Some notes on chartering a sailboat in Greece

On returning from our first trip, we’ve been thinking about some things that you should know about before coming here and doing this. You might as well learn from our mistakes.

Arrival – the airport is a LONG way from where any charters go out. So plan ahead. Odds are good that you can set up airport pickup and drop off with your charter company, but it will cost you. But at least you know you have a ride after a long tiring flight.

GPS is not the most reliable here. The US system is off at best, and the EU does not yet have its own system (2005). Charts are also very out of date. If you rely on GPS solely, you WILL end up on rocks…period. So, here is where that boating course pays off…remember plotting? Remember how to use a compass? For the most part, you can con your way from A to B, but they just don’t mark hazards here the way we are used to and we’ve discovered in at least one place, that the buoys are less than precisely placed. On that same vein, if your GPS is running in WGS84 (like it should be here) change it to match the charts (something like Eurpoean 1950) …or change it to use chart datum. Good luck! The Greek charts are significantly older and many run on older and area specific datum. If you run with WGS84 your GPS will have a significant error….check out a couple of our tracks early on and compare them with our plotted course.

Charts on your boat will range from 1987 to 2000. For the most part, they are still referencing data from the 1800’s. Read and believe them with caution. (The same goes for anywhere really)

Plotting – Your boat will be supplied with charts, dividers, a compass……and parallel rules. So, bringing your CPS plotter might be a good idea.

Authorities – Stop in and talk to the Port Police wherever you go, they will usually have the weather forecast.

VHF and cell phones – Yacht charter companies don’t have a radio channel. Everyone here uses mobile phones and they are shocked if you don’t have one. Only problem is, our systems don’t work here. There are no such things as coin pay phones, they all use cards that you can buy just about anywhere. A 4 Euro card buys you a fair bit of time and will even get you a fairly lengthy international card if you don’t get too chatty.

Car/scooter rentals – If you want to rent a vehicle (scooter, motorbike, car) you will need to have an international drivers permit. Go to BCAA and take two passport photos, the permit costs around $15.

Bareboat really does mean bareboat. Ask, but you should have all the necessary pots, pans, dishes, coffee pot etc. You will have basic bedding and towels. You will probably not have a dishcloth, scrubbie, dish soap, paper towels, cleaners of any sort, toilet paper, etc. Pack a roll of toilet paper in case you get there late. You should have a bimini, we have yet to see a boat without one. Dodgers are less frequent. We didn’t have one and would have liked it on a few crossings. We got some good salt showers.

Inverter on board? – Unlikely. If you need to power something, bring a small 12 volt inverter or have 12 volt adapters for your electronics.

Provisioning – Some things are easy to find when provisioning, some things are not so simple. Spices are a challenge because many only exist in massive containers. Might not be a bad idea to bring along a small collection of what you want to cook with. But then there’s that customs issue….. Likely, wherever you charter out of will be close to a supermarket (not exactly what we think of when we use the term) or deli and you can get most of what you need.

You won’t find anything fancy once you are off the mainland unless you stick to major centres. But in the Islands, provisioning gets pretty basic. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, onions, apples, oranges, potatoes…these you will find everywhere. Meat can get more challenging. There is usually a bakery somewhere in every town and the breads are hearty and excellent.

Eating out – The local taverns can vary wildly in the quality of their food. Oddly enough, we found that Greek food is often better in Canada. Food often seems to be served at lukewarm temperature here, coffee too. We heard somewhere that they feel it is better for digestion.

Beer in Greece- It sucks, we miss our Canadian brews. Your choices are limited to Heineken, occasionally Corona, Mythos (Greek), Amstel (German), Alpha (German). All lagers, all light, there is no dark beer. Amstel seems to be the least offensive and has become our poison. I guess if you like American beer you won’t mind.

Tea – If you drink it, bring it with you. All you will find here is the occasional package of Earl Grey and even that will be hard to come by. They don’t drink it.

Coffee – The majority is espresso, and you don’t get an espresso maker on your boat! You will probably have a Melitta style coffee maker on board and no filters. Buy filters and drip coffee before you leave Athens. Drip coffee is difficult to locate on the Islands.

Books – I think most boats come equipped with a book called Greek Waters Pilot by Rod Heikell (Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson Ltd). That said, it’s not a bad thing to buy before you come here. We bought one and studied it before we came and brought it with us. Ours was newer (there’s a 9th edition out) than what was on the boat. You wont’ find them in the bookstores here, so order them online from Amazon or you could try Chapters. At the time we went you couldn’t buy his books in North America but we got this one very quickly through You could also get it and others direct from the publisher too Rod Heikell is considered THE authority on piloting in Greek waters and has several books for the different areas in addition to this one. See below.

Turkish Waters and Cyprus Pilot – Same guy as above, different area

West Aegean – see above

East Aegean – see above

Ionian: Corfu to Zakinthos and the Adjacent Mainland to Methoni – see above

The Rough Guide to the Greek Islands was given to us as a gift and was a great reference (Thanx Glenn).

