Slow boat from Lefkas to Ithaca

A new month, a new decade: another piece for the Idler magazine, out now in edition number 70, Jan/Feb 2020, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the estimable magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘There’s nothing––absolutely nothing––half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.’ Well, we all know Kenneth Grahame’s sage advice but he never extended his own idling practice far beyond the Thames; he preferred reading about Greece to schlepping all the way there. Joining a boat as crew heading south from Lefkas marina south of Corfu, my main priority was to recall the method of tying a bowline knot without the skipper becoming aware too early on of my innate incompetence. A few casual flicks of the heavy helm warps seemed to convince him and before long we were set sail for Ithaca, leaving me free to begin tracking our journey against the timeline of Homer’s Odyssey in Emily Wilson’s excellent new translation (Norton, 2018).

            It is a revelation to read Homer while under sail. Our hero’s captivity by the beautiful and cunning Calypso can be read quite differently when one is becalmed by absent winds for what seems like days; Odysseus’s tear-drenched pining for Penelope on the shores of Calypso’s island (he’s never so upset that he can’t hop into bed with Calypso every night though, is he?) feels very real when yet another day dawns with a burning sun and absolutely no wind to fill the sails.

            We reached Ithaca and anchored near to a large yacht where two very fat, oiled men with bright red sunburned bellies acted out on deck the final scene of the poem where our hero slaughters the insolent men of Ithaca and Kefalonia who in his absence have been wooing his wife and freeloading on his wine cellar. Both men held knives and made slow, elaborate thrusting motions towards each other as the sun beat down upon them; a curious place to practice their self-defence skills.

            When Odysseus’s son Telemachus is advised by the helpful Goddess Athena to go in search of the father he has never met, he stocks his boat up with twelve jugs of wine and twenty pounds of fine-milled barley groats. We did rather better than that at the bakery in Vathi, buying homemade baklava dripping with honey which the young owner said were made by her mother-in-law. ‘She begins baking at four every morning,’ she told us in wonder, a feat of industry we speculated upon back on board as we ate the whole lot in an appalling moment of gluttony. Flummoxed by the sugar rush, we set sail to follow Telemachus’s route across the Ionian Sea down to Pylos.

            Telemachus is welcomed at the palace of King Nestor and astonishingly, almost three thousand years later, it’s still there. A half-hour’s cab ride out of Pylos port takes you to the beautifully preserved remains and as we leaned over one of the viewing platforms, we saw the original stone bath where Nestor’s eldest daughter, Polycaste, bathed young Telemachus, washed and rubbed him in olive oil and dressed him in a tunic and fine cloak.

            While Nestor advised the boy to head off to Sparta to quiz Menelaus about Odysseus’s whereabouts, we took advantage of a rare southerly breeze to sail out to an uninhabited island called Arpia, one of the Stamfani islands in the middle of the Ionian. Before we left, I chatted to a nice man called Wayne who was doing yoga on a ketch moored next to us. ‘How long have you been on board?’ I asked him. ‘Twelve years,’ he said. The Ionian cossets true idlers like Wayne, hiding away in ramshackle thirty-foot boats for year after year, their skins brown and salted like sandpaper.

            On the way to Arpia, we racked up a decent speed, nine and a half knots with both sails full out and suddenly the flat brilliant blue was churned up with cresting waves, smashing into the hulls as we rattled along. Lord Poseidon had woken up. Whenever the great God thought of Odysseus, he became instantly enraged that our hero had blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in a particularly brutal attack––Odysseus plunges a burning olive spear into the one eye and ‘blood poured out around the stake, and blazing fire sizzled his lids and brows, and fried the roots’. Poseidon’s routine reaction on being reminded of the Ithacan pest was to call up a dreadful blast of wind to smash his ship to pieces. Luckily our gift from Poseidon was relatively benign––instead of thunderbolts, he sent us a pod of dolphins to skitter about in front of the prow–– and we made it to Arpia without harm, anchoring off the island. While we dozily digested supper, three fisherman landed their boat on the island, walked up to a rocky peak and crouched around a glass-encased icon of the Virgin, lighting a candle inside and glaring crossly through hairy faces at their uninvited spectators.

            About two in the morning, I woke up down below thinking that someone had left a radio on. A strange metallic singing noise was eerily echoing around the cabin so I crept upstairs and stood on deck. A sound unlike anything I have ever heard greeted me: swirling around in the dark, echoing from the rocks, came the plaintive singing of hundreds, maybe thousands of Scopoli’s Shearwaters. We only discovered the identity of the birds the following day when we found that we had anchored off Greece’s primary nesting place for these seabirds. But standing in the dark listening to this uncanny symphony, it was impossible not to think of the Sirens, those half-bird, half-women who seduced sailors with piercing songs, around them lying ‘great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, their skin all shriveled up’ who had come too close to their island and had been bewitched.

            Returning back north towards Lefkas, we called in at Antisamos on Kefalonia, the stunning beach location for the heaving love scenes with Penelope Cruz in Captain Corellis’s Mandolin. While the skipper and his wife sipped cocktails at the beach bar prepared by the dubiously-named but very cheerful Adonis (‘I cannot tell you what is in this cocktail, that is why it is called The Secret Cocktail’) I thought about the real Penelope, languishing for twenty years across the Sami straits in Ithaca waiting for her monstrous husband Odysseus to come back home and release her from the endless attentions of the suitors. She used her wisdom and reslience to maintain her household while the big brute sacked towns, flirted and slept with every Goddess he could find and sacrificed every single one of his men to the cause of his own personal odyssey.

            While I skimmed stones into the still Ionian evening sea, I wondered who’d got it right? My money at that point, as I looked over at the green-clad rocks of Ithaca, was on smart Penelope. Twenty years of waiting, or twenty years of idleness? I rather like to think the latter.

Notes

There are plenty of ways to find crewing opportunities in the Med. The best way, as in most things in life, is to ask your friends – someone will know someone who knows someone. Or you can use one of the decent agencies like https://www.crewseekers.net/ or https://www.crewbay.com/. Or you can just get a one-way flight to Athens or Corfu and head for the marina, and be prepared to loiter and chat for a few days. Yachties are inherently sociable creatures and always keen to point you in the right direction. Probably useful to spend the winter boning up on knots and magnetic north variations by doing a Competent Crew course – the people at Nomad are very helpful: https://www.nomadsailing.co.uk/.

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