Jono Dunnett continues to inspire with his epic journey round Europe. We join him as he recounts his passage along the Greek coast and onward to Turkey, where after much consideration his journey takes a pivotal step. Read on as Jono reflects on his winter travels.
Words Jono Dunnett // Photos Jono Dunnett, Alex Gill Photography, Paris Papalias Photography.
Originally published within the April ’19 edition
By the end of my last update, I’d reached central Italy. The onward journey took me through the Strait of Messina, round the toe and heel of the boot of Italy, across the Adriatic to Albania, and then down to Northern Greece. That was summertime, the winds were mostly light, tourist beaches uncomfortably crowded, pizzerias plentiful. Italy was a joy. The Italian people – beautiful in many respects – generous and open. The 50 NM direct sea crossing to Albania saved a 1000 NM detour round the Adriatic and allowed for a glimpse of the alternative to globalisation, which quite possibly would be better for the planet but probably doesn’t offer the sort of life most of us would sign up for… Then it was down to Greece, threading inside the island of Lefkada, and then hooking round the corner to Vassiliki, for a few days rest amongst the friendly faces at the windsurf centres. It’s leaving from here where this article kicks off.
Goodbye Vassiliki. It is mildly daunting to think that this is the last stop where I am sure to find friends and support. Truly on my own from here? In theory yes. Although experience tells me this won’t be the case, that there will be new friends, or friendships renewed, somewhere over the horizon.
The journey resumes with a crossing to Kefalonia. Then a sail down the channel separating this island from Ithaca – where Ulysses was heading back to on his 10-year voyage after the Trojan war in Homer’s Odyssey, which through repeated reference I have become partly familiar with. The sailing reminds me of Norway: protected water, wild, rocky and unspoilt. Warmer though.
I paddle the next day, then make a bold crossing back to the mainland the next. A careless fall puts fresh holes in the sail, which is now very sun damaged. A baby turtle floats by such that I can cup it in my hand. Matchbox size. So weak and vulnerable it is a wonder that any survive.
A few days of easier coastline follow; continuous beach reminiscent of southern Italy. Limited coastal development, the front line of which is often close to or already falling into the sea. Visibly poorer than northern Europe. Beach camping, sometimes finding a nearby taverna holding out for late season trade: Pita Souvlaki (x2), Greek salad, water, sometimes a beer. Very friendly locals, often educated and with good English, though in economic situations that mean the opportunity for actual travel is rare.
I receive a message from a Dutchman on a boat. Hans is at Pylos, a possible reach, and the challenge of a target is a motivator. With a poor forecast I start early to make use of the land breeze: cold air, the heightened awareness of sailing by night, the colours of dawn. And shortly after the mirror calm of morning. More miles in the afternoon. Then a chop builds ahead of imminent wind. And soon after the remaining miles have dissolved away, and the bumpy entrance to spectacular Pylos bay is behind me.
Hans deserves a chapter not a paragraph. An ageless geek. Happy and healthy for doing his own thing. Kind and curious. And sociable in an up-to-a-certain-point sort of way. At risk of being overly generous to myself, I might say there are similarities between us, so it is interesting to hear something of his life. I end up staying a few days, during which time a ferocious tropical storm-like cyclone blows through. Our craft escape damage, though not all are so fortunate. The next anchorages sailed past have boats lain on their side on dry and freshly washed sand, resembling the pretty tidal ports of Brittany, rather than those of the tideless Mediterranean.
To the south are the three peninsulas of the Peloponnese. Each has its own character. The Messinian presents few problems. The (middle) Mani peninsula – a barren outcrop of limestone extending 45 NM out from the bay it encloses – for the scarcity of stopping options – is perhaps the most challenging Mediterranean coastline yet sailed. I counsel myself against becoming overly accustomed to “just dealing with” conditions, and to underestimating distance to safety. Consecutive sails require forced retreats where hard-won distance is undone. But mentally I feel strong. Having battled safely past, and with the greatest respect and fondness, …I flick a middle finger back to the cragged outcrop. Cape Malea has an easier approach, including a beautiful cut through… inside the island of Elafonisos, where emergency braking is required to avoid collision with a full-grown turtle. The headland itself is majestic, but there’s no power to get round, and the inevitable chop leaves the board near stationary. The way past is a huge detour and continual pumping on the tack that is eventually just enough to scrape past this significant corner, and into a different sea.
Greece is ancient! The first town encountered is a significant hike up the side of a mountain – presumably easier to defend up here. The streets are narrow enough to challenge a wheelbarrow. TVs can be heard from some houses, so it does seem to be inhabited, and there is a yacht club. With a boat outside. Halfway up a mountain. I head back down to the port, which – despite previous appearances – is in fact where the action is happening, and am lucky enough to find food.
