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Sailing the Cyclades

Bronze Age to Classical Greece

Victoria Timberlake

Our voyage began on 21 July 2008 when the crew including Trevor Davies, Serena Alexander, Sandra and Lloyd Hamel, Jo Heptinstall, Shelagh Fitzpatrick and I met for lunch at the Royal Hellenic Yacht Club, Piraeus for lunch and pre-trip briefing with skipper Peter Hopps. The outward route tentatively chosen included, happily, the two or three key Bronze Age (3000-1100 B.C.), island sites comprising what archaeologists refer to as the 'Western String'; that is, strategic trading points between Crete and the mainland - Kea, Milos and Santorini. On the return voyage it was decided to visit the great sites of early Archaic to classical Greece (800-323BC): the sacred island of Delos near Mykonos, the temple to Poseidon at Sunion on the tip of Attica and the Theatre of Epidauros on the Peloponnese.

A libation and celebration
Having just raced in the teeth of the meltemi with winds up to 40 knots, Peter and Trevor decided it preferable to sail to Kea, the closest island on the first day and then overnight to the farthest point, Santorini, island hopping our way back at a more leisurely pace to the Mainland. In the Yacht Club's grounds were the remains of a classical altar to Athena Mounikia to whom we made a libation asking for fair winds and happy archaeo adventures. Later that evening, our crew were privileged to join Peter, Hilary and Trevor at the Greek Naval Headquarters for the presentation of the Rally awards and glorious banquet, presided over by a bust of Themistocles, hero of the nearby Battle of Salamis (480 BC).


Kea to Santorini
Slipping our anchor on a light, shake-down cruise at 11.00am we moored in the beautiful Voukari Bay, Kea within the larger natural harbour of Aghia Nicholaus at 18.50pm, opposite the famous Bronze Age site of Aghia Irini. The site itself, whose buildings and fortifications range in time from 3200-1100 BC, is closed to the public, but the author managed to arrange a private tour with a member of the Kea Museum archaeological department next morning. Following what was to be a typical Greek taxi drama, we arrived at the archaeological museum housing the site's remarkable artefacts, including their unique 2/3 life-size clay fertility goddesses (or possibly very well-endowed votive figures).

Casting off at 6.15pm we were in for an adventurous overnight sail, with northerly winds gusting from 10-35 knots and two reefs finally in sail. The half moon rose indicating the string of islands to West, whose uninterrupted visability would have guided the Bronze Age sailors from the mainland along the Western String to Santorini and ultimately Crete. The sun rising over Santorini and its bay which was formed by the catastrophic volcano eruption of c.1450BC, was one of the 'magic moments' of the trip. Entering the bay, we sought mooring at Fira, only to be turned away and redirected to Vlikadha, which proved too shallow and Ayios Nikolau, which proved too deep. Finally, like nautical Goldilockses, we found a good buoy at Finikia at the foot of the beautiful town of Ia which we had sailed past 8 (!) hours earlier. We could not dive into the cool, clear water fast enough.

That evening we ate at Yanni's on the little waterfront, a time-warp taverna. The local, cheap delicious Santorini white wine flowed as Yanni donned his special sponge hat and performed magic tricks between courses. The following morning we climbed the 286 cardiac-inducing steps up the side of the caldera to Ia where we caught a taxi to Fira (Thera) and the new archaeological museum which displayed the treasures of Akrotiri, the "Pompeii of the Cyclades". The actual site of Akrotiri, whose harbour we had sailed past the previous day, is shut until 2010, but the frescoes, the finest in Bronze Age Cycladic art, were superb, and the artefacts testified to the wealthy and cosmopolitan nature of this mercantile community. The volcanic eruption which destroyed not only this site, but probably also put paid to Cretan palatial civilization, may well have served as a basis for the myth of Atlantis.

Approaching Santorini

Ios to Delos
Ios, reputed to be the burial sit of shipwrecked Homer, was a stop-over destination the next afternoon en route to Delos. We were temporarily becalmed in a lake-like Med when Sandra announced "All we need now are some dolphins." As if on cue, a pair appeared and chased each other around the boat. Once moored, Jo Heptinstall managed to befriend motel owners who let us swim in their pool and take showers, a blessing after a salty, sweaty sail. Early next morning we cast off for a full day's cruise, arriving at 17.30 pm at Mykonos's new harbour, a nasty, inhospitable building site about 2km from the main town. The island is, however, the closest legal mooring to our Delos destination, to which we took a ferry next day in the 38+ degree heat. Believed to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, it was in its hey day (8th -2nd C. BC) the most sacred place in Greece and is among the most extensive and spectacular classical sites in the country, including the great Lion Terrace, mosaics and marble temples and amphitheatre.


Sunion to Epidaurus and Piraeus
Weighing anchor at 7.25am, we moored at Sunion on the southern tip of Attica, overlooked by Poseidon's monumental temple (440BC ) twelve hours later. As with our own voyage, the temple was the last thing sailors from Bronze Age to Classical times saw leaving the mainland and the first on their return and, like them, we hiked up in the evening along the sacred way and made a libation to thank the god for such good winds and weather. Too, too early next morning (7.15am) we raised anchor and again thanks to brisk wind, moored in the old harbour at Epidaurus at 13.30pm, one of the most artistically and sympathetically restored harbour squares with great restaurants and friendly taxi drivers who happily - and reasonably - ferried us to and fetched us from the great amphitheatre at Epidaurus and the nearby sanctuary of Aesclepios (7th-2nd C. BC) Serena successfully tested the claim that a coin dropped on the stage could be heard in the back row.


We were sorry to leave, but with Cowes a few days away, we made for Piraeus next morning after 386 NM. So rapid was our transit that we had to wait for our reserved spot at the Royal Hellenic and Serena, for whom the word 'plucky' could have been invented, swam out to a nearby buoy rope to tie our line until a place was vacated, returning peppered with muscle shell cuts from the encrusted rope. We celebrated our great cruise, fine sailing companions and archaeo adventures with the best fish meal of the entire voyage and named our 'magic moments' (cue Perry Como song): in addition to those already mentioned were the theatre at Epidaurus, Aghia Irini and the Akrotiri frescoes, sleeping on deck under the stars and (Peter Hopps) finding a *@?! mooring at Santorini.

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