The idea was born over a glass of wine . . . as the best plans often are.
‘Why don’t you meet us in Greece this summer and we’ll take you sailing on Birgitta?’ asked Murray and Lyn.
‘Are you serious?’ Chris and I chorused in unison, trying not to sound too ridiculously enthusiastic. Coincidentally, we were planning a trip to Europe over the northern summer so my brain went into overdrive. We could actually do this. We could rendezvous at a port somewhere, eat fabulous Greek food, drink ouzo and go for a little sail in a sheltered bay, and maybe even stay the night on the yacht.
Chris, on the other hand, had more grandiose ideas of sailing on the high seas, conveniently forgetting his history of severe seasickness and my terror of sailing. So, ever the sensible one, I tempered my husband’s enthusiasm before things got way out of hand.
‘Just a couple of minor problems. Chris gets seasick and I get scared. So we’d better stick with lunch on board and a sedate sail around the calm waters of a sheltered bay.’
Murray and Lyn just nodded and smiled.
Sunset on our first evening anchored off Paros.
I felt quite emotional when, six months later, Birgitta sailed into the bay of Naussau on the island of Paros. We were standing on the dock looking out to sea and spotted the tall mast of the yacht with two figures onboard. Murray and Lyn had sailed big seas all the way from Turkey and here they were, our good friends from Gizzy, coming into port to pick us up, just as we’d planned long ago.
We boarded in a high state of excitement, stowed our far-too-bulky luggage in the vacant bunk room and had a grand tour of Birgitta. The Swedish-built, 55-foot, six-berth Hallberg-Rassy was absolutely magnificent, far more luxurious and spacious than anticipated. Teak deck, gleaming stainless steel riggings, polished mahogany cabinetry in the lounge, and a fabulously well-equipped galley. The salubrious master cabin had a king size bed and roomy ensuite bathroom while the super-comfortable guest cabin had a V-berth bed, great storage and a bathroom shared with the bunk room.
Murray’s thorough safety briefing gave me confidence that this was a vessel where no shortcuts had been taken. There were backups for every essential piece of equipment and in some cases, backups for the backups. For example, there were six fire extinguishers where two would have been sufficient and a special dry-powder system for the engine room because, as Murray emphasised, fire is one of the greatest concerns at sea. He also explained about how the weight of Birgitta’s keel would self-right the yacht if it leaned too far in either direction. Safety was clearly the number one priority on this ship.
After collecting some essential food items in Naussau we motored out of the crowded port and anchored in a nearby bay for lunch. Greek salad and lasagne never tasted so good. The tomatoes and sweet red onions exploded with an intensity of flavour I’d never experienced before. And the same applied to the fruit. Peaches, nectarines, melons and grapes bursting with sweetness and juice.
The day drifted by like a reverie. Swimming off the back of the yacht in the tepid, crystal clear, aqua-turquoise Aegean and relaxing on the deck with a good book was sublime. Life on board Birgitta was sweet indeed. I could see how days would easily melt into weeks and months . . . even years. Calm seas, blue skies, endless sunshine, the backdrop of the arid, rocky Cyclades with their characteristic blue and white chapels, tasty food and wine, the company of good friends.
Late afternoon, Murray stoked up the portable barbeque on the back of the yacht and we dined on Greek lamb garnished with mountain thyme and other local herbs, accompanied by a fresh Mediterranean salad.
The evening was the stuff of dreams. The light in the Greek Islands was soft, gentle and luminous. The ice-cold, local rosé plucked from the freezer and sipped at sunset added a rosy hue to an already euphoric experience. The conversation was nothing short of scintillating.
From left: Murray at the helm of Birgitta; The island of Serifos with its clusters of white houses.
Next morning, I expected we’d sidle around the bay and then Murray and Lyn would drop us off at the jetty and set sail for their next destination. However they had other ideas.
‘Sail with us to Serifos,’ Murray said. ‘You can disembark there if you want to.’
The look of excitement on Chris’s face was priceless. Even more so than the prospect of a round of golf. ‘What about your seasickness?’ I asked my husband.
‘All sorted,’ he replied flashing a big grin and a packet of pills at me. ‘I’ve discovered a magic drug,’ he said.
‘Wonderful,’ I replied wishing there was a potion I could take to stave off my fear.
