Still in the grip of darkness we slowly chugged towards Spinalonga Island at the north end of what is now called Elounda Lagoon. Eighty years ago it was called Marbella Bay by Imperial Airways as an evocative-sounding stopover point for their flying boats from the UK en route to the Nile near Cairo and ever onward to India...it seems hard to believe these massive beasts would do their take-off run in less than 5 minutes along the very same stretch of water we were labouring through now.
Nearly an hour later, we could pick out the shape of the old Venetian fortress, which in its latter life became one of Europe’s last isolated leper colonies. As we headed east, the sky was lightening and there wasn’t a breath of wind. The sun stuck a tentative red segment above the horizon but unlike us, it had no choice but to continue its journey. Without wind in the sails and our diesel thumping away on full power, we would just about push a path north towards the Cyclades at 5 knots. The nearest island, Anafi, is 65 nautical miles giving a potential arrival at 18.00 hours. Anafi is about 20 miles east of the much-visited tourist destination of Santorini (Thira Island) which is itself just too far away to be sure of a daylight arrival. Samphire stuck her boat-shaped ‘segment’ out into the open seas, but unlike the sun, now a cautioning orange and heavily clawing for the midday sky, we could have turned back...
When the sun became a searing white and reached its zenith, Crete, being the largest Greek island, with mountains 5000m high, still stood majestically. In fact its outline was still just visible in the distant haze as we approached Anafi’s harbour, or what masqueraded for a harbour in forgiving seas. It looked like a poor substitute for a proper harbour should winds blow up and the sea start to swell...such as well shown in the film made at Lyme Regis in Dorset, UK, The French Lieutentant’s Woman. However, not to worry, the harbour walls might be a mere groyne compared with Lyme’s towering buttresses, but the wind was gentle, the seas were flat calm and the usually reliable Poseidon weather forecast indicated no change throughout the night.
As we dropped anchor, we looked forward to a modest drop of wine and a good night’s sleep....unfortunately, we did have the wine but the good night’s sleep would be short-lived. Well before midnight declared its boredom with the dying day and long after my snoring must have echoed around the boat, fate in an impromptu test had decided to send a swell and it started to pour into our bay as if someone had opened a sluice gate into this sector of the Aegean.
The scrumptious red wine that we had carried from Crete’s best vineyard, had preceded sliding between the sheets…well, more like an involuntary backward high jump without the difficult part that wins trophies. I told myself through fractured wine-befuddled sleep that it wasn’t serious, it was nothing to concern us and it would pass by dawn. At 3am I was rudely awoken by a thumping on the hull and I knew, somehow, despite the entreaties of the wine, this was not the postman. The thumping continued and through the fug I realised the keel was bashing on the sandy bottom, and not far from sand at that depth was rocks. Out on deck the impending disaster was clear to see even in a foaming, thrashing sea; Samphire had moved on her anchor and was nearly doomed. Full revs and hard rudder saw her moving away from the rocks...now to raise the anchor and ready ourselves to drop it again a little further out in the bay of the harbour.
Job done, I crashed exhausted into my pit, but within an hour the boat was bobbing around like a rodeo steed and staying asleep was near impossible…try napping on one of the latest scream-curdling roller-coaster rides to give you a taste of what Grandfather Fate had sent to test us.
The anchor now held fast but each lurch, each snatch and each attempt by Samphire to pick up water with her gunwale edges made it clear this would be a long, maybe even an ultimate test. At 6am one of Greece’s large ferries put in on an adjacent berth and the captain wasn’t long in letting me know that worse was to come and we had two options, abandon ship and struggle ashore or put to sea and take our chances, ‘To hell with you Fate’, I shouted, ‘You’ll have to wait.’ With engine screaming and anchor barely stowed, we headed out into the storm, with a sky so black it could still have been midnight.
Samphire pounded us like a bucking bronco. It was impossible to go below for anything but with some directions from the Greek coastguard, bless them, we put into the sheltered harbour of Katopola on Amorgos island 8 hours later. Many yachting types were sheltering there and we were grateful for the willing hands that threw lines, moved fenders, shouted instructions and hauled us in to be finally secured.
Pontiff-like I was overjoyed to climb ashore and leave my lip marks in the swirling dust of the passing storm...by God did that dust taste good.
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