First Charter - Flotilla holiday in the Ionian, Greece

For our first yachting holiday we decided to do a flotilla cruise. We were comforted by the idea of sailing in company with other yachts and with an experienced Flotilla leader to help us see the best spots and help deal with the tricky parts like berthing the boat.

After a bit of research I decided we should go to Greece. I bought the excellent Greek Waters Pilot by Rod Heikel, which is one of the best pilot books I have ever owned and it was invaluable, particularly when we went to the Cyclades in 2002.

My criteria was to find an easy cruising ground and I wanted a nice modern boat that wouldn't put Bev off with stinky toilets and a thick smell of diesel in the saloon. I found a nearly new Dufour 32 called Ariel was available in the Sunsail flotilla in the Ionian. It had tiller steering rather than wheel, which I would have preferred, but it was otherwise perfect so we booked it and the optional GPS and cruising chute. It was to be a fortuitous decision.

So we pitched up in Sami, in Cephalonia.

Sailingholidays charter map of the Ionian

Cephalonia was in the midst or a tourism boom thanks to the film Captain Corelli's Mandolin which had recently been filmed there.

The rest of the flotilla crews were a bit like us, inexperienced. Some more so, some less.

I immediately liked our Flotilla leaders. There were three of them together on the the lead yacht, a couple and a guy who had the job of mechanic and fixer-upper.

The flotilla leaders would set us off for the day, then motor ahead of us to be able to help us tie up at the next port before nodding in the direction of the best Taverna in town. Had the makings of a fun job and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

As we left Sami for our first stop, there was a bit of a heated argument between one of the guests and the flotilla leader. The guest had assumed that there would be a GPS on his boat, but there wasn't and there were none available now to rent. I thought about offering him ours, but decided to keep it as I wasn't familiar with the area at all.

As we left for our first stop, I experienced that disorientation that you often get when first going to sea. Everything should be more or less line-of-sight in the Ionian but I quickly got confused about which island was which amidst the myriad of possibilities. So I switched on the GPS and we were soon on the right track.

That evening it had already been dark for a couple of hours and there was still no sight of the boat without the GPS. We were all getting a bit worried, when out of the darkness they somehow appeared. Even the skipper confided to me that he wasn't sure how he found us..

The first night we stayed at an abandoned village. There are several of these in the area. They were abandoned after a severe earthquake in 1953. In the case of this village it wasn't just the damage to the buildings that forced the villagers away but the earthquake destroyed the villages water supply.

As we slept off a late night round the BBQ, I heard a loud honking noise. It was a little after 7am.

As I stuck my head out of the companion way I could see an open fishing boat filled with people and a strange man standing at the bow. He was a priest with a flowing grey beard and the big black gown and hat typical of the Greek Orthodox church. The wanted into the quay, presumably to have a service or tend the remains of the fallen down church in the village, but the space was blocked by some of the yachts. We weren't in their way so I slunk back to my berth, partly tired, partly embarrassed that we were being a nuisance to the locals.

The rest of the trip was fairly un-eventful. We got close to Skorpios Island, which was owned by Onassis and where he married Jackie Kennedy. We were warned not to try to land because it is still private and the security people will come after you.

At another port, either Vasi or Spilia on Meganisi, an energetic German guy jumped into the water and swam out to the boat, to help us tie up, at his taverna of course. No problem with that and we were happy with the deal.

Later we hunkered down for a few days in Vasiliki because the wind was a bit strong. Here we met another flotilla, this time made up of somewhat older yachts. All the women on the other flotilla were complaining about the conditions aboard and it vindicated our thinking about chartering a newer boat.

The other memorable thing about Vasiliki was our first experience of katabatic wind. Vasiliki was known as a windsurfers paradise. we were surprised to see them all heading out at about 5 o'clock not long before darkness, when you usually expect the wind to be dying out in this part of the world. But in Vasiliki there is a huge mountain along the west side of the bay. As the hillside goes into darkness the air along the side of the mountain collapses into the bay and creates a surge of wind of more than 25 kts. Very exciting for the windsurfers and impressive to watch from the safety of the harbour wall!

The weather had meant that we didn't get to do all the ports I had hoped but we had a final treat on the way down to Sami. A nice fresh breeze came up from astern and I was able to fly the cruising chute for miles and miles, easily leaving the other flotilla yachts in our wake.

A great end to our first sailing holiday.