I’ll never forget the moment the big diesel engine was cut, the sails unfurled and Birgitta began to lean into the wind. The sea beyond the sheltered necklace of the bay was anything but calm and Birgitta adopted an angle that made me instinctively adopt my counterbalancing routine. Even when an aeroplane banks after take-off, I automatically lean in the opposite direction as if to hold the aircraft steady. So too on the yacht. I sat on the high side, leaning back with my feet braced against the lower seat, hanging on for dear life.
The first few times the bow dived into the trough of a wave and the sea water washed over the canopy of the cockpit, my heart skipped a beat and my knuckles turned white from clutching my handholds. My facial expression must have been a dead giveaway. Lyn began to distract me with ‘grandma chat’. She has eight grandchildren and we were awaiting our first so the topic was well-chosen and offered endless absorbing discussions from baby-wear to birthday cakes.
But after an hour of witnessing Murray’s expert helmsmanship, feeling the solid strength of Birgitta and observing the way she self-corrected when the angle was too extreme, I began to relax and enjoy the experience.
The teamwork between Murray and Lyn was most impressive. There were incredibly in sync with each other. No raised voices or shouting of orders. They seemed to communicate by telepathy . . . and hand signals.
Chris was in his element, listening intently as Murray instructed him in the art of sailing, and beaming from ear-to-ear as he took control of the wheel for short stints.
After about four hours of weaving our way across the seas, the rush of the water on the hull and the wind in the rigging the only sounds, we sailed into the satin waters of Serifos, a small island with clusters of white houses on a hilltop.
We dropped anchor in an idyllic bay and began the daily routine of washing the salt water off the deck and windows, and furling the ropes . . . although they were not called ropes in nautical vernacular, as Murray went to great pains to explain.
“The only rope on a boat is the one attached to the ship’s bell,” he said.
“All other lines have special names like sheets, halyards and mains derived from the long-past era of sailing ships.”
There’s one called the ‘lazy line’ . . . because it’s always slack!
Refreshed after a swim in the sea and an outside shower as the sun slid towards the horizon and set in an eye-popping display of amber and gold turning to crimson and mauve, I felt extraordinarily exhilarated and happy beyond belief. I also felt a sense of achievement that I had coped OK with my first open-sea sailing episode and had not disgraced myself too much. There was a glimmering of hope that maybe I could be a sailor after all.
Later in the evening, we rowed ashore in the dinghy and caught a local bus up the narrow winding road to Marathoriza, a restaurant at the top of Serifos. One of the great treats of travelling with Murray and Lyn was their local knowledge. Over the past 10 years, they had discovered many hidden gems and this was one of them. The wine was not great but the cuisine was excellent.
Walking back down the back streets we came upon two fine-looking Greek men outside a café. We struck up a conversation with them and when they discovered we were Kiwis, they immediately launched into a spirited haka. They were so enthusiastic, I had tears of laughter streaming down my cheeks.
We passed by a bakery selling massive loaves of bread for a festival in honour of one of the island’s beloved saints. A bunch of exuberant young people on motorcycles were heading to a bay just around the corner for the festivities. They invited us to join them. ‘Visitors are very welcome — come with us!’ they said. Looking back, I wish we had.
Next time perhaps.
A delicious Greek salad, one of many we enjoyed on the yacht.
At daybreak next morning, while Chris and I were still in the land of nod, our ever-alert captain launched the dinghy and rowed across to a neighbouring yacht to alert the sleeping occupants that their floating home was about to become a ‘permanent landmark’ in the bay.
The weather overnight had deteriorated.
‘The persistent wind from the north — known locally as the ‘Meltimi’ — is building to full force as it regularly does at this time of year,’ Murray explained. ‘It’s a wind not to be underestimated, and I can see why the yacht beside us moved overnight, dragging its anchor.’
I got the impression Murray always slept with one eye open while onboard Birgitta.
After breakfast, we went ashore by dinghy for morning coffee and delectable pastries at a lovely little café on Livadakia Beach — after which I thought we’d disembark.
‘You may as well stay another night and sail with us to Syros tomorrow. You can get off there if you want to,’ said Murray as we munched our way through another round of pastries.
A quick glance at Chris’s animated face confirmed he was dead keen to sail to Syros. Needless to say, we did not disembark. We were well-and-truly hooked!
Back on Birgitta, Murray and Chris donned snorkels and flippers to swim along the anchor-line to make sure we were well-secured. There was no hurry to move on so Lyn and I did domestic jobs like washing and cleaning which I found absurdly pleasurable. The yacht had an efficient washing machine and no shortage of line-space on the riggings. I had enormous fun pegging everything out to dry. By the time the next load was ready, the previous load had already dried in the warm breeze. I can’t explain why it made me so happy to do this simple task.
