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Getting a handle on Greece

By Robert Burn — last modified Nov 22, 2017 03:34 PM
Clearing into Greece at Aleksandropoulos and out in Corfu before heading to Albania, Robert Burn describes his meanderings through Greece and the impressions he was left with.

Published: 2017-11-22 00:00:00
Countries: Greece , Albania

Getting a handle on Greece

Kos Harbour courtesy of SY Big Sky

Northern Greece

We cleared into Aleksandropoulos, the northernmost port of Greece, after our detour to the Black Sea. Clearance processing took five hours with much data entry required. There was a twenty Euro yacht charge for entry into Greece, and a thirty Euro charge for the Transit Log which is supposed to be filled out at every port we visit. The purpose of the Transit Log is to restrict foreign vessels from engaging in chartering in Greece. Filling out the paperwork varies at different Harbour Master offices, and costs about eight Euros. The wharf at Aleksandropoulos is a pretty rough rock affair that requires good fendering and we found this to be typical at other Greek Ports. The harbour dues for three days were quite reasonable at twenty Euros, and this is also typical for other ports.

Northern Greece is not so popular for the cruising fraternity, which for us is an attraction. It offers an interesting coastline without congested anchorages. Thasos is a large, relatively unspoilt island with pleasant anchorages and reasonable prices. A little west the peninsula of Akti is of particular interest with its many monasteries, many the size of a small town, that have been undisturbed for centuries, and was left alone by the Third Reich. Smaller dwellings are perched in the most precarious locations along the cliffs. There is an exclusion zone in this area and women are not permitted within a mile of it. This area is shadowed somewhat from the Northerlies, or Meltemi.

Northern Sporades

Passing through the eastern side of the large island of Evia looked more interesting, and required passing through a couple of narrow straits. At Khalkis there is a very ancient crossing that is now an opening bridge. This opens at night for passing vessels, and the timing depends upon the currents that can be quite robust. There is a fee for passing through for foreign yachts based on length, which for us was about thirty five Euro. Interestingly, the Harbour Master was not concerned about our Transit Log. This may have been because we anchored up nearby in a shallow bay, rather than going alongside another stone wall in the harbour.

Cyclades

From this point on there were more yachts and larger motor cruisers. The islands of Kea, Siros and Mikonos in particular are well stocked with luxurious vessels and attendant resorts and night clubs. The water is pleasantly clear with sandy bottom and seagrass, and fairly good holding. Prices are somewhat higher, and there is much more litter, particularly plastic water bottles. The rocky islands are speckled with white-washed villas and sparse vegetation.

Saronic Gulf - Athens & Pireaus

We required some C-Map NT+ charts for our Raymarine plotter, and the agents for these are to be found around Athens and the port of Pireaus, and rather than stay at a noisy and expensive marina there we anchored in Ormos Varis, a large sheltered bay about ten miles to the SE of this conurbation. We were there when a 45 year old tanker sank off Pireaus with 3,000 tons of oil on board. The authorities were slow to react and with the varying winds it became bit of a mess. The tanker was not certified and there was bit of a scandal when the recovery vessel was found to be deficient as well. The recovery vessel was also found to have dodgy paperwork regarding the oil it had on board, apparently there is a black market for petroleum products in Greece. The spill polluted many beaches along the coast.

We used buses and trains to get around and found Aegean Electronics in Piraeus wanted to charge us E200+24% VAT to reprogram each of our ENC cards, or double the normal rate. The buses and trains were very cheap, but very few travellers seemed to have tickets. The train station turnstiles were locked open and there were no ticket collectors. This we thought was emblematic of the Greek tragedy, where ordinary citizens deign not to buy a ticket and support a cheap service. There was graffiti everywhere and at least it was often easier to understand than the Greek.

