘do as you’re told’ culture among public servants, and a strong independent self reliance among the people. In 1974 the army rebelled against the junta, and democracy was restored. As the country stabilised, expatriates returned, bringing their well-educated Australian, American, Canadian and other nationality offspring with them. This younger generation is re-orienting Greece’s culture to a far worldlier outlook. But the older generation still has influence; politics echo the civil war divisions – right against left – with great passion; bureaucrats still do as they’re told; laws are created without too much consultation with those affected – and then ignored. Self-reliance, a strong entrepreneurial culture, strong family links, and a certain disrespect for ‘stupid laws’ remains.

Village Life. Although easily reached by boat, many islands and villages are still too remote for the package tourist, so they’ve kept their local character. It's easy to anchor off or tie to a quay at little or no cost in these places and become part of village life. In quieter spots the older generation still dresses traditionally and greets you with friendly ‘herete’ or ‘kalimera’. They’ll also expect you to greet them when you enter a shop or taverna, and may ignore you if you don’t! Busy places lose this charm to more commercial interests, but a short walk inland to a nearby hilltop village will escape that effect.

‘Avrio . . . ‘  means ‘tomorrow’. Add ‘maybe’ and perhaps you’ve got the translation right. Time management is not a strong point, and arranging things to happen can be very frustrating. Delays and cancellations make the half completed project boringly normal. If you’re not supervising, boat work usually stops.

Opening Hours. Opening hours for shops are flexible, but it’s common for them to shut from 14:00 to 17:30. In tourist areas Sunday opening is common. Bureaucrats, banks and many public services shut down at 13:00 or 14:00, and definitely don’t do Sundays. And while we’re doing time, local summer time is UTC +3.

The Script. I doesn't help that the alphabet is different from our latin script; ‘ΜΠΑΡ’ = ‘Bar’; sometimes also spelt as 'Mπάρ'. This gives shopping a sense of adventure. Luckily, road signs are repeated in Latin script. Transliterations from Greek (a highly phonetic language) to English (anything but!) leave a lot of room for entertainment as well as puzzlement.

Food. Greece is beginning to do Gourmet, but, while spreading, it’s not yet common. The norm is simplicity; bright neon lights, kitsch decorations, a TV in the corner, paper table cloths, plastic wind breaks, good value for money, tourists feeding cats (un-aware of the rats which follow later) and three categories of simple food. Three categories? Grills, oven cooked food, and fish. Carafe wine is mostly good quality "wine in a box", excellent value, and improving year by year. A few tavernas still bring  "owner's home brew" yeastily fizzing to your table; this is a cheap gamble.  Bottled wine from a taverna is definitely an expensive gamble - hot storage and low turnover kills many very fine local wines.  Daily food and drink costs for a couple who eat aboard during the day, with evening taverna meals, is around €80.

Café Culture. Many small towns have cafés around squares or along favoured streets where the local population come out for an evening stroll. This 'volta' in the evening is a delightful institution whereby (before the days of the mobile telephone!) families and friends kept in touch. Great people watching. It is, of course, very important to be seen in one of the more expensive and luxurious cafés, leaving the older male generation to fill the austere, neon lit places between.

What to See

Greece has three categories of ‘must sees’; the millennia old ruins of early civilisations; those few beautiful town and village centres which have survived earthquakes and developers; and spectacular natural sites. Whilst many of these are easily reached from a harbour or boat, others require a journey inland. A travel book such as ‘The Rough Guide to Greece’ is a definitive source of information. The following attractions are really worth a trek:

  • The Minoan Palace at Knossos (near Iraklion,Crete) offers insights which make all other sites easier to understand
  • Olympia, crowded, but easily reached by a neat little train from Katakolon on the W Peloponnese, is well labeled in English 
  • Mistras, reached from the S Peloponnese, is a less crowded site, better preserved, but poorly labelled
  • The 'hora'. On any smaller island, seek out the hora, the old village, a piece of the past, set high on the island for protection against pirates
  • Dramatically sited monasteries teetering from soaring rock pinnacles are one of the most extraordinary features of Greece (Europe, for that matter). Metéora, reached from the NW Aegean is one example; others (more accessible by sea) line the peninsula of Athos, in N Aegean.
  • The Samaria gorge, accessible from Chania, Crete, offers a 10 mile walk through massive clefts in the mountains.
  • Rhodes’ Crusader Castle, though full of tourists, is massively impressive 
  • The mediaeval village of Monemvassia is a warren of arches and alleyways and well restored houses
  • The views from Thyra (Santorini) have made this a honeymoon capital of Europe.
  • Contrast hedonistic (and smart) Mykonos with the nearby ruins of Delos – ancient and modern, you might say.
  • And, of course, you have to see the Athens Parthenon and its accompanying museum!

Avoid

  • Major ferry ports, unless you have to catch a ferry.
  • Square, concrete, graffiti covered development around towns.
  • Driving! But if you have to, drive defensively, ready for the overtaking vessel coming around the blind corner in front of you.
  • Laganas (Zakinthos) and Kardamena (Kos) - unless booze and all night noise are your thing.

Never rely on:

  • Sound signals made by vessels around small ports. Any sound may mean 'hullo', 'goodbye', 'get out  of my way!', 'I'm going to turn', 'I'm not going to turn' or 'hey guys, do you like my new horn?'
  • Car Hazard Lights or Turn Indicators. They may mean any of the above, (especially if accompanied by a sound signal). Or, 'I'm double parked'.

 

Last reviewed Jul 2017


 

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