We whiled away the afternoon swimming and playing a board game Murray and Lyn had picked up in Turkey. It was mentally very challenging indeed.
Lyn’s prowess in the kitchen is legendary. Dinner that night was exceptional, one of a collection of delicious one-pan dishes that were easy to prepare, even when Birgitta was tossing around in choppy conditions. Pork chops slow-cooked with granny smith apples, onions, potatoes, baby courgettes and prunes.
Despite my best intentions, my services as a sous chef were abysmal. I was unable to go below decks while we were under sail. After 10 years’ sailing, Lyn, handled the galley in rough seas like the seasoned campaigner that she was. I marvelled at the gourmet dinners she was able to create, seemingly effortlessly. The limit of my culinary endeavours was to throw basic salads together . . . but even that was fun because of the hugely flavoursome fresh ingredients available at the local shops and markets.
Lyn and Murray during our long lunch at Foinikas Bay on the island of Syros.
After our customary breakfast of fresh fruit, muesli, Greek yoghurt and local honey outside on the deck on another glorious Aegean morning, we set sail for Syros, about 30 nautical miles away.
We’d packed a picnic lunch in a chilly bin early in the day in case of rough seas . . . and rough they were. Chris relished the exhilaration of taking the helm and reading the oncoming waves. His concentration was intense as he followed Murray’s instructions and kept a close eye on the ‘wind instruments’. We were sailing hard on the wind and our captain was adamant that with concentration, we could make our destination with a minimum of needless tacks.
When Lyn was not busy on the ropes, there was lots more ‘grandma chat’ that day. It worked a treat . . . I coped just fine thanks to my full confidence in our captain and his first mate, and the superior strength and stability of Birgitta. Released from fear, my senses were free to absorb the thrill of sailing and the joy of relying entirely on the power of the wind to propel us across the vast ocean. I marvelled at the responsiveness of the yacht to the slightest adjustments in direction, the tautness of the sails, the glint of the sun on the tall mast and the bow carving effortlessly through the foamy waves. Watching the radiant expression on Murray’s face as he navigated and guided Birgitta to our destination, I began to comprehend the allure, the magnetism, the compulsion to return to this life, year-after-year.
Nevertheless, I was relieved to sail into pretty Foinikas Bay on the island of Syros by early-afternoon. We rowed ashore to a beautiful seaside restaurant where the concept of a leisurely, long lunch took on a whole new meaning — a fabulous Greek salad with a huge slab of feta on the top, tiny sardine-like fish, shrimps, fresh bread, beer, rosé and ouzo. I’ll always remember that lunch and the friendly local restaurateur who served us.
You guessed it, we didn’t disembark at Syros that day . . . but little did I realise what lay ahead.
Before reboarding Birgitta, Murray circled his pride and joy several times in the dinghy so we could fully appreciate her elegant Scandinavian profile and design. What a beauty!
After such a substantial lunch, we ate lightly that evening, enjoying the balmy temperatures and another breath-taking Aegean sunset.
There were moments on our passage to Kythnos when I secretly wished I had disembarked on Syros and was standing safely on terra firma.
Next morning after breakfast, we rowed ashore with the intention of hiking to the top of the island but the heat and steepness of the terrain defeated us. We still managed to get high enough to gain a magnificent view of the barren, hilly island and sparkling sea surrounding it.
The island of Kythnos was our destination for the day and as soon as we sailed clear of the sheltered bay, I knew this would be a real test of my ability to remain calm.
There were moments on our passage to Kythnos when I secretly wished I had disembarked on Syros and was standing safely on terra firma. The Meltimi winds were strong and the seas were heaving. The waves seemed enormous as they loomed ahead of us but Murray skillfully weaved his way between them as if skiing a slalom course. The teamwork between helmsman and first mate was outstanding. My respect and admiration for them zoomed to an even higher level.
Murray handed over to Chris in some seriously-challenging conditions, and continued his patient tuition despite the occasional drenching when his disciple misjudged the swell and troughs. At times like this I focussed firmly on the horizon, my eyes straining to decipher the hazy outline of our next island haven.
Mid-afternoon, when Birgitta was heeling hard against the stiff wind, her sails under maximum pressure, there was a sudden jolt followed by an alarming flapping of the head sail. The snap shackle that keeps the sail aloft had failed allowing the sail to fall to the deck. Murray immediately pointed the yacht up into the wind but with our forward motion gone, it felt like we were floundering in the swell.
