Halkidiki and Mount Athos
I am frequently asked what I do. A question that puzzles me. I do the same as everyone else: I do life. To clarify, I open my palms to indicate the here and now. This is what I do.
At times life is an expedition. Other times it is a journey, trip, voyage, adventure. Occasionally it presents as a slog, or ordeal. The nature of experience changes. Sometimes cyclically, but never quite the same, for time - experience - only happens once. As with weather, moon phase, the seasons... Be part of it now or lose it forever.
The chapter presented here I think of as a micro adventure within a journey.
Just 35nm separate Thessaloniki and Stavros. But the most direct maritime route is approximately 160nm and requires the rounding of three peninsulas. The third peninsula is a special case: formal permission is required to enter the Monastic State of Mount Athos. Something of challenge then. But with a nice reunion lined up once having completed the section.
Peninsula one – Kassandra
15th November. Fun and fast departure from Thessaloniki with Hellenic Rescue Team escort for first part. Headwinds later. Night time finish at Nea Plagia.
16th November. Slow progress and interception by Hellenic Rescue Team from Nea Moudania, but too early to stop. Then a second HRT interception 8nm short of Foúrkas, at dusk. Under normal circumstance I would wild camp. But the sea is flat enough, so I accept the psychological security blanket of an escort, and sail through the dark to the town. Themelis, Ioannis, and Vasilis from HRT are warm and welcoming hosts! They install me in a room in a local hotel (@evridikihotel). And take me to eat.
17th November. Feel a bit under the weather. Also windy and difficult conditions. Am grateful for the option to sit out a day. Take a sleep in the afternoon. More good food.
18th November. Continuous rain all day. Am feeling much better. But another nice one to wait out. Yet more great hospitality.
Peninsula two - Sithonia
19th November. Favourable wind direction. Planing reach to a minor headland. Then slow but easy to the cape. A bit late in the day to cross to the middle finger, but the gamble works out well. Slow last miles but make land by sunset on an anvil shaped headland. Beautiful camp spot. Deserted. After dark a spearfisherman shows up, and as the only souls here a conversation by headtorch seems normal. Later he reappears with donation of a rack of honey. Wonderful! But awkward luggage.
Peninsula three – Mount Athos
20th November. Honey decanting issues mean I am slow and rushed to get away. Skip tightening of footstrap screws. Error. Headwind. Windy. Port side beating straps pull out! But luck on my side again as already on layline to clear the cape. Tack. A few miles later can free-off into protected water and then stop at a beach to reattach and tighten straps. Crossing to Mount Athos peninsula is 15nm. Upwind zigzags. Longer zigs. Shorter zags. Comparatively. Aware failing light could be an issue, but speed is good.
Damn big hill this. Majestic too. At 5nm already feel I have made it, which of course is premature. Reality is that this is very much open sea. Low cloud adds to the dramatic views. Get close enough to see potential landing points with monasteries. I have no permission to land. Decide to push on to the south facing tip. Stronger wind - a very solid Force 5 - at the first corner. Good! Need this wind to scoot round the next corner – just 5nm to the east - and then quickly reach away to safety. Wind should become more favourable the further I progress. Major miscalculation! Head south, out to sea, looking for the required wind bend. Tack back and am immediately headed. Cloud base descending. Wind dropping. Progress slower and slower. The board moves drunkenly in the sloppy sea. What had I been thinking? 5nm sounds nothing. But in these conditions… the unit to use is time. And there is no chance of reaching safety before dark. A few curses to release the stress. Damned honey! But at least in part is it my social anxiety that sailed me past those beaches by the monasteries. And a lack of familiarity with a new navigation system (change of phone) has contributed to this mess. A screw up on multiple fronts. A combination of several small things. And certainly all errors of my own making. And, in parallel with these thoughts, the awareness of the incredible beauty: the mountain draped in cloud, and the shocking scale.
I recheck options. Marked as red (=my code for don’t go there, terrible option, emergency only) on GPS is what appears to be a kind of port behind the lighthouse on the east corner of the cape. Bingo! There’s my target, at a reachable 2nm. But even if I can claw that distance sailing, the final few hundred metres will have to be paddled, and converting to paddle mode in the dark will be immensely difficult. So I must set up for paddling now.
Thankful for the countless refinements of and hundreds of times I have practiced this operation. Thankful for the now blinking lighthouse. Prone paddling, against a headwind and sea from all directions. Jarring slaps vibrate through the board and knees and stop us dead.
A full moon behind cloud offers no illumination. But the sea is full of phosphorescence. Paddle strokes light up the sea, and waves bleed white where they ascend jagged rock. The lighthouse is eventually reached, then passed. Search for the entrance. Nothing visible. But GPS says it must be here. It’s noisy. Water sloshes and echoes off the high sides as swells carry me deeper into this tight, black corner. Then my headtorch picks out stonework about three storeys high, and the entrance itself - wide enough for a rowing boat, and in I go.
The converted cave could at best be described as offering a fair weather landing stage, but that will do. Sloshing water echoes. A roll of swell pushes us further in and instinctively I follow up into a landing.
The cave is damp and loud. The interior is lined with smashed-up fish trays carried here by sea and wind. But there is a route out, and a path, upon which I sleep, beneath the light that has guided me to ‘port’.
21st November. Porridge and honey for breakfast. There’s no wind or space to sail out of here. And the swell has picked up overnight, though a more southerly direction compensates for this added complication. I set the gear in paddle mode, launch it into the gulley, then scamper round the rocks to board on the bow. Successful launch.
Further out there’s a gusty on-then-off following wind. Mightily awkward with this swell. I topple in, have to load the boom excessively on the fall to protect the oh-so delicate sail, and connection between board and rig fails. Time to change that worn extension.
After a break during a windless period the uphaul line breaks, sending me toppling backwards, with drysuit open.
The wind comes and goes. At times I sit and wait. Gradual but useful progress past the first of the east coast beaches and monasteries.
Mid afternoon a coastguard launch shows up. They’ve had a couple of calls about me. Friendly guys, they say I should stop at the next port, and can stay at the monastery there. Technically I need a permit, but Thimios says they can’t leave me out at night and will arrange everything, which they do.
I eat well, have a comfortable room, and people are very kind. The monks themselves are more discreet, but there are a few enquiries from other visitors: Orthodox? Anglican? I soften my spiritual inclination from atheist to undecided, which seems to go down better.
22nd November. Breezy for the first miles. Then less wind but a majorly choppy sea. Eventually the wind returns that is creating the mess coming my way, and I bounce along to the target promontory. I pass inside a small island for the shelter it offers. I register a plump fisherman in brown wetsuit swim past, before realising that the swimmer had been a monk seal. The protected habitat of this peninsula is good for them, and nature in general.
Past the hook of land there is flat sea and a beach perfect for camping.
23rd November. An easy day to complete this section. Cross a small gulf, then gently finish the 20nm run to the pretty town of Stavros. Kostas is already here to load me up and we head off to the lake for the weekend, to meet up with Thomas, Stavroula and the Thessaloniki crew.