Piraeus is in a state of disrepair; modern Greek ruins and the urban decay in outer Athens reminiscent of what we saw in Bulgaria and Romania. Eventually we found Electoniki Marine on the other side of Athens far more reasonable at half the price. The lady there reprogrammed three SD cards for us in an hour and we used the Athens Metro system for 90 minutes each way for less than two Euro per ticket. It is well patronised but not in the league of the Singapore MRT. Uber is in Athens and is very reasonable. Uber has resistance from the local taxi cabals similar to other places in the world.

Peloponnese

To move west from here there is a shortcut in the form of the Corinth Canal, which is only 3.2 miles long. It would have cost us almost 300 Euro for our 16.7m vessel so we elected to sail around instead. This took a leisurely week to achieve due to us using favourable weather, but cost us less and we saw a nicer part of Greece compared to the Aegean. Finakounda then Methoni were suitable anchorages; Methoni has various ruins and citadels along the peninsula.

On the west coast there is a busier trade with the multi-tiered cruise ships with many hundreds of passengers on short cruises. Katacolon, a small harbour, can have two of these ships alongside almost every day as it is only 30km from Olympia, the site of extensive ruins. The trip there is ten Euro return by coach or the single narrow-gauge railway. Entry to the ruins is twelve Euro that includes the Archeological Museum where there are the classic marble statues, nearly all of which are missing their heads. As the bodies are in good shape you would have to assume that the busts, also in good condition, grace mantlepieces and plinths in London, Paris, Geneva and New York. The former Temple of Zeus must have been an impressive building, and the site must have been a magnificent place two and a half thousand years ago; only the foundations and fallen marble columns exist today. The best friezes are to be found in British Museums.

It is the flocks of tourists off the cruise ships that provide the bulk of the lucre to these towns, and the shops and coaches adjust their trading hours accordingly. There is no bakery or butcher shop in Katacolon, but there is an interesting little museum of ancient technology with working models of pneumatic and hydraulic devices used to tell time, and automated dispensers of fluids. Entry is only two Euros and the lady there is keen to explain the exhibits. Shopping for stores was done at Pyrgos about halfway to Olympia, by local bus for less than two Euro. Pyrgos is a larger town but quite decrepit. Shopping there was very reasonable, most goods much cheaper than elsewhere. This was typical around Greece, where the tourist precincts have much higher prices and glitz. Walking a couple of blocks away we found eateries and convenience shops with lower prices, and a more relaxing and convivial local atmosphere.

Ionian

We made our way north via Nisos Oxia that had no anchorages despite what the Imray Greek Pilot suggests. Twenty meters off the steep coast we were still in forty metres of water. Another bay was taken by a fish farm, which are even more common. Nisos Petala offered good all round protection. The Levkas Canal was easy to negotiate; and the low bridge swings open every hour. The Canal is lined with considerable litter, mostly plastic bottles, with Levkas Marina halfway along. At the northern end are battlements surrounding an old town and monastary. The Greek Orthodox church is the primary religion, and holds sway with the political establishment. However many churches are defaced with graffiti and seem to be relics rather than socially active institutions. This is in stark contrast to Islamic Turkey.

A few miles further north is Preveza, in a large bay that is a commercial harbour. It has a several well stocked chandleries along the harbour front. There is a new marina being slowly built and a dredging operation with one barge and a tug that takes it off-shore to dump the spoil. The dumping operation takes the tug a few hours, during which the dredge has to stop. With another barge they could double their productivity with no increase of machinery or labour, ergo they must be on a daily rate. Preveza Harbour is surrounded by shallows and tracts of low level ground.