In typical understated fashion Murray calmly said: ‘We might have a small problem here. I’ll need a life jacket please Lyn.’
Murray donned the life jacket and went forward to retrieve and secure the sail. There was no panic or raised voices so I soon realised the situation was well under control and we were not about to abandon ship as my vivid imagination had concluded.
I didn’t like the feeling of the yacht wallowing and rolling side-on to the waves so I grabbed a life jacket too and threw one to Chris.
Lyn started the engine while Murray dealt with the detached sail and hoisted another sail. We were soon under way again, engine off, heading for a bay on the far side of Kythnos to anchor overnight and do some repairs.
Once in calm waters, Chris and Lyn winched Murray up the mast to repair the damage.
‘What it is to have a versatile Kiwi skipper who’s grown up on a farm and can fix anything,’ I thought as I watched Murray swinging across the spreaders near the top of the mast.
The evening in the sheltered bay of Kolona on the western side of Kythnos was utterly sublime, well worth riding out the rough seas. I’m seldom able to live entirely in the moment but on this occasion, I experienced a state of 100 percent happiness.
The walking tracks around the bay looked tempting but we were contented to just relax and chat after a challenging day at sea.
I looked forward to our conversations in the evenings. They were always so stimulating and far from trivial, ranging from history and economics to philosophy and politics. We solved many of the world’s woes over a glass of wine at sunset.
Lyn created another culinary masterpiece — a chicken dish with eggplant, tomato, onion, courgettes and feta served with fresh ciabatta and a salad of capers, gorgonzola, pear, baby lettuce and rocket . . . and rosé.
The exceptionally picturesque port of Hydra.
We had an early start next day for the long sail to Hydra. After coffee on board at sunrise, we weighed anchor and hoisted the sails. I’d grown accustomed to the yacht heeling as the wind filled the sails and I no longer felt at all alarmed. The conditions were so calm that day, even I took the helm for a while. However, Captain Murray had to contend with hazards of a different type en route to Hydra. We were crossing a busy shipping lane with large ferries, naval vessels and container ships in all directions so he was busy on the radio most of the day, carefully plotting our course to stay well clear of these huge leviathans.
Murray and Lyn are not big fans of the crowded, touristy port of Hydra so we anchored in a secluded bay called Mandraki just around the corner. To secure the yacht so close to the shore, Lyn dived over board with ropes and strops which she attached to rocks some distance from each other.
Murray then rowed us ashore to a little jetty where we climbed steep steps to join the coastal pathway to Hydra.
The first impression of Hydra was the strong Venetian influence in the architecture with its pastel colours and tiled roofs, so different from the all-white buildings of the Cyclades. The little port was teeming with tourists dining at cafes, strolling along the waterfront and shopping at the boutiques that lined the horseshoe-shaped bay. We could see why Murray wanted to anchor at Mandraki. The yachts were jammed together so tightly in the harbour, it would be a nightmare to disentangle anchors, especially in a storm. As we walked around the waterfront, a massive private launch muscled its way into port, scattering small vessels in its wake.
Hydra’s famous donkeys were lined up to take luggage to various hotels in the car-free village. It’s an exceptionally picturesque port, especially with the late afternoon sun casting a pale apricot light on the dwellings. But we were relieved to be able to escape the crowds and go back ‘home’ to Birgitta for another of Lyn’s memorable dinners, pork and oregano meatballs . . . with a Greek salad of course.
Justine and Chris relaxing on the deck of Birgitta.
Chris dived overboard and saved Lyn the task of retrieving the ropes next morning, and soon we were sailing the gorgeous coastline of Hydra bound for Ermione on the Peloponnese Peninsula. I was mesmerised by the landscape with its stone windmills, ruins of fortresses and the remains of rock walls trailing up steep hillsides. We passed a tiny white chapel perched on a rocky islet.
The sea was so calm we motored some of the way and for the first time, I lay on the deck and read and dozed. I picked up a brilliant book called Shooting Stars and Flying Fish written by Nancy Knudsen about her sailing adventures with husband Ted. The couple found it impossible to settle back into their former corporate lives after five years sailing the world’s great oceans. Knudsen’s beautifully-written story affected me so deeply, I’m keen to read the sequel one day.
Knowing our trip was nearing an end, when the wind came up, I lay on my back, gazing up at the tall, graceful, white sails; listening to the sound of the water whooshing against the hull; feeling the undulating motion of the yacht; trying to commit all the sights and sounds and sensations to memory.
