How do you sell sailing to the uninitiated? Charter somewhere warm, dry, safe and beautiful. Chris Beeson takes a novice crew to the Greek Ionian

A sailing charter in the Greek Ionian

As I sat in the bimini’s shade with condensation dripping from my glass, looking around an anchorage so beautiful it was almost cliché, I felt we shouldn’t be there. Things this good just don’t happen. Except, apparently, they do.

Ionian charter

The crew: Bun, Sam and Will aboard Sea Trek’s Sandpiper

‘We’ are my wife Bun and I, her brother Will and his wife Sam. Bun earned a Competent Crew qualification last year and the others had sailed dinghies, but there wasn’t so much as a clove hitch between them when we stepped aboard. As departure drew near, several nights’ sleep were disturbed as I pondered stern-to mooring and the physical, spiritual and marital damage that might result if I failed to choreograph my troupe correctly.

Good food, warm weather, reliable breeze, simple navigation, stunning anchorages: the Ionian is ideal for learners.We arrived in Sea Trek’s base in Lixouri, Cephalonia, and boarded Sandpiper, a 2006 Bavaria 36, which, for a charter boat, was pristine. After fine dining and a good night’s sleep, we dropped the lazy line, motored out of the marina and sailed south down the gulf, bound for a well-sheltered anchorage off Spartia. Rolling lazily downwind as the prevailing northwesterly filled the genoa, the laid-back rhythm of Ionian cruising began to take over.

Ionian charter

Broad reaching under genoa, the Ionian began its warm, sweet seduction

After a crew briefing on how to set the anchor in 6m, we did the deed and checked our transits. However, we should have nestled further into the bay, as gusts were boxing the compass. After lunch, we took our leave and headed south-east on a two-hour, 11-mile crossing to Ay Nikolaos on neighbouring Zakinthos.

Ionian charter

Approaching Zakinthos’ northern tip, with Akra Skinari lighthouse sitting atop the Blue Caves

We arrived outside the northern entrance at 1800 and used the boat’s mobile phone to call the town’s many-fingered factotum, Dimitri, who said he’d take our lines. After another briefing and successful stern-to mooring, we introduced ourselves. You can’t visit Ay Nikolaos without meeting the immensely helpful Dimitri as he runs the restaurant, petrol station and store, simultaneously it seems.

Ionian charter

Sandpiper (second right) needed no protection from the crumbing sea wall left of the island

The southern part of the northern entrance is obstructed by the ruins of a modern sea wall, built to protect the harbour from the easterly swells that shortly brought about its demise, but we had a comfortable night. In the morning we topped up the water tanks and slipped out. I laid a course across the glassy deep, round the Mounda reef, for Skala, a resort town on Cephalonia’s southeastern corner where we would restock our fridge.

We anchored in 5m, about one cable off the beach, and prepared the dinghy. I warned the crew that outboards can be truculent beasts. With the boat locked, my first mistake was revealed. ‘We need the kill cord, on the chart table. Would you mind, darling?’ With the boat locked again, I remembered the oars, behind saloon seats.

Eager not to seem too much of an oaf in the trusting eyes of my crew, I decided not to unlock the boat again. I tacked on the kill cord, opened the fuel vent, gave it a little choke and pulled the start cord. It roared spitefully into life and we chugged towards the beach. Within yards of the shore it spluttered and died. ‘I told you! I said this would happen,’ I roared. I thought it had flooded so we jumped out, hauled the tender up the beach and left it to think about its behaviour while we victualed.

Ionian charter

Sandpiper rides a gentle southerly at anchor off Skala, as the unfairly maligned outboard broods on the beach

An hour later, it wouldn’t start. I conceded the defeat I’d foreseen so clearly and yet failed to arm us against, simply to avoid inconvenience. Will and Sam volunteered to swim the not inconsiderable – and wholly inconvenient – distance back to the boat to fetch the oars. Will was done in but Sam gamely popped on some fins, swam the oars ashore, then we three rowed out together. Back aboard, I called Chris at Sea Trek to ask what was wrong with the outboard. He ran through the checklist and reached ‘fuel switch’… Numb, I burbled my thanks, climbed silently into the tender and found it off. I flipped it on, pulled the cord and it gambolled, instantly and playfully, into life. The shame…

After lunch we headed north for a night in Poros, a narcoleptic town that jolts into life with the ferry’s arrival, and whose buildings crawl up the picturesque wooded slopes as if the town is trying to escape itself. After a quiet night we headed north, with a brief dolphin escort, to southwest Ithaca. As the bay of Ormos Ay Andreou opened up in front of us, I thought: ‘This is why we came!’ An anchorage at the head shallows to a white pebbled beach, with ruined crofts in the ravine above, and another has caves and rocks, rippling beneath the crystal waters. With two boats in the former, we chose the latter, dropped the hook in sand and the transits told us we were set. With the engine idling astern, I swam a line ashore and pronounced us parked. Finally I felt I was delivering real cruising. Our beautiful, steep-sided little bay was inaccessibly remote by land. This paradise was ours. Soon we were exploring underwater with Bun pointing out marine life, sunbathing and diving overboard. This is how lifelong memories are made.

Ionian charter

Lamb souvlaki was just one of the Kefalonian delights

With a two-hour passage to our night berth in Ithaca’s main town, Vathi, reluctantly we left. At 1800 we slid into a ready berth on the south-west quay, our lines taken once again. After a few loosening gins, we scrubbed up and ventured out for supper, a meze of prawns, meatballs, souvlaki (skewered cubes of meat), saganaki (grilled or baked cheese), Greek salad, tzatziki, taramasalata. Some of the local wine isn’t great but Robola, the best white, was ever-present in our fridge.

