A California couple turned the Mediterranean into their boating playground for eight cruising seasons.
CRUISE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN for eight years? On our own boat? A powerboat? What an insane idea! Only rich people could do that. That’s what I thought during the many years my husband and I were working long hours and raising two children. Everything changed in May 1997. Bruce and I were on a holiday, driving through Turkey and mulling our upcoming retirement, when we arrived in the touristy coastal town of Bodrum. Disappointed by the colorless hotels, we eyed the dozens of gulets in the harbor, tied stern-to the wharf. Gulets are classic, beamy, wooden boats that look a bit like Chinese junks; they have sails but almost always run under power. Several displayed “For Charter” signs.“Why not?” We concluded after spotting the perfect boat, small but seaworthy, glowing in the morning sun but with no charter sign. “Would you take us out for a night?” Bruce bravely asked the young couple sitting on the boat. A few hours later — after our hosts bought supplies in town — we were headed to sea, the boat’s single-cylinder diesel engine chugging contentedly.
That night we rocked on the anchor, feasted on a fresh fish dinner, drank Turkish raki with our Muslim host, listened to his mystical sufi music and watched the stars. On that glorious night, we discovered our retirement plan: we’d cruise the Mediterranean.
Making it Happen
We spent years planning and fretting. We had so many decisions to make but found no helpful resources — no books, no articles, nothing. We had always been sailors, disdainful of “stinkpots,” but we quickly overcame our prejudices and decided on a powerboat, both for comfort, since we would live on the boat full time, and because winds in the Mediterranean are mostly non-existent or raging — not ideal for sailing. In early 2003, we bought Avanti, a 10-year-old 39-foot Ocean
Alexander, in Palma, Mallorca, in Spain. By June we were off — just me, Bruce and our small black dog, Roka, then
about 4 years old. We cruised for the next eight seasons — May through September — and explored Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Turkey and Northern Cyprus. It was the adventure of a lifetime.
In Spain, we climbed ancient castles and docked for two weeks in the bustling marina in the heart of downtown Barcelona. In France, we pedaled our bikes up steep slopes in unbearable heat to Cote d’Azur hill towns, with Roka sitting in a box on the back of Bruce’s bike, and each morning we devoured freshly baked, buttery French croissants. In Italy, we hiked the Cinque Terre, learned the wonders of Elba and Corsica, and landed in a Venice marina with an awesome view of Piazza San Marco. In Croatia, we cruised through the enchanting Kornati Islands, barren and stunning, where the only inhabitants were owners of seasonal tavernas — usually one per island — who offered us free mooring balls and freshly caught octopus. In Greece, we entered Santorini’s volcanic caldera by sea — one of life’s most memorable sights — and visited
so many Greek islands that we could no longer keep their names straight. In Turkey and North Cyprus, we learned to love the atonal Muslim call to prayer. On Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, we paddled our blowup kayaks through 2,500-year-old Lycian sarcophagi that had tumbled into the sea during earthquakes over the centuries.
In each country, we tied up in ancient ports or rocked gently at anchor in wooded coves. Our memories of these eight years are the richest and most satisfying of our lives.
Wiser Now: What lessons did we learn from our adventures, other than that the sea can be glorious one moment and terrifying the next?
1. Not the Same
BOATING IN THE MEDITERRANEAN is very different from boating in the U.S. Six lessons exhibit those differences best:
2. If you’d like a quiet marina finger dock, forget it. Marinas and town wharves are free-for-alls. The rule of Med mooring: find a likely opening along the dock or wharf and back in, with the bow pulled tight out front either by a laid line — a line cemented to the harbor floor and pulled up from the sea in a panic by the first mate — or by the boat’s anchor, carefully dropped at exactly the right spot to allow the stern to back up to the dock as the anchor pulls taut in front.
3. The length of a day’s travel is perfect. Mediterranean seaports were built approximately 50 miles apart, a one-day row for an ancient Greek trireme, and a perfect distance for a powerboat to cruise from one ancient port to the next.
4. You can’t make marina reservations. This can be a curse when you are seeking available dock space late in the day, but it’s also a blessing, since once you are ensconced at the dock, no one will kick you out. Stay until you decide it’s time to move on. 5 On the more disgusting side, pumpout facilities don’t exist. Black water is supposed to be dumped three miles offshore, but often it ends up in the marina. Never swim in a Mediterranean port. 6 Finally, anyone lulled into believing the Mediterranean is a gentle sea will be shocked — just read Homer’s “Odyssey.” Raging storms arise with no warning.
2. Picky about Pets
EUROPE HAS A REPUTATION for being dog-friendly, and that’s true in Spain, France, Italy and Croatia. But beware of Greece and Turkey. In Greece, cats rule. Roka suffered two unprovoked cat attacks, and locals blamed her merely because she’s a dog. Greeks who saw us coming often moved away to avoid passing close to Roka, unlike the French and Italians who practically fought for the chance to pet her. We left her home during our second year in Greece and didn’t take her to Turkey. As a friend-maker, Roka was one of the most fun parts of our trip, so we missed her those years.
3. Pocketbook Friendly
A TRIP LIKE OURS is easier and less expensive than you might think. Buying a boat in Europe and arranging to leave home for months at a time each year can be a hassle, but it’s manageable. And because we rented out our house while we were away, we pretty much broke even. As it turned out, our adventure wasn’t just for the rich. It was for us.
4. Change Your Perception
THE BEST PLACES FOR BOATING are not necessarily where you’d expect. We thought Greece would be the highlight, but it failed to meet that standard due to lack of marinas, raging meltemi winds that can blow for more than a week, lack of competent help for repairs and maintenance, and the out-of-control Greek bureaucracy with its pointless rules, usually ignored even though fines for violating the most obscure rule can be greater than $1,000. Many eastbound boaters scurry through Greece as quickly as possible to head to the friendlier waters of Turkey.
Still committed to Greece? Two Greek island groups are highlights: the Saronic Islands, just south of Athens, and the Ionian Islands, west of the Greek mainland. The Saronics include famous Hydra, with its charming artist town where no wheeled vehicles are allowed, not even bicycles. That accounts for the dozens of donkeys standing at the wharf, ready to haul everything from lumber to mattresses. The Ionian Islands are blanketed with sweet-smelling pines and olive trees, unlike the barren rocky islands east of Greece. And the summer winds in the Ionians are mild and reliable — no meltemis.
If not Greece, where are the best places for cruising? For sailors, Croatia promises consistent, mild winds, modern marinas, helpful and competent dockhands, ancient walled cities dotting the coast and the breathtaking Kornati Islands. Our personal favorite? Turkey. We enjoyed modern marinas, amazing ruins and friendly, competent Turks eager to prove that they love visiting boaters. Turkey’s Fethiye Bay is a gem, containing at least 10 small wooded inlets, some dotted with Lycian tombs, and each with a taverna, whose owner offers free mooring or docking for boaters and a delectable meal on a rickety table a few feet from the water’s edge. Our favorite place in the Mediterranean is nearby Kekova — a large, quiet bay with two tiny villages, each with three competing docks vying to provide visiting boaters with free space, electricity (extension cord), water (rubber hose) and even fresh, warm bread delivered to the boat each morning. We loved the bay for its quiet beauty, its ancient castle, its scattered Lycian sarcophagi, and its sunken Roman city, Simena.