Walking the Aegean Islands: Twenty Islands of the Greek Cyclades by Graf Editions (ISBN 3-9803130-5-0) is another good one if you want to do some hiking. You will also have to order this over the internet most likely.

Greek Island Hopping by Frewin Poffley is a travel guide that is updated yearly that we found very useful. It’s published by Thomas Cook Publishing and you can pick it up at the Travel Bug on Broadway.

Charts– You can buy electronic charts on the internet, they will set you back about $300. See GPS above. Paper charts are also available through Imray.

HazardsYour number one hazard will be plastic. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security that plastic floats and you will therefore see it…..true, plastic does float…but not always right at the surface. We have seen VERY large sheets of plastic floating a foot or two under the surface….nicely aligned to catch a prop.

Anchoring – Anchoring isn’t always super secure. We get used to nice mud bottoms at home. It is mostly sand here and it may seem like it grabs, but it can let go easily, especially if you swing. So most boats should come with a secondary anchor….get in your dinghy and use it.

Many harbours have chains and old mooring lines lying at the bottom, be prepared, you WILL foul your anchor at least once, I can almost guarantee it.

In the harbours, with so many boats dropping anchors and then coming in stern or bow to, it’s a good idea to hang out at your boat until you have neighbours. You never know who might drop an anchor where and it’s handy if you are there to let others know where and how far out your anchor is so they don’t lay over top. We’ve seen a lot of cases where more than one anchor was pulled up unintentionally.

Smoking – If you are a smoker, this is Nirvana for you. If you are not, it’s Hell. You will be hard pressed to find a spot where you will not be gassed. Greeks, and most others here, are seemingly incomplete without a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, often while driving a scooter or motorbike. In Vancouver we are irritated by drivers talking on a cell phone in their car, Multiply the ratio a hundredfold, and put them on a motorbike instead of a car and you have the appropriate image. We just watched a fellow go in for a swim, cigarette hanging from his lips.

Currency – They use the Euro, but in the Islands, have small bills and change handy. They HATE making change and get suitably grumpy when you try to use anything larger than a 20 Euro bill. For the most part, assume cash only. Travelers cheques, credit cards and interac are virtually nonexistent as methods of payment. Even many of the rooms and hotels only take cash (Zorzis on Mykonos for example).

Wind – Never does what you think it will, never comes from where it should, never lasts when you want it to, never goes away when you want it to, always switches direction at the worst possible moment. Completely unpredictable….well, mostly anyway. After May, the meltemi comes in and you can’t do what we have been doing. It can blow for weeks on end and even the ferries can be shut down. You can still come here in the summer and sail, but not in the Cyclades. Figure out the conversion for metres/second to knots for wind speed for the electronics on your boat.

Sea conditions – Learn the Beaufort scale! Each category of which comes with a label of poor, moderate, or good.

Navigating after dark – This one is simple….DON’T DO IT! Period! There are virtually NO lights to navigate by and the rocks, which are in a relative position to where the charts say they are, are not marked. Plan on being at your destination before dinner, the docks fill up fast around that time.

Hiking – Wear good high top shoes, not Tevas or sandals. I mean, you can, but your ankles will end up scratched to heck. There are thistles here that really try to take you out. There are many nasty plants and they grow them nice and sharp….and spiders…big ones by the evidence (really big funnel webs!)

Bugs – Kirk tells me they are here, his body shows evidence, but I will have to take his word for it. This is apparently not a bad time of year for mosquitoes, they get worse later in the season, but judging from Kirk’s bites, the ones they have here now are pretty vicious.

Hours of operation – Seemingly random. Most things shut down in the afternoon for siesta, then reopen around 1800 or so.

Water, Fuel and Power – OYO. Learn to conserve. Water is available at most docks, the charge is usually 3 – 5 Euros regardless of how much you take and only available when someone with a key comes down. Power is nonexistent, you will have to run your boat several times a day to recharge your batteries and heat your water. Fuel is available at most docks, but you may have to call them. They will bring it to you in a mini-tanker truck, sometimes they just come by once or twice a day to see if anyone needs any.

Ice – Available most places, but not often when you want (see hours of operation). Cubes vary in quality from hollow to solid and last accordingly.

Port fees – They say you are supposed to pay the Port Authorities, but we only saw them once and therefore only ever paid once. If you do go in, the paperwork can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours, or so we’ve been told.

Tides – Don’t exist. Depth is depth.

Docking – Stern to or bow to mostly. In a few places you can go alongside, but in many it is bad form, or just unwise. When the ferries come in it can set up quite a current and bash you around. With stern or bow to, the anchor holds you off the dock. No bashing involved. Takes a bit to get used to, just go slow. Once you get accustomed to it, it is actually quite nice, better privacy, why don’t we do this back home? Oh yes, see above…that would pose a problem.

Dangerous creatures – Only human.

Recycling – Doesn’t exist here, sadly, garbage is everywhere as a result. It’s more visible the closer you are to Athens.

Holding tanks – Don’t exist so look around and think before you swim.

Sewage treatment – See above.

Don’t leave home without – a Leatherman, Duct tape, your flag, if you are a wash your face with a washcloth kind of person, bring your own (I learned this one in Brazil)