This makes Preveza an ideal place to haul-out yachts for the winter months, and prop them up side by side, row by row, many hundreds of them. Most of them are the high-end fibreglass production yachts with a large range of flags, such as Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Australia and some local charter boats. There are several venues around the bay that offer this service. The waterfront is busy now with crew stowing sails and canvas, and removing valuables for storage. Some vessels wait a couple of weeks to be hauled out. The hauled out vessels have their hulls blasted down next to the basin and there are no environmental considerations in place. Several local amateur fishermen hover around looking for the catch of the day. It must be a busy time too in spring, when the yachts get refloated and prepared for the summer season. The chandleries, laundries and other shops must consider early Spring a late Christmas as crew recommission their vessels. We have found all sorts of problems arise after leaving a vessel abandoned for six months, and it takes some knowledge to work a vessel back up to good order. Local skilled labour would be scarce, and consequently rather expensive and haphazard. This seems to be the annual regime for most of the Mediterranean cruising fraternity, where the expats then retire to a warmer climate for six months.

Up on the land the vessels are propped up with building toms, or Acrows. We did not observe much under hull cross-bracing from near the beach. You would assume that each vessel would have comprehensive insurance, and some brokers may blanch at this arrangement. Strong winds are experienced in the winter months in this region. We saw other crew in Katakolon preparing their vessels for winter upon the wharf, and they were very thorough; cross bracing the stands and using concrete blocks and eye-bolts to secure their vessels.

Corfu

Greece saved the best of their geniality for us towards the end, in Corfu, which is a popular and busy harbour with ferries, cruise ships and lay-up facilities for yachts. We anchored in Ormos Potamoy, two cables to the west of the New Boat Harbour with good holding. It is convenient for us as the port of Saranda in Albania is only about ten miles away. However we first have to make good our freezer plant, and Spiros at corfuclimaspiros@gmail.com was most helpful, supplying us with a compressor carcass that I cannibalised for the shaft seal and valves.

Along the harbour front there are several well stocked chandleries, and a couple of machine shops. George at stratigos.machineshop@gmail.com kindly assisted me fabricating an elegant stainless steel bracket for my sat-phone antenna, that has to mount high up on my mizzen mast. Their machine shop is focused on repairing small engines, but they have the skills to repair other marine equipment, and are very reasonably priced. There are also various slipways nearby for hauling out vessels for hull maintenance. I was tempted to avail myself of this opportunity, and managed to bargain an operator to haul us out for 1200 Euro with no time constraints, but we are now on a schedule with crew.

During my labours with these fellow tradesmen we talked about the direction of Greece locally. They lamented the “investments” of very wealthy expatriates in large tracts of prime real estate around Corfu, and these investors resisting the installation of wind farms in the area. It resonated that these common people had a fair grasp of what the ailments were, but felt frustrated and unrepresented by their masters in Athens. They share a global affliction.

Clearing out of Greece in Corfu was quite quick and easy, with our first visit to the Harbour Master with our Transit Log. She seemed a bit disappointed that we only had two entries for our ten weeks of cruising, but made no comment. From there we moved on to the Customs and Immigration offices where the formalities were brief and cordial. There were no charges made for our clearance. Yachts are given a bit of leeway regarding their departure time.

Shopping and Prices in Greece

They say here in Greece that time is flexible, leisure is mandatory and work unfortunate. In Greece they do seem to have a leisurely lifestyle. Nearly all businesses close on Sundays, and sometimes Saturday, early on Friday and also Wednesday. Business activity is suppressed by a 24% VAT, and most businesses are punctilious about issuing a receipt to show they are paying taxes. There are also many cash businesses that don’t, such as laundromats, where a 5kg wash-load will cost you ten Euro. Seafood is expensive and meat is in small portions. Much of the cuisine is vegetarian with cheese, and hardly exciting, where everything is served with fries. The saving grace has to be the bread and wine, which are cheap and plentiful. Shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables is also very reasonable, especially for onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, which along with olives and feta cheese comprise the ubiquitous Greek salad, very much part of the staple diet. Chicken and beef is reasonably priced, meat is minced from cuts of your choice. Eggs are quite cheap.

