Sailing through two Engineering marvels in Greece
After arriving in Greece late on the 25th of October we started making way very slowly to our port of entry Itea, where we needed to arrive on the first of the month to avoid having to pay for a full month of cruising tax.
Our first stop was on the East coast of Zakynthos in the quiet village of Ag Nikólaus then we sailed to the East coast of Argostoli and anchored in front of Poros, and then to an anchorage East of the island Oxia already in the Gulf of Patras, where we had to seek protection and wait a day and night for the winds to change before we could proceed with our journey.
Shortly after dropping anchor in this wild and secluded anchorage, we were gifted a big octopus by two local spearfishermen that were in the area. A great example of Greek friendliness.
Once the winds changed favourably we departed on the sailing journey that would take us across two impressive feats of engineering that connect different sides of Greece.
The first one, a land connection between mainland Greece with the Peloponnese, and the second a sea connection between the Ionian and the Aegean Seas.
The first highlight of this journey was the Rio-Antirrio Bridge, separating the Gulf of Patras from the Gulf of Corinth and connecting mainland Greece with the Peloponnese.
One of the world's longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the longest of the fully suspended type. But what makes it such an engineering marvel is the challenges of its construction on an area of significant seismic activity and tectonic movement where the neighbouring mountains create a wind tunnel where winds of 60+knots (110km/h) are often registered.
We started the day early, sailing towards the bridge close to the north side shore of the Gulf of Patras and planning to stop for the night on the north side of the Gulf of Corinth after crossing under the bridge.
We headed out with a reef on the mainsail and with full Jib and made way towards the bridge keeping an eye on the wind strength, the gusts started at around 20 knots but slowly dropped as we came closer to the bridge.
The height between the pylon sets M1/M2 and M3/M4 is 32 meters, plenty for us to pass under without even worrying and that seems to be where sailboats are directed to pass the bridge leaving the central passage reserved for the much bigger vessels.
We planned to pass between pylons M3/M4 on the north side of the bridge but after calling the Rio-Antirrio Control Tower on channel 14 on the VHF radio (call sign "RIO TRAFFIC") at the 12 nautical miles required distance, the instructions were that we needed to cross the bridge on the south side between pylons M1/M2.
We changed our heading to the designated pylons and started our crossing of the Gulf to the south side, the winds now were almost on our nose so we proceeded under the engine and furled the headsail.
As we came closer to the bridge we could see in our Chartplotter an AIS target of a cargo ship approaching the bridge coming from East, we could also hear the conversation over the VHF radio between him and the control tower. He was coming at 10knots speed over ground and would have to slow down to 9knots before going under the bridge, we could also see the ferries that connect the two sides of the river banks going around him to avoid delaying him.
With our current heading and his heading we should be just fine, we would pass his bow just in time, and before where we thought he would start picking up speed again, but just in case we adjusted our course slightly to give some extra room. Not to our surprise, as the cargo ship was crossing the bridge he started picking up speed and turning in our direction, making our passage in front of him difficult even if we picked up speed.
We decided not to wait and see if our thought was right or not and turned the boat almost 60 degrees towards the bridge as if we were now going to pass in the central passage and kept our speed, we would now pass alongside the cargo ship. We could see on AIS that his destination wasn’t Patras, the only reason that could justify his change of direction.
He had also heard us previously on the VHF radio and just being difficult on purpose. Once he passed us he turned immediately to his original heading that would take him out of the Gulf of Patras.
At this point, we were close to the 1 nautical mile marker distance established by Control Tower to confirm our position and permit us to cross. We called them again on the VHF radio and explained we were at the requested distance passing behind the cargo ship and received instructions to cross the bridge at the designated pylons.
We were also told we should standby on the 14 VHF channel for a while longer after crossing the bridge and then the Control Tower finished our communications wishing us in a very pleasant way a welcome to Greece and a good journey.
On the other side of the Rio-Antirrio bridge, the Gulf of Corinth, we got picked up by the strong current and motored at a nice speed towards our stop for the night in the island of Trizonia, where we would have to stay for two nights waiting for some strong winds to abate.
From Trizonia we sailed onwards Itea making a night stop in a wild anchorage Ormos Anemokampi we then arrived in Itea, our port of entry on the first of the month as planned.
We docked inside the port and prepared ourselves for what we thought would be a little saga trying to check-in due to the Covid19 restrictions and requirements, but truth be said no one showed any interest in this during our arrival formalities.