After morning coffee, a shore party procured ice and a breakfast of spanakopita (filo whirls filled with spinach and feta). Then we motored north, and east through the mountains’ katabatic gusts to open sea and a fresh westerly. Passing a couple of occupied bays, we found a stunning trefoil bay called Ormos Ploigisi, jaw-droppingly pretty and completely empty. We anchored in 8m, dug into the sand and took two lines ashore, then poured ourselves a drink and lost ourselves in the beauty of this place.

We considered staying overnight, beguiled by the tranquility, but the galley was bare so we took in our lines, hauled up the anchor and headed south to Frikes, feeling that the holiday must have peaked.

At Frikes, the locals prefer alongside berthing. We went port side-to, poured the drinks and looked aft, to the east, as the sunset painted the mountainous mainland burnt sienna. We strolled the town’s single street and back in two minutes, spotted a well-stocked supermarket, chose a beach restaurant and dined modestly as a huge ‘dirty’ moon rose over the mainland.

Ionian charter

Sandpiper (foreground) with the island of Nisis Dhaskalio and its distinctive chapel beyond

The morning forecast spoke of fresh easterlies and rain. We motorsailed north over the tip of Ithaca, clocking 8 knots, and down the Ithaca Channel to explore the string of bays on Cephalonia’s north-east coast. Just inshore of Nisis Dhaskalio we anchored for a sumptuous lunch ingeniously fashioned from meagre ingredients by Sam. We left at 1430 to be sure of getting a berth in Fiskardho, half an hour north. It’s the most popular and sophisticated port on the island because of the Italianate architecture, which withstood the 1953 earthquake that devastated the rest of Cephalonia.

Ionian charter

Our first Fiskardho berth was stern-to outside the short mole to the left, rocks lying 2m off and a forecast southeasterly made it less than ideal

Entering past the Venetian lighthouse, we saw the last berth filled and moored stern-to outside the short mole in the south-east corner. A quick recce revealed submerged rocks 2m off the mole so we backed in gingerly, secured our lines and resigned ourselves to clambering on and off using the tender as a stepping stone. We were soon joined by a boatload of Dutch charterers in a Bavaria 45. Ten minutes later, ex-pat locals Pete and Kev arrived to warn us that a south-easterly blow was forecast that would bounce us off the mole. So Pete would ease the kedge line of a small powerboat he was minding right inside the port, and we could moor stern-to in front of it, on a sliver of quay. We left our Dutch friends and took up our new glamour berth.

Our arrival caused some beard-scratching, most vigorously for the white-haired German skipper of a Hallberg-Rassy 38, moored to starboard of the powerboat behind us. Our anchor crossed his, which to be fair was laid off to port. He sculled out, peered through his glass-bottomed bucket and sculled back. Fortunately Erik, as he introduced himself, wasn’t leaving tomorrow so crossing wasn’t an issue. He worried that a poorly set anchor might see us drag onto him when the blow arrived, but he pronounced our anchor well set and returned to his cockpit with a smile.

Fiskardho is delightful and cosmopolitan. We enjoyed a lovely evening of meze before deciding to have pizza on board. We had just finished, around 2200, when the breeze piped up. It wasn’t the Armageddon forecast, but a solid 20-25 knots and light rain. We were secure, but not everyone was. First, our Dutch friends barreled in with what looked like a damaged transom, and barged bow-first into a gap no wider than a Wayfarer. A venerable little Bavaria arrived with the blow and tried a dozen times to anchor, only for the wind to catch the bow and blow them sideways too fast for the anchor to set. When I turned in at 2300 they were still at it, assisted by a police RIB.

Ionian charter

Your next amazing experience is never more than five miles away

Our last full day dawned bright and calm. We motored round to Cephalonia’s northern tip and found another stunning bay under a headland. It’s not mentioned in the pilot book, the authors feel it’s too exposed, but they suggested Ormos Vliotis as a name. The bay was open to the easterly breeze but it was light and not forecast to increase so we anchored in 5m, took a line ashore and admired the latest Arcadian corner of this island.

The week was an unqualified success and I know we will be coming back.

Sea Trek charter

Ionian charter

Sea-Trek Adventures

This family-run, Devon-based charter company, founded in 2000, has grown into one of the Ionian’s leading learn-to-sail providers. From bases in Lixouri and Ay Eufimia, there are bareboat or skippered charters, flotillas and a Beach Club just south of Lixouri, with pool, rooms and villas. If you’re experienced but lack qualifications, take a one-day Refresher/ICC course (€85). If you pass, you get your ICC and you’re cleared for bareboating.

You’re charged pump prices for the diesel you use and Sea-Trek cleans the boat when you leave.

Price: Bavaria 36 for 17-25 September 2013: £1,500/week.

Prices range from £900/week to £1,750/week (2013)

Tel: 01789 868002

Sailing with novices

Brief beforehand, assign jobs, and don’t shout or panic if it goes wrong. Bail out and start again. With every manoeuvre, knowledge and confidence grew for skipper and crew. Delegate where possible to get the crew involved. For instance, as well as windlass duty, Bun made sure the fridge went on and off with the engine. Sam was chef and stern lines, Will was cocktails and shore lines.