Greek Ferries

The Greeks have a maritime heritage, and this is reflected in the bustling ferry services between the islands spread across the Aegean Sea all the way to the coast of Turkey and south to Crete. There are several shipping companies that run fleets of vessels, mostly RORO vessels of several thousand tons, honking at full speed of about 16 knots, before skilfully swinging around stern-to in the small harbours, sometimes to transfer only a few passengers and cars, before minutes later departing. In Paros for instance it is not uncommon to see a couple of these large vessels along-side at the same time, so it does not seem efficient. On the West coast at minor ports such as Killini it is not uncommon to see three of the larger ferries, of different companies, stern-to at the one time at the wharf.

In Summary

Sailing the blue waters in the Aegean Sea is bit of a Greek myth that may have been a bit more sublime some time ago, and the terraced landscape may have been greener with more trees in the past. Certainly it is a favoured destination of the very rich with their megayachts and fancy toys. You don’t see many of their passengers actually swimming around their craft; they probably enjoy the on-board spa-baths more. Turkey actually seemed to have better ruins and to be on a better economic trajectory than Greece, although both seem to be engaged in their own arms race. Cyprus is still a bone of contention that has no resolution in sight, and also indicative of the relations between these two neighbours. The Ionian Sea is more picturesque but the waters are not so clear with the higher plankton levels. However with more extensive shallows there is more aquatic activity and bird life with the smaller islands obviously roosting havens. There are many more fish farms in the sheltered bays, reducing the number of anchorages.

Albania

The next morning we set out for Saranda, the closest port in Albania. Due to time constraints getting to Montenegro to pick up some new young crew we do not have time for a closer look at Albania. The coast line is only about 150nm long, but as we plan on travelling close to their country we deem it politic to clear in as soon as possible. In fact it was surprisingly quick as an agent was directing us on VHF 11 almost as soon as we had called the Port Captain in Saranda.

The young lady worked for Saranda Summer Tours and she directed us to drop anchor in the open harbour and then met us outside the C&I building on the waterfront. It would seem the Albanian authorities and shipping agents keep an eye on AIS tracking apps for approaching vessels. Our Agent agreed on a fee of 45 Euro for clearing us in, and got busy putting together a Crew List for us, and shortly afterwards we were cleared for Vlores, about 50 miles up the coast. However, we had had a long day, so we only made it as far as Qeparo, a bay a few miles away sheltered from the north. We arrived after dark, but we were visited later by an inquisitive Police boat who wanted us to move along. We then pleaded fatigue and he departed without further comment. This activity is said to be typical along the Albanian coast.

The next morning we departed early in favourable conditions, and passed Vlores, a major port but not yacht friendly, according to our Imray Adriatic Pilot. The Pilot makes much of the risks in these waters of uncleared mines, but we see many small stern trawlers ploughing the bottom, so we suspect that this risk is very low. We were going to pass Durres, the main port for Tirana as it was night, but strong conditions turned our hand, and it was not difficult  anchoring in the lee south of the main harbour.  The Harbour Master was quite accommodating, and we sheltered for several hours. The navigation aids seem quite satisfactory, and we will advise Imray of these apparent improvements for their Pilot.

The Harbour Master at Shengjin was similarly accommodating, permitting us to anchor in the lee of the main harbour, when we arrived before daybreak.  Albania is clearly a poor country with vintage motor vehicles and some rough urban landscape. There are few upmarket villas, but there are some better hotels along the narrow coastal fringe. Mid-morning we move into the small harbour that is littered mostly by bigger fishing boats. The Harbour Master has an agent ready for us, and we are keen to expedite our clearance as the weather has improved. The Agent charges us fifty Euro for our paperwork and fees. She suggests that we require a”practical” or vessel inspection before departing. The Harbour Master dispatches his assistant who steps on board at the bow and checks that my RIB is inflated, glances at my Liferaft, peers down the Aft Cabin hatch and, smiling, steps off at the stern. We are now cleared to leave Albania.

Next stop Montenegro.

Robert Burn

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