Monemvasia is the next stop, reached under a stormy sky by a combination of paddle and sail. The fortified old town occupies an island connected to the mainland by causeway. Eating options abound! A fortuitous choice of restaurant leads to a meeting with Kate, John and local fisherman Matsolas. I’ve been feeling a little isolated lately, so am grateful to be included and share in their easy communication, warmth and laughter. The following morning, as Kate had insisted, I take a walk to the old town, before Matsolos and fisherman friends feed me a breakfast of epic proportions, in preparation for the onward voyage. When the prevailing Meltemi wind returns it provides satisfying conditions to battle against. I sail into a continuous flow of plastic and assorted detritus, the stinking exhaust of the engine of consumption as we currently enjoy it.
Our capitalist system won’t factor sustainability into its calculation of cost until it is forced to do so. The colours blue, green and red in a handful of sand no longer a surprise.
Climbing north there are more islands to hop. I link up with local windsurfer Tasos and enjoy an unnecessary circumnavigation of the island of Poros, whilst staying with Manos, who is a friend of Hans.
There are dolphins, the first since Spain! South of Athens I coincide with the Techno 293 European Championships for a few sociable and positive days amongst multiple nationalities. Given that I am headed east – particularly reassuring is to make some basic connections with the Russians and Turkish. A stiff breeze takes me round Cape Sounion, upon which is seated the Temple of Poseidon: god of the sea and earthquakes. A good one to get safely past. There are some minor police hassles one night. A more good-natured encounter happens a few days later, when I unwittingly land in a military compound and am obliged to accept a truck ride back a few miles.The inside of Euboea, Greece’s second largest island, provides good protection whilst heading north.
I reach out to Nickolas, a contact who has previously been communicative and encouraging about a stop in Chalkida, but hear nothing back on this occasion. Arriving at the town there is a sailing instructor guiding a fleet of children in Optimist dinghies. Meeting on the water, we chat for a while, and then I ask about Nickolas. There is an instant transformation in the coach’s expression, from broad grin to defeated. I learn that Nickolas is dead. “Cancer, earlier this year.”, he said.
There is a return to open water sailing on the Pelion peninsula. Dolphins are seen most days. The architecture becomes more Balkan and the colours more autumnal. Wind is in short supply. Most days barely stir a breeze. There are beautiful under-the-sail camp locations.
The kindness and hospitality experienced throughout this trip is humbling. It reinforces in me a belief that to be human is to be collaborative and kind. We don’t always see this. And behaviour can be distorted, manipulated, hijacked. But when narrow tribal allegiance and other corruptors are stripped away, it seems that our basic nature and fundamental impulse is to support, nurture, and cooperate. Most days involve an encounter or interaction that strengthens this view. Evidence of inclusive thinking brings hope. A positive future depends upon a broadening of allegiance: humanity as a whole, the biosphere as a whole. Time and again the basic nature of people shines through, and nowhere is this more the case than in north Greece.
Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece, and a slight detour off route. But I’m fine with that. There are times, such as now, when a wander seems right. I head to where contact Thomas has indicated, and before landing am intercepted and guided in by a local on a paddleboard. Minutes later Kostas shows up as guide and helper, also other windsurfers, and Odysseus from the Hellenic Rescue Team, and Harris, and like-minded others. It’s slightly overwhelming for a few minutes but also very clear that I am amongst friends.
Over the coming days Thomas replaces my knackered harness, Theodore the optician looks after my eyes, we do interviews for local and national TV channels, we eat splendidly, the HRT (Hellenic Rescue Team, like a Greek RNLI) branch are a heart-warmingly kind audience for a talk I give. Odysseus and Harris give me a tour of the city that blows my mind through a readjustment of insight it provokes: the UK, North Sea and Atlantic coastal parts really are the far flung fringes of the continent. In terms of history, Europe happened here. When the time comes to leave, on a windy sail-away flanked by the HRT RIB, it isn’t a final goodbye. We’ll meet up again once I’m past the next trio of peninsulas. The last of these, Mount Athos, is an autonomous area where monks live, and permission is required to land.
It takes a few days, and dodging some bad weather with more help from the HRT, before crossing to the Athos peninsula. The mountain occupies a footprint just 5 NM wide and climbs to over two thousand metres. Stopping options are very limited, and the easier ones occupied by monasteries. I should stop earlier, but with no permission or Orthodox tendencies, push on without a good plan into failing light. I should know that getting round this beast won’t be simple. Evening arrives with a cloak of low cloud that smothers the wind by the mountain, though the sea is still building. The wind angle that “should” be becoming more favourable has in fact become less so. Progress is painfully slow, upwind zig-zags that resemble a spring rather than a stairway.
A howl to vent frustration, then re-assess options. My navigation app has a waypoint just beyond the lighthouse, about 2 NM away. It is coloured red, which is my code for “bad idea”, but this is no time to be picky. In the last of the light I convert the board to paddle mode. Waves and chop restrict me to prone paddling. Now pitch black, at least the lighthouse provides a blinking target. Beyond here is where the entrance should be, but my head torch struggles to penetrate the moisture laden air. I trust in GPS and head deeper into the tight and noisy corner, until finding myself under a three-storey stone wall guarding a channel just wide enough for an oar-less boat. There is no time to consider the landing, just continue with existing momentum and ride the next swell straight into the hole and up the rocks. Safety, at the expense of a few flesh wounds to the board, is an excellent result.
