A lesson learned: Hydra 2017 offshore sailing race

8 NOVEMBER, 2017


By Helen Iatrou

Photography by Carlo Raciti www.carloraciti.com

We got back on board 51-foot historic racing yacht Traité de Rome in late October, joining a crew of lovely people and sweet Greek-Belgian Captain Joseph in the annual Hydra offshore sailing race.

Some 70 yachts ranging from a classic wooden yacht to a graceful 68-foot Swan and RORC Transatlantic Race participant competed in the race, organised by the Yacht Club of Greece, which took place October 27 to 29.

Day one saw us tackle the first of the two 36 nautical mile race legs, from Faliron in southern Athens to the elegant Saronic island of Hydra.

Competing in the ORC Club category, alongside ORCi and IRC categories, we were simply thrilled to be out racing again, in what was very likely our last race of the year.

It was a slightly mad rush to make it to the start line off Faliron as we had issues with the engine, calling out mechanics to investigate. Just half an hour ahead of the 4.10pm horn blast, we managed to hotfoot it out of Kallithea marina for a nail-biting start.

We may not have had a great deal of wind to work with throughout the course, but it was an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Traité de Rome, an aluminium one-off sloop, and get to know our fellow crew members, several of whom had flown in from Brussels for the race.

With a mostly French-speaking Belgian crew, the lingua franca on board meant I had to quickly brush up on my rusty Français. Carlo did a great deal better swiftly comprehending the captain’s directions in French.

At first, I would look blankly at the captain, who teaches sailing in Belgium and has reams of patience, when he called out “choque la grand-voile!” (choke the main?). I soon picked up some of the basic sailing terms in French. It’s cool that we’re learning these terms in Greek, Italian, English and French as it will prove very useful in our future cruising in the Mediterranean.

As we passed in front of the isle of Aegina, we marvelled at the burnt orange colours streaking across the sky. Autumn clouds bring some of the most dramatic sunsets here in Greece and we always feel privileged to experience them, especially at sea.

It seemed to take longer than usual for the heavens above us to darken. The sky remained a deep navy blue and a waxing moon lit our passage until around midnight, when the stars came out to keep us company and we stared up in silence at a luminous Milky Way.

Each one of us spotted a shooting star as if they were individually delivered.

A few miles out of Hydra, the wind dropped almost completely.

We encountered three or four of our fellow competitors who illuminated their sails with flashlights, not only to ensure they, like us, were successfully harnessing every last knot of wind, but to ensure we could see them.

“Where is that beast going,” said one slightly nervous competitor in another yacht, as we tacked past, separated by just a couple of metres.

The black sails which are so popular right now were even harder to make out. It was a beautiful, slightly surreal sight.

The accumulated stress of the working week and blaring car horns of Athens melted into oblivion.

With Alexandra, visiting from Belgium and five-and-a-half months pregnant, at the helm, we crossed the finish line and entered Hydra’s small port at 2.25am, feeling rather tired, a little cold but happy.

The island capital was pretty much completely asleep by that time, with the exception of the Pirate bar, where sailors have long congregated.

We got a little lost trying to find our bed for the night in Hydra’s narrow alleyways which, like many Greek island towns, were designed to confuse pirates.

Medals and cats

Day two of the annual Hydra race was, thankfully, a rest day after the 10-hour long first leg.

It also coincided with October 28, which honours the day in 1940 during WWII when Greece refused to ally with the Axis powers, known as Ohi Day. The race is held every year around this significant national day.

Carlo and I enjoyed a long, lazy late breakfast at a café in the sunshine with views of the diverse array of yachts and fishing boats squeezed into the port.

Among those that caught our eye was Larne, a classic wooden beauty, which trailed us at some point of the race the previous day.

Local families with young children, dressed in navy blue and white, were milling around, having participated in commemorative events.

All of the Hydra race crews gathered at a cultural centre, where the local authorities welcomed us and treated us to amygdalota, a traditional local sweet made with almonds, before medals and cups were awarded to those who took first, second and third place in the first leg.

Placing 24th, we were happy enough that we were among the 36 of a total 49 yachts in our category who completed the leg in the allotted time.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the main town then lunched with our crew at a backstreet taverna where the adjacent table of diners happily launched into song after sating their appetites.

