When a long-term closure of the Corinth Canal was announced with hours to spare, one crew faced a 300-mile detour to get home. Rosemary Macray recalls the desperate sail to make it through

Five hours into our madcap race, we feared that we weren’t going to make it. We knew the odds were stacked against us, but we had no choice but to motor on, slamming against a five-foot swell that shook High Flight, our Bavria 40, to its 25-year-old core.

Our Greek marathon sail began at 2200, but really it all started at 1400 on 3 October 2022. This is when Greek authorities announced on a government website that the Corinth Canal would close at 0700 the following day – for eight months. Never mind that the same office promised us a day earlier that the canal that bisects the mainland and Peloponnese peninsula wouldn’t close for repairs before 15 October.

Unaware of the stealth afternoon announcement, we received the first hint of a changed plan when the harbour master greeted us at Trizonia Port in the Gulf of Corinth.

‘Kalos irthate, welcome,’ he said as he tied off the bowline for us. ‘Are you headed east or west?’ ‘East,’ we replied. ‘We’ll spend tomorrow night in Corinth then pass through the canal on Wednesday.’ He grimaced. ‘You know the canal will close tomorrow morning at 0700, don’t you?’

‘No, it won’t,’ we replied knowingly. ‘The canal operations people told us by phone yesterday that it won’t close until the middle of the month.’

‘Hmmmm, that’s not what I heard today.’ At which point he shrugged, took our 15 euros, hopped on his bicycle, and rode off. Our tired, hungry family sailing crew attributed the information to a faulty island rumour-mill, showered and headed to a nearby taverna.

Rosemary Macray is a retired US diplomat who, while serving as Consul General in Athens, took to sailing the Mediterranean in 2017 with her British husband Jame. Photo: Rosemary Macray

With Greek beer and barrel wine in hand, a table arrayed with calamari, fried saganaki cheese and the freshest of fish, canal passage slipped far from our minds. Then the waiter delivered Hint Number Two along with the dessert menu.

‘You must be headed west since the canal is closing tomorrow morning.’

‘No, it’s not,’ we repeated dutifully.

Not inclined to argue with the guests, the waiter left to get our baklava and walnut cake. We’d found nothing online earlier, but grabbed our phones and stretched our arms for optimal cellular reception. With a click, my heart sank. ‘This is unbelievable, only in Greece,’ I whined to my tablemates. ‘The authorities posted a press release this afternoon. The canal will close tomorrow at 0700.’

Sprint for Corinth

To call this news unwelcome would be an understatement. My husband’s brother Dan and daughters Georgia and Elena had to fly home to the UK from Athens on Friday, and rounding the Peloponnese peninsula would take
10 days. We could sail east to drop them in the town of Corinth to take a bus or train to Athens, but this would leave me and my husband James to sail alone to our home port of Aegina. The prospect of that journey had all the appeal of root canal surgery as we were weary from sailing since mid-August, the days were growing colder and the water rougher.

By this time, it was nearly 2200. A full 50 nautical miles lay between us and the mouth of the famous canal. Already that day we had sailed an exhausting 12 hours from Sami Port on the Ionian island of Kefalonia. As only my British husband James could put it, we were ‘knackered’. And even if we took off now, we couldn’t make it in time. Or could we?

A look at wind and sea conditions on www.meteo.gr revealed challenging mixed conditions for an overnight passage aboard our beloved Bavaria. Although flat calm in Trizonia harbour, the forecast indicated that halfway through our journey the wind would pick up. James and Dan conferred.

The night mission begins as brother-in-law Dan assumes control of the quest to reach the Corinth Canal before it closes. Photo: Rosemary Macray

‘With a bit of luck, if Force 5 winds come from the north as forecasted, we might make it,’ James concluded. We would have nine hours to cover the 50 miles, which would require an average speed of 5.5 knots. Not an
easy task with a 40ft boat.

We rechecked the calculations; it was just possible. We looked at each other. All agreed. We had to try to get there before the canal closed.

‘I had been the first to suggest that we sail all night to try to get through,’ Georgia said, remembering that moment. ‘When I left the table for the bathroom, we were talking about how we could get to the airport from Corinth. When I came back, I heard “Yeah, let’s do it!”’

While the rest of the crew jogged toward the boat, I popped up to pay the bill. The waiter looked surprised when I walked halfway into the kitchen to find him. ‘We need to pay the bill, we’re going to try to get to the canal before it closes,’ I said breathlessly.

Article continues below…

‘But wait, I have ouzo for you.’ ‘Uhhh, better not,’ I replied.

I thanked him, tipped him, and very undiplomatically commented, ‘This is no way to run a country.’

Back aboard the boat, the crew had ramped into high gear. ‘Captain, should we untie and stow the fenders?’ ‘Just pull ‘em on deck. No time. Let’s go!’

Two hours into the trip, James called the Corinth Canal director to inform them of our intention to transit before closure. We asked whether we’d still be permitted to transit if we arrived ‘a little bit’ late. ‘Oxi, No. The canal will close at seven o’ clock,’ he replied curtly. ‘Hurry. Radio us again when you are five miles out.’