Three sails later, one of those ending with a night in a monastery, and I’m back with Thomas and family for some welcome rest and home cooking at their lakeside windsurf centre home.
The last part of north Greece is a pleasure to sail and paddle, and the support from HRT members and others beyond solid at all times. I stay a few days at Kavala and, finally, at Alexandroupolis in order to take delivery of a replacement sail, and to get coastguard and police clearance in order to make a legal exit from the European Union.
The river delta crossing to Enez, across the border in Turkey, becomes blustery and wintery. No craft are observed. The divide between land, sea and sovereignty is unclear. Enez port is a bleak and empty expanse of concrete with high-fenced coastguard compound, police vehicles, and stray dogs. I unsuccessfully request legal entry to the country. Instead I am told to stay at the port for the next two days, during which time a storm will blow through.
The storm is bitter, at times blizzardy, and accompanied by very strong winds. Murat, a fisheries control officer, shows kindness: shelter and many teas in his office, a container to sleep in by night. The police call by several times per day, to drink hot tea, and later with offerings of food for their visitor in limbo.
There is no resolution to the paperwork problem, but both coastguard and police seem satisfied with my suggestion to sail to an official port of entry “in a seamanlike manner”. The light northerly winds are favourable for a crossing of the gulf of Saros to the Gallipoli peninsula: focus of a First World War campaign and last resting place of over 100,000 young men. I enjoy beautiful nights camped under the sail, Faruk and Sovinc invite me into their home at Cape Helles, and at Çanakkale the paperwork is completed so that I am now legally here. The onward sail up the Dardanelles turns into a bruiser. In open sea it would be impossible to continue, but here the strait is just a few miles wide and another 8 NM will see me to a town, where it will be more comfortable to see out the coming bad weather. It is windy enough to fully plane down the sizeable chop with the sail wide open, both hands up by the boom clamp. Then it is too windy for that, and I am forced closer in for flatter water but horrendous gusts. A rock delivers new damage to the fin. I am wet inside my now worn-out drysuit, and would be cold were it not for the enormous effort of repeated uphauling.
Christmas day is spent sheltering from bitter northerly winds and rain, and repairing the fin which is now 12 cm shorter than its original length. Boxing day I am moving again, passing occasional snow drifts.
The Dardanelles opens out into the Sea of Marmara. The sailing is more cold than complicated. Nobody I meet speaks English, but communication of sorts is possible, and people share in what they have: a tea, offering a place around a woodburning stove, some fried fish, a roof to sleep under.
New Year’s Eve is passed on a beach near Istanbul, around a fire. The partygoers share in their drink and barbecued sheep’s intestine burgers. These are educated people with good English. They talk openly and are clearly resentful that their country is being transformed into one that is more Islamic, more censored and less free. For my part, this is the first country where I have felt a responsibility to report with self-censorship, and where information sources that I take for granted, such as Wikipedia, are not available.
The city of Istanbul, twice the population of London, sits on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait that forms the continental boundary between Europe and Asia. My intention is to stop here for a winter lay-up, so that more challenging Black Sea conditions are faced when the winter snows are receding rather than being deposited.
New Year’s Day and conditions are good. On the sail to Mimarsinan Windsurf Club I consider pushing on further to reach Asia. Or toughening up to face winter. The words of Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy brings me to my senses:
“Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you are destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, …”
Moments later, and for the first time since Gibraltar, dolphins arrive to swim in formation as I power along parallel to the coast. They dart under the board. And alongside, often swimming rotated on their sides for a better view of the pilot of this strange craft. I wonder at the communicative capacity of these animals, how far their networks reach. That they deliver a message is coincidence I’m sure. But it is enough to settle beyond doubt that here is where I turn in.
THOUGHTS FOR 2019
Since the beginning of this project the target I had set for myself had been to reach Russia. I’m relaxed about the sailing, eating, sleeping, and people – that will be fine. But borders and visas are more unsettling; they involve costs in terms of time, money and, most significantly, peace of mind. By rigid adherence to the goal of reaching Russia, the day to day has become less easy to appreciate. That’s not the freedom I seek.
And additionally, why declare ‘the end’ just as the weather’s turning nice? So, in a decision that took a while to work through in reality, but here is presented as a simple flip, the end has been reinvented! I’ll sail Turkey and Georgia as far towards Russia as I can get, but without pushing against the flow of politics. Then I’ll look to “close the loop” by making it back to where I started in north Norway, but that will be by bicycle this time.
“ I’ll sail Turkey and Georgia as far towards Russia as I can get, but without pushing against the flow of politics. ”