The soft Autumn light reflected off Hydra’s stately neoclassical stone-built homes and landmarks, such as the Historical Archives – Museum of Hydra, that look over the natural harbour.

In the tiny cobblestoned streets, we petted some of the prettiest and friendliest long-haired island cats we’ve ever seen.

When the fishing caiques arrived that morning, they were the first in line to inquire about the catch of the day. No wonder they have such lush coats.

The island is a good idea for a long weekend sailing trip outside the busy summer season, when finding a place to moor is near impossible.

We sauntered across the waterfront, dotted with cafes, restaurants and boutiques, and headed west in search of an attractive location for a post-lunch espresso.

The sun blazed across the sea and onto the flat-topped rocks below Hydronetta cocktail bar, a classic spot now closed for Autumn-Winter, where swimmers normally hang out to swim and sunbathe.

The early evening brought a healthy bout of rain and winds lashed the port, resulting in a rather rolly night for our fellow sailors with masts jousting over lack of space.

As we walked back to our rented studio, we helped out one sailor as she attempted to walk a swaying plank from boat to dry land so she could advise her crew that their mast was swinging dangerously close to those of their neighbours.

Heading home

Day three of the Hydra race arrived and we were up early and fully kitted out in our sailing gear, concerned it might be a little cold and wet. It was a relief to find the sun was out and skies were clear.

Would Aeolus bless us with enough wind required to power the big sails of the 16-tonne grand dame that is Traité de Rome, the first sailing boat to fly the European flag?

All of the competing yachts lined up at the invisible starting line of the race. Most of those sporting spinnakers swiftly hoisted them in preparation to take advantage of a light wind coming over our sterns.

Crewmember Jean-Marc, his back resting on the safety lines, strummed his classical guitar and sang softly in Spanish.

It was time to raise our vibrant ocean blue asymmetric spinnaker decorated with 12 yellow stars denoting the then 12 members of the European Union encircling a dolphin. The billowing beauty stretched out and caressed the wind, allowing us to inch forward past one or two competitors.

Music lover Manu whipped out a trumpet and serenaded a nearby yacht as we sailed past them, albeit slowly.

Curly-haired Philippos, who is zen personified, looked on bemused and surveyed the competition.

Lying flat out on the bow, Carlo took full advantage of an opportunity to carefully trim the aspin, to catch every last wisp of wind, as we lurched forward and the competition dispersed in all directions.

The captain put me in charge of the backstay, a wire that runs from the top of the mast to the stern. Only later did he explain that it was an important post, as the backstay supports the mast and controls mast tension and bend.

“I assigned you that post because women are more focused. Men are distracted more easily. They will look at the sail trimmers and say ‘why shouldn’t I trim the sails?’, whereas a woman will stay at the post, concentrate and do the job,” Joseph explained.

We ran downwind for most of the course and, at one point, butterflied with the main sail and genoa at 7.9 knots, which requires a skilled helmsman.

Alexandra, who has been sailing since the tender age of one, helmed the beamy bateau for most of the two race legs.

Her long-limbed brother Quentin, with whom she owns and races a Westerly from the late ‘70s, kept a close eye on his sibling, and spent most of the time running between the stern and bow in summer wear.

We crossed the finish line in the early evening, relieved it took us seven hours, considerably less time on the return route to Faliron.

But Traité de Rome had a little surprise in store for us. Captain “Chef” Joseph couldn’t get the engine to start and, fortunately, just as we were entering the marina, guardian angels appeared in the form of a small fishing boat that was passing by.

The crew of three, led by a female fisherman, skilfully towed us to safety, as the captain manoeuvred her into a vacant spot between a port police vessel and a motor yacht.

It was a little nerve-wracking but Joseph’s ever-calm demeanour put us at ease.

We wound down our long weekend of sailing race laughing and sharing a meal of pasta marinara prepared by Joseph’s partner Pauline with our fellow crew.

It was a truly memorable three days where we not only improved our sailing skills but learned that placing well in a race is less important than connecting with your crew and making new friends, which is one of the most beautiful gifts of sailing.

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