When the Meltemi blows a bone dry wind whips through what was a previously placid anchorage, making even the most secure of Mediterranean (Med) moorings uncomfortable at best, untenable at worst. Sand and dirt from arid hills fills the air and coats once white yachts – cleaning this is a mistake, once you start, you will never stop. The incessant stretch, creak, and groan of mooring lines pulled between incoming swell and northerly winds begins to drive you mildly insane, so you retreat to land. You sit tucked away in the winding, white washed alleyways of the island that were once made to shelter citizens from pirate attacks and now serve as brilliant cover from that relentless wind and remember, only a few hours before, when the sea was glass and the air still. This is the life of a sailor, your plans tied inextricably to the weather, so, rather than bash into a northerly that refuses to abate, you sit, drink a coffee, and write. After all, sailing plans are written in the sand at low tide. These are the Greek Islands.
We have been crewing in the Greek Islands for a week now and have learned a lot, sailed a little. The hops between islands are not big, about 40 nautical miles each and we’ve moved from Poros, to Kea, to Serifos, and now I sit, weathering the wind, in Paros. We had planned to go to Ios yesterday, but a broken davit on a long weekend where all welders are closed thwarted that plan. Now the wind threatens to stop any forward progress to Ios, even if we get that pesky little screw fixed. Our days have been spent washing decks, learning how to service engines, and exploring the islands. Our evenings often begin with the melodrama of Med moorings, when a late arriving boat inevitably tries to squeeze into a nearly full marina, thus dropping their anchor on no less than two other anchors. The ensuing barrage of curses in dozens of different languages is both entertaining, and stressful, especially if you are the one dropping the offending anchor or if you’re the recipient of the unwanted chain. Though, now I know what not to do when Med mooring and have a few new curse words in my mental bank, so that’s good.
After sun sets, we either cook onboard or head out to try a local taverna, but either way we always get to watch the pasajata, as our Italian friend and crew mate, Zeno, calls it. Every family here on holiday, which is nearly everyone as these islands are quite touristy, dresses to the nines and parades up and down the main path along the waterfront. They walk slowly, they do not run, as us Americans and Australians do, at least according to Zeno. It is a stroll to see and be seen, either before dinner or after, depending on how much they hold to the tradition of an afternoon nap, but I can promise you, no one is pasajat-ing before 8 pm. Dinner is a later affair here, something that my early bird self has needed to adapt to.
Crewing always brings with it necessary adaptations and you are shifting from the moment you step onto that wobbly, wooden plank connecting the bouncing boat to the marina wall. You need to learn how to go with the flow, to live in a small, moving space, and to become sufficiently chameleon to find your place in the web of personalities that is any boat. You need to remember your knots and colregs, but above all else, you need to be willing to do what the captain asks, and, even better, to figure out what needs doing before it is asked. Our friend Zeno excels at this and I could learn much from his enthusiastic optimism for diving head first into a broken engine bay or adjusting a flapping sail. I think these things will come with time, as he has been on Galaja (the 43ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran that we are sailing) since before she touched water two months ago. He arrived and helped Rob, the owner, to get her sufficiently ship shape to splash again after two long, COVID induced years on the hard. From the stories they tell, it was lots of mould, broken everything, and hard, long days. Note to self – boats belong in water, not on land, and they chuck a hissy fit if this is ignored.
As for Greece itself, Athens was a pleasant surprise, I loved the depth of the history that is imbued in every crack of that city of faded glory, and the islands have been objectively beautiful. Crystal clear waters surround islands filled with perfect little whitewashed, blue accented homes that look straight out of a movie. Gyros are cheap and plentiful, and everyone here is clad in light coloured linen, floating their way through their decidedly not cheap holidays (any food other than a gyro or souvlaki wrap is much more expensive). I have been quite enjoying it for what it is, but, as with everything, there is a less than glamourous reality to the Greek Islands that doesn’t make it to Instagram – that reality is trash, tons of plastic, overflowing from bins and into the sea that, sadly hasn’t seen schools of fish in the numbers that I’m used to since Plato pontificated. The ocean here is dead, or at least dying.
The fleets of fishermen have dwindled as their catches are not enough to sustain livelihoods, because, to put it simply, the Mediterranean has been overfished since the 1970s when technology began to allow fishing fleets to fish further, deeper, and with greater intensity than ever before. You can still see the fishermen in their wide, flat bottom boats that clearly have never seen an open ocean swell, mending nets with weathered, aged hands, but I feel they are a dying breed, dying right alongside the fish stocks in the most overfished ocean in the world (90% of the Mediterranean fish populations are exploited beyond replacement levels). According to our friends, the youth flee to Athens and the opportunity it offers, thus causing the local population to dwindle, just as the tourist population of the islands swells. It is sad in a way, that this way of life is dying because it exploded, because people were greedy and took too much, with not enough regulation. I wish people could see, that if we all took less, that this ocean might recover and support fishermen again, thus allowing the way of life that is so tied to the culture of the Greek Islands to continue. Alas, I am not sure this ocean can recover without serious intervention. It is the least alive ocean I have ever swum in, beautiful from the surface, but when you dive in you have the ghostly feeling of swimming through a graveyard, a turquoise, rocky remnant of what once was.
Plastic is the Greek Islands’, and the Mediterranean as a whole’s, other big problem. According to the UN, 730 tonnes of plastic waste enters the Mediterranean Sea every single day. I believe these figures, as they make sense based on what we have seen. No beach we have gone to is free of plastic and it is shockingly easy to fill a large garbage bag with ocean plastic – it took less than 5 minutes to fill one as we walked along the marina rock wall in Paros. We have picked up plastic trash on Serifos and Paros, filling bags and bags with liter that was sea bound. We often do this on beaches crowded with lounging sun worshipers who seem to not see what we see. They take their beautiful photos of their beautiful bodies at beautiful angles – always composed to avoid the less than perfect side of the islands. It breaks my heart to see so many people who choose to look past the problem, to accept it as inevitable. Yet, not everyone selectively ignores us, some do see, and that gives me hope – like the waiter at the fancy restaurant in Paros who let us put the trash we collected in their bin, who said thank you for trying to do our small part to leave this place better than we found it.
That has been the theme of this time, to leave it better than we found it, be it the boat or the beach, and I am proud to do so, to try to give at least as much as I take. That being said, I want people to see that the problems I talked about in the past couple of weeks, of excessively plastic consumption and poor waste management, that they are not just one country’s problem. They are all of our problems. Every single country, every single person in the world has a role to play in turning the plastic tide, we must work together to save our oceans.