Crewing on our first offshore sailing race – in the rain
By Helen Iatrou
Soaked to the bone from the waist down, a little cold and exhausted but in a state of unfettered bliss.
That’s how we felt as we walked through the door of our apartment last Sunday afternoon.
Carlo and I had just crewed together on our first sailing race since acquiring our sailing permits from our club, the Nautical Club of Palaion Faliron, and an offshore event no less.
Bearing bruised shins and upper arms like a badge of honour, I never imagined a hot shower could feel this good.
We had joined the crew of a nimble IMX-40 racing yacht participating in the Anastasiou Souli offshore sailing race which ran over the weekend of June 17 and 18 in the Saronic Gulf between Faliron and the island of Aegina.
Jenny Mendi, a friend who took up sailing a year ago, invited us to join Yacht Club of Greece coach-instructor Pavlos ‘Polino’ Kourkoulos, owner and captain of Apidalos Nafs, and four of his students who formed the crew for the race.
Jenny, who has even set up her own Greek sailing website – Enalion Offshore, had given us less than 24 hours’ notice but we quickly packed our dry bags and headed out the door on a sunny Saturday morning to picturesque Mikrolimano port in Piraeus.
There, we boarded the meticulously-maintained 40-foot vessel for the race, organised by the Piraeus Sailing Club. This Danish-built X-Yacht is considered a cruiser-racer, and fast she most definitely is.
Pavlos, who was born on the Ionian island of Corfu, eased the yacht out of her berth and lined her up to prepare for the starting sequence.
Apidalos Nafs means a ship without oars, a ship steered by thought. It refers to the incredible seafaring skills of the ancient Phaeacians, who hailed from Phaeacia, known today as Corfu. Apidalos Nafs is the symbol of the island.
For us newbie sailors, who are accustomed to seeing cruising yachts keep a very significant distance, it’s an eye-opener to see 36 racing yachts of various sizes jockeying for a good position within a few metres of one another ahead of a race start.
A bright orange committee boat passed by. “One minute,” announced a voice over the VHF and at 11:00, we were off.
The race, constituting yachts in the ORC International, ORC Club and IRC classes, had begun.
Bearing impressive carbon fibre sails, Apidalos Nafs recently acquired ORC International status.
Day one of the race and, while we had clear skies, there wasn’t a great deal of wind. At least not strong enough for us to ratchet up the knots on the 24 nautical-mile route which rounded much of Aegina. Mother-and-son team Asimoula and Aimon hoisted the spinnaker at one point, while Nestoras served as headsail trimmer and Carlo and I trimmed the jib sail.
Arriving at Aegina port, which was bustling with cruisers and fellow racers, we moored off a jetty and enjoyed a glass of crisp white Greek wine and cheese.
That evening, the crew gathered for a dinner peppered with the captain’s jokes at a fish taverna by the sea but well off the town’s main street.
“If my students don’t laugh [at my jokes], I fail them,” Pavlos said.
We chatted with the leathery-faced taverna owner who pointed out that Aegina was once a thriving sea sponge producer.
He also let us in on an insider secret; how to tell a female lobster, which is preferred as it may have eggs, from a male.
We overnighted at a pension to ensure we were well-rested for day two of the race.
The next morning we looked out of our room window up at cloudy skies and lightly falling rain.
We met up with the rest of the crew for breakfast at an attractive stone-built hotel which once functioned as a sponge processing factory. Carlo and I admired wooden model ships proudly displayed in glass cases at the hotel entrance.
One more crew member, Themis, arrived, having taken a ferry from Piraeus.
Carlo and I had made the ultimate sailing newbie mistake. We left our sailing jackets at home, in spite of predictions for rain.
Greece is experiencing one of its wettest summers in years, at least as far back as we can remember, but we refused to believe it would rain on our parade.
“A good sailor always brings their sailing jacket and swimsuit,” Pavlos said.
Luckily, he had a few spare jackets on board, which proved our saviour and kept the rain off our upper bodies, at least.
While rain beat across our faces throughout the day and drenched our pants, the forecast for decent winds also played out, with a steady 19 to 20 knots.
We close-hauled almost the entire 17 nautical mile route to Faliron, with sails in tight and notched up speeds of up to 7.8 knots, leaving our competitors far behind.
Pavlos had us hiking, that is sitting on the windward rail as far forward as we could go, to keep Apidalos Nafs stable as she heeled almost to the max.
The occasional tack saw us clamber across a slippery cockpit, careful to keep hands away from the jib winch and feet away from the mainsail sheet track.
As we hiked, with our right arms around a lifeline, I frequently turned my head leeward to see how much we were heeling and felt a rush of exhilaration.
At one point, I got stuck down in the cockpit and a helping hand lifted me up to port side.
On the approach to Piraeus, the wind dropped dramatically and we watched as the Saronic Sea transformed into a lake, and our competitors inched closer and closer.
We managed to squeeze every last ounce of lift out of the sails until we crossed the finish line first and the committee boat sounded the horn, to our relief.
We placed fourth overall in the two-day race but felt like we were on top of the world.
As in life, you just need to get out and sail, whether there’s rain, hail or sunshine.
Pavlos ‘Polino’ Kourkoulos eyes up his competitors ahead of the starting sequence
Jenny Mendi, editor of sailing news website Enalion Offshore
Two of the 36 sailing race competitors
Keeping the committee boat within view
Two beauties with Piraeus as backdrop
Young crew member and sailor newbie Aimon has picked up some major skills.
Yacht Club of Greece sailing school graduate Asimoula, and Mum to Aimon
Asimoula looks out toward the committee boat
Helen gets to grips with the jib and Jenny sports a windswept look
Asimoula and Aimon on the bow
Smooth sailing in the Saronic
Jenny takes the helm
Jenny takes charge of the spinnaker
Arriving in Aegina
Aegina’s capital, graced with beautifully-restored neoclassical buildings
Folding the jib
Tavernas, cafes and boutiques line Aegina’s main street, which faces the port
Sailing yachts and motor yachts in Aegina’s port
Aegina has one of the largest fleets of traditional fishing boats that we have seen on Greece’s islands
Dark skies above moored yachts
Rain, rain go away
Crew members head to Apidalos Nafs
The committee boat
Signalling to the committee boat
Aimon on the bow
Hiking at sea
Wet but happy
Carlo in the cockpit
Asimoula looks out at the competition
Carlo in a contemplative mood
Every racer’s nightmare: Looking at our reflections in Saronic ‘Lake’
Nestoras showing a little concern about how we might place
And across the invisible finish line!