While in Itea we took the opportunity of being safely tied up in a port to go visit one of the most famous archaeological sites in Greece, Delphi.
We got on a bus and marvelled with the views as we gained altitude on the winding mountain road. The understanding of the landscape we were going through was quite different from when viewed from the sea level. We had not realised the enormous valley behind the town of Itea and the mountain slopes, full of olive trees like we had never seen before.
The archaeological site to our disappointment was not as exciting as we thought it would be, the fact that the museum was closed for pest control didn’t help. After all, the most impressive elements discovered in the archaeological site are inside the museum not on the site itself.
On that same afternoon, we departed towards the second highlight of this journey.
A reasonably uncomfortable sail with choppy seas took us from the north side of the Gulf of Corinth to the Southside to Kiato harbour, where we stayed for the night so we could arrive at the entrance of the Corinth Canal early in the morning.
The second highlight of this journey was the Corinth Canal, connecting the Ionian and the Aegean seas, through the Gulf of Corinth on the Ionian side and the Saronic Gulf on the Aegean side and effectively separating the Peloponnese from mainland Greece.
The history of its construction dates back to antiquity, 7th-century bc.
The project and idea of the construction of the canal went back and forward during the Greeks and then the Romans without ever achieving the final goal, and only when Greece became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1830 the idea resurfaced, but completion would only come in 1893.
With just 24.6 meters width at sea level, the wind funnelling in its high walls and the different tides times in the two gulfs that create strong tidal currents, navigation in the canal can be difficult. But the experience is one not to be missed.
We departed Kiato harbour at 7 am local time and by 9 am we were already by the Corinth Canal entrance in Poseidonia and contact with the Canal Control Tower on channel 12 on the VHF radio.
Their instructions were to wait on the north side of the entrance until further instructions.
We waited for 1h, listening to the information requests by Control Tower to a couple of vessels that could potentially form a convoy together with the cargo vessel already preparing to enter the canal towards our direction.
We could see the progress of the cargo crossing the canal with the help of the AIS, so when he was already more than halfway through the canal we decided to call Control Tower to confirm and remind them we were waiting on this side for instructions. Control Tower confirmed the position of the cargo vessel crossing the canal and informed us in 30 minutes he should be exiting on our side and that we should enter the canal immediately behind him. We started the engine and got ourselves in a position to pass behind the cargo vessel as he passed the breakwater walls.
Seeing the cargo vessel come out from the narrow cut on the rock was just bizarre.
We immediately tucked behind the cargo vessel, passed the breakwater walls and proceeded to our crossing of the canal.
We passed the first submergible bridge, another bizarre view the cars and motorbikes so close to us and knowing that we were passing on top of the piece of road that was there minutes ago.
As we were still passing over the submerged bridge the warning siren for the raise of the bridge sounded and we could already hear the mechanism that moves the bridge up and down moving, these guys weren’t kidding when they told us to hurry up. A couple of minutes after passing over the bridge we saw it emerging from the water blocking the access to the canal and restoring car circulation, that in my view is an impressive feat of engineering!
So there we were crossing the Corinth Canal, totally alone not in a convoy as it often happens during summer.
It felt so narrow, barely enough for us to pass safely, but impressions are indeed deceiving we could fit 3yachts the size of The Dream side by side and still cross the canal rafted to each other.
It was just before slack tide but the current was still strong, we were keeping a steady speed at 2000rpms of 7knots easily, John hand-steering the entire way.
Not a hint of a breeze, beautiful blue sky without clouds just over the canal. 30 minutes later we were reaching the Aegean side and as we wonder if we needed to inform Control Tower that we were approaching the second submergible bridge, we start seeing the cars stop circulating the warning sirene go off and the bridge disappears into the sea a few minutes later we were already outside of the canal preparing to dock on Isthmia to pay the crossing fees when a violent gust pushed The Dream on to the dock suddenly as I was still adjusting the height of the fenders.
This dock contrary to all docks we had seen in Greece was quite high and we almost scratched The Dream on the dock but thanks to the quick help of a fishing lady that was on the dock we managed to secure the boat correctly just in time to avoid the stern to swing and hit the dock.
I quickly went to pay our fees, some whopping 288€ to have the pleasure of motoring a bit more than 6km in between a narrow cut in the rocks.
A couple of days later Greece imposed a new nationwide lockdown due to Covid19 bringing our adventures to a pause again.
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.