Rosemary relaxing with her brother-in-law and nieces during an earlier passage from Zakynthos to Kefalonia. Photo: Rosemary Macray

Military mindset

Dan and James had choreographed our plan as only two ex-military aviators could do. They’d alternate two-hour shifts at the helm, while Elena, Georgia, and I – novice sailors – would sleep. That sleep plan proved useless for us all as we crashed across the swell.

The onslaught of waves forced us to reduce speed to 3.5 knots, guaranteeing that the canal would slam shut before our arrival.

‘Where is that wind from the north?’ James asked over and over. We were in dire need of the forecasted 20 knots to whip over our left shoulders and allow us to hoist sail. Northerly wind was our only chance of arriving before daybreak.

Then, when we had all but given up, the winds whooshed in. We unfurled just a fifth of the genoa because the reefing-line jammer had been malfunctioning all day. Our speed rose slightly to 4.5 knots – better, but still
not enough. Dan told of a frightening capsizing experience he had when a genoa accidentally unfurled completely in high winds. It wasn’t something he wanted to repeat, especially with me and his school-aged daughters onboard.

But James had been watching the distances and the speed. He knew we had to let out more sail to reach the canal. The brothers double secured the reefing line on the port-side winch and slowly eased out half the genoa. Our speed climbed to 7.5 knots, which gave us a chance, albeit small.

By 0530, we were still eight miles from the canal’s west entrance, but James thought desperate times called for desperate location exaggeration.

‘Corinth Control, Corinth Control, this is sailing yacht High Flight, over.’

‘Go ahead yacht High Flight.’

‘We are approximately five miles out. Estimate west entrance into canal at 0615. Over.’

‘Roger Captain. Make fastest speed possible.’

‘We’ve been doing that all night, sir.’

‘Call again when you are one mile from entrance.’

At two miles out, James picked up the radio again and received a welcome reply.

‘Roger High Flight, follow the convoy at maximum speed.’

It’s plain sailing if you can make it to the Corinth Canal in time. Photo: Eleni Mac Synodinos / Alamy Stock

Through binoculars, he spied lights marking the tail end of a convoy entering the canal. These would be the last vessels to travel eastbound through the canal in 2022. We desperately wanted High Flight to be the convoy’s caboose.

Waiting until the absolute last minute to lower the genoa, Captain Dan revved the Volvo 40hp to speeds it hadn’t seen since its youth and the lights on the last boat grew larger.

‘We’re going to make it!’ we collectively cried as we all scrambled up into the cockpit to watch the canal’s tall, chalky white walls pass on either side of us.

We spied the first color of dawn as we exited the canal and tied up alongside the jetty on the other side. We watched as one lucky sailing yacht entered the canal westbound. Captain James entered the office to pay the toll. Our exit time from the canal was 0650.

‘Just to confirm sir, we are the last yacht to pass through the canal this year, right?’ James asked in the office.

‘The last eastbound,’ came the humorless reply.

The jetty’s almost empty but don’t think you can stay… Photo: Rosemary Macray

‘So, we get free passage, right?’

‘Oxi, no. You must pay 240 euros.’

James returned to the boat, we exchanged a few high fives and congratulatory hugs, then fell straight into our bunks. Normally we would have had to vacate the berth, but no other boats would be tying up there until summer 2023. By noon, we had crawled out of bed for breakfast and to toast our success with mimosas, when we heard a booming voice from the dock.

‘Our record shows you arrived at 0654. You must leave.’ No need to ask twice. ‘We’re going. We’re going!’

We felt for all the boats that didn’t make it – the canal’s sudden closure stranded many yachts and motorboats in the Gulf of Corinth, forcing them to make the 300-plus mile trip around the Peloponnese peninsula to reach the Aegean Sea and Saronic Gulf.

Flying the cruising chute earlier in the cruise, High Flight is Rosemary and James’ home from home in the Med. Photo: Rosemary Macray

Lessons learned

While we hope to never have to repeat such a crazy midnight race, it taught us a few lessons.

Get on top of repairs – Don’t delay functional repairs. We never aim to sail in darkness, so hadn’t fixed the steaming light. Likewise, the malfunctioning genoa reefing-line jammer had never caused problems. While not ideal, a little ingenuity saved the day.

As we pulled out of the harbour, my husband James stretched up as high as his arms could reach to gaffer tape a head torch to the mast. And when we desperately needed more speed, he ensured the reefing line behaved by wrapping it around the jammer (and a winch for good measure).

All views count – Listen to every crew member. When we confirmed the canal was closing, junior crewmember Georgia said, ‘Let’s go now and sail all night.’ The ship’s senior officers initially gave little consideration to her suggestion, but a few calculations later, it was Georgia’s seemingly naïve idea that formed the plan.

Pause, don’t panic – Take the extra minutes to prepare. Adrenaline was running high when we ran to the boat to cast off the lines. We elected to just pull the fenders on deck to save the two or three minutes it would have taken to stow them. The next morning three fewer fenders separated us from the canal office jetty.

If in doubt, check – Never assume, check. We thought we had been sufficiently diligent and therefore discounted the Trizonia harbourmaster’s closure warning. We should have called the authorities upon arrival, which would have won us three additional hours to reach the canal entrance.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.