“Everybody does it. Don’t worry.” This is Johnny, the down-to-earth Brit conducting the skippers’ briefing at the marina at Gouvia Bay on the Greek island of Corfu, where we are about to become acquainted with the yacht we will be sailing for the next two weeks. The briefing is an essential part of the bare-boat charter ritual and he has already covered the geographical quirks of the Ionian coastline and its islands, along with the weather forecast, radio frequencies, restaurants and swimming spots. Now he is warning us of the tangled anchor chains which are among the hazards of the cheek-by-jowl mooring practices at Mediterranean ports and marinas. He goes on to mime an ingenious manoeuvre for lifting the chains off one another.
It all sounds so simple. In practice, it’s another story, as we discover towards the end of the week when we reach the village of Fiskardo on the northern tip of Kefalonia. We arrive around one in the afternoon, providing entertainment for the lunch-time crowd clustered in the dockside cafes. We’re used to this, although the audience is usually set back further from the action. This one is front stalls and well primed to review our skipper’s performance as he contends with the slanted angle he has to achieve.
Here is the cause of the anchor-chain problem. The couple three boats along have already expressed their reluctance to share the port with yet another boat even though there’s no chance of our chain crossing theirs. We can’t be sure about the anchor lines of our nearer neighbours but fortunately, they’re much more good-humoured.
It takes a while but eventually we’re in and our barman prepares a round of negronis to calm any residual tension. Then we go off and enjoy Fiskardo, which isn’t hard. Scenes from the film of Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin were shot here. As well as some graceful old Venetian buildings which resisted the 1953 earthquake, it has great seafood restaurants and a swimming beach, which we have to ourselves except for an interested cat. Cats come close to out-numbering people in the Ionians.
The moment of truth comes when we’re leaving. Two anchor chains are snarling ours and one is lying so deep that it’s impossible to reach it from the boat or from a dinghy. Frustration is mounting when the skipper of the German yacht next door volunteers to put on mask and flippers and dive down to see what he can do.
This means plunging six metres with a rope from the boat, wrapping it around the anchor line and tying it off – all with a single breath. After several attempts he still won’t give up.
As his wife grows more and more anxious, all we can do is cast her reassuring looks until at last he succeeds.
This generosity is something we’ve encountered many times in the years we have been taking these sailing trips. We’re a crew of seven and in the past decade, we’ve sailed in Turkey, the Bay of Naples, Sardinia, Corsica and the Dalmatian coast. Each time, we have realised yet again that no matter how much planning we do, the wind, the ocean and the idiosyncrasies of an unfamiliar boat can still spring surprises. There can be less than a minute between a slightly soporific state of serenity and no time to waste.
For this trip, our skipper has scored us a comfortable Beneteau Oceanis, a little over 15 metres long, with four double cabins, each with its own bathroom. After loading our baggage on board, we make for the base’s supermarket to stock up with food, water and alcohol. After so many trips, we like to think of this as a well-honed routine but it inevitably involves a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the aisles, conferring on the details. The wine presents a particular challenge. It’s all local and a lot of time is spent conferring over labels.
Most of our dinners, however, will be on shore. First, we’re heading north to the Corfu village of Kalami, where Lawrence Durrell lived with his first wife, Nancy Myers, while he was writing his Corfu memoir, Prospero’s Cell. We’ve brought the book, along with Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu, which clings rather more closely to the facts of the family’s years on Corfu than Gerald Durrell’s charmer, My Family and Other Animals.
Lawrence and Nancy’s home in Kalami was the The White House, which sits right on the edge of the bay. They rented the top floor from a Kalami family and outraged the locals by swimming naked in the cove. The house has since been extended and is now a restaurant, where we have dinner, taking the dinghy from our anchorage and scrambling out at the restaurant jetty. At a table on the terrace, we talk about the Durrells and their frequent house guest, Henry Miller, who liked to stand at the water’s edge with a telescope in the evenings, looking up at the stars.
The next day, we head back to Corfu towards the Old Town which we’re yet to explore. We moor beneath the Palaio Frourio, the 15th-century Venetian on the clifftop and have dinner in town, making our way up to the Liston, a colonnaded promenade which is the most popular legacy of the island’s occupation by Napoleon’s France in 1797.
We’ve set our course to sail south, starting off next morning, and all is idyllic until we reach Skorpios, the island where Jacqueline Kennedy married Onassis in 1968. There’s a narrow strip of sand on the southern side of the island where Jackie used to delight in being unobserved until one of the paparazzi photographed her naked. Her white-washed beach cabin, with its arched door in pale blue, is still here. After lunch, we swim ashore for a closer look, and find there’s little more of the cabin to see. The single window is a small square set high on the wall. The most remarkable – and heartening – thing about it is the fact that such a simple structure should have survived for so long.
We’ve just climbed back on board when the second hazard of Ionian cruising looms into view. The party boat. This is one of the more modest versions – a single-decker – but there’s no ignoring it. We hear it coming from across the bay, pop-music booming, master-of-ceremonies shouting instructions to the party-goers. It looks like a fun-fair attempt at a Greek galley – red with gilt trimmings and a curved prow together with the name, Odysseia, inscribed on the prow. Before long, the party has moved to the beach and Jackie’s strip of sand is swarming with revellers. It’s time to leave.
But the party’s not over yet. Two days later, among the islands of Sivota, we arrive at the Blue Lagoon, a bay which satisfies all fantasies about the country’s grottoes and turquoise waters. We swim and we’re finishing lunch when we hear it coming.
There’s the music, then the Cockney DJ, who’s announcing a belly-flop competition. First he issues a safety warning. On no account, he bellows, should the girl in the blue bikini be allowed near the f—ing water because she’s pissed already. After that, it’s on. Sunburnt bodies hurl themselves from both decks, landing in the water with a resounding smack. Once again, it’s time to go.
Safely out of range, with our hearing restored, we take stock, deciding that the party boats are a small price to pay for two weeks of cruising along one of the Mediterranean’s most sublime coastlines and we start to look forward to our final few days on Corfu after delivering the boat back to the base.
There is plenty to do on the island, beginning with a visit to Mon Repos Palace, built by the British in the style of a Georgian villa in 1826. The island’s British governors used it as a summer residence and when Corfu became part of the mainland almost 40 years later, the Greek Royals did the same. Britain’s Prince Philip was born here in 1921.
These days, it’s the home of a rather sleepy museum with an eclectic collection. There are antiquities found on the site, portraits of former residents and pieces of 19th-century furniture, along with a room full of old photographs charting the island’s history.
We amble through it, stroll around the gardens and make it back to the Old Town in time for dinner at a restaurant on the Liston. The Ionians have given us one of our best trips so far – despite the anchor chains.
Singapore Airlines offers flights to Athens departing from Sydney via Singapore and Istanbul. See singaporeair.com
Olympic Airlines has four flights daily from Athens to Corfu. See olympicair.com
Gouvia Bay Marina is the base for several international charter companies, including Sunsail’s The Moorings. Facilities include a fuel station, electricity, water, supermarket, chandlery, restaurants, showers, laundry, cash machines and wireless internet.
Corfu Airport to Gouvia by taxi costs €20 to €25 and takes 20 to 25 minutes.
Mooring fees are charged at marinas and in some harbours and are not included in the price of the charter.