Ermioni is Murray and Lyn’s base where they stay before and after their sailing expeditions. It’s close to Kalada where Birgitta is parked up in dry dock over the winter. So they are very familiar with the town. We walked through a waterfront park for drinks and nibbles at a fancy restaurant, wandered around the marina packed with yachts bucking against their moorings, and stopped for the most delicious icecreams I’ve ever tasted. We’d eaten so well all day, we didn’t bother with a big dinner that night.
Lyn and Murray on our last night together. Their warmth, generosity, humour, positivity and kindness touched our hearts.
The dazzling red sunrise next morning may have been a portent of the storm that Murray said was brewing. He was keen to get to a safe anchorage at Portocheli before it struck in a couple of days’ time. We went ashore to stock up at the waterfront market which not only sold a splendid array of mouth-watering fresh fruit, vegetables and fish but also clothing. I bought a pair of light slip-ons for 5 euro which became my favourite summer shoes. Chris’s big purchase was a couple of ‘genuine’ Ralph Lauren polo shirts. It was hard to prise Chris away from the produce. He was in heaven.
We cruised around the coast in calm conditions and moored at Argolis, a delightful little bay with an abandoned resort right on the waterfront. The complex was the topic of much discussion over lunch as we debated what should be done with the empty buildings overlooking such a perfect, pristine bay.
The water was deliciously warm as we swam off the back of the yacht. I used one of the fenders as a buoyancy aid so I could float around effortlessly for ages.
A small uninhabited bay just outside Portocheli was our idyllic location for sunset champagne and dinner on our last dinner together. It was a magical, romantic evening, bathed in the warm, golden glow of the fading sun, a memory I often return to on grey winter days in New Zealand. We reminisced about the many highlights of our voyage on Birgitta and laughed at how many times we failed to get off at the next port. Next day, however, there was no choice but to disembark. Onward flights awaited us — Chris was returning to New Zealand and I was heading for a travel writing assignment in Switzerland.
Later in the evening, we sailed into Portocheli’s ‘keyhole’ bay where Birgitta would shelter from the storm.
From left: Captain Murray presents us with the blue and white Greek flag that we had sailed under for the past nine days; Tears dribbled down my cheeks as we pulled away from Birgitta.
Prior to disembarking, Murray and Lyn conducted a little ceremony on the deck, presenting us with the blue and white Greek flag that we had sailed under for the past nine days. Dear Lyn also insisted I keep the panama hat she’d lent me from her large collection of Birgitta head wear.
The wind was strengthening as we piled our luggage into the dinghy, ready for the rough ride to the jetty. A gust snatched off my precious panama but Chris heroically managed to pluck it from the choppy waves just before it sank. There was no way I was going to lose that coveted hat. Tears dribbled down my cheeks as we pulled away from Birgitta. I wasn’t ready to resume my landlubber-life.
We hugged our friends farewell and boarded the ferry to Piraeus. As the huge catamaran thundered out of Portocheli, I could see Birgitta’s tall mast swaying in the wind like a metronome.
Beyond the shelter of the port, the storm had whipped the seas into an angry squall. For the next few hours, the ship bashed its way through enormous waves but it didn’t concern me in the least. I was amazed at how seasoned a sailor I had become in such a short time. As for Chris, he was so relaxed he slept most of the way.
I occupied myself the way I always do when I have time on my hands. I began writing about our Birgitta experiences, a life-changing adventure for us in so many ways.
The voyage not only enabled us to visit beautiful, remote places that were inaccessible without a boat, but it took us both to another dimension. We overcame fears that have held us back for years — Chris’s seasickness and my terror of sailing. And Chris learned valuable new skills as a helmsman. No doubt Murray and Lyn have seen this transformation countless times before but I never would have believed it possible.
Our friends’ warmth, generosity, humour, positivity and kindness touched our hearts. The experience also helped us understand the extraordinary life they lead when they disappear from Gisborne for six months every year. To us back home, it always seems like an eternity, but I can now see how the passage of time becomes irrelevant, something fluid not measured by dates but by the rising and setting of the sun. Our one day on Birgitta stretched into nine days, long enough to glimpse a deeply-fulfilling, simple way of life away from the pressures of the modern world. It all seems like a dream to me now . . . but our photos assure me that it really did happen. If they were of the old-school, printed variety, they would be very tatty round the edges.