Sailing Backwards (in time)

July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

First published in SpinSheet Magazine – July 2011

When you ask a boomer sailor why they do it, you usually get a nostalgic answer. Here are a few I’ve heard:

I built my first boat as a Scout and launched it off the beach.
I’m Irish, I need to be near the water.
I had a summer camp counselor who was a great sailor and teacher.
My Grandma told me stories about sailing with her parents.

One of my favorites came from a guy in yoga class. I’d heard that he liked to sail, but I didn’t know much else about him. So I asked the same question that I have asked a thousand times before: “why do you sail?” He thought for a few seconds, and then looked from underneath his outstretched arm in the preparatory “down dog” position:

My dad took us fishing when we were kids. It’s what we did. He never sailed a day in his life. Twenty years ago he died, and I’ve not fished since. I started sailing when a friend invited me a few years ago. One weekend, I was manning a low-side winch in a big breeze, feeling the wind in the slot behind the jib, and listening to the water rush by, and all I could think about was my dad and how much he would’ve loved it.

It’s through nostalgia that avid sailors often find meaning, what some call ‘the passion’ for sailing. At the root of most sailing nostalgia are fond memories of fun on the water with family and other important role models.

If we’re lucky, sailing also has the power to transport us to another time altogether. It’s a benefit that rare few other things can offer. I’ve found that a well-selected sailing cruise works well for this backwards-looking discovery.

I’m first generation Greek-American. My mom’s family fled Greece under the communists shortly after World War II. She married my all-American dad in Iowa in 1961 in spite of her father’s concerns, and today Greek food and culture permeates our family life, even for her Grandchildren, my kids. My daughter calls it “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on steroids.

In 2005, the immediate family (parents, siblings, spouses and kids) boarded a late model cruising sailboat big enough for ten and set sail from the island of Syros in the northern Cyclades Islands in Greece, destined for Anafi, a tiny island outpost far to the southeast and mostly ignored by tourists. For about the price of a week at Disney world, we spent eight sailing days and nights living through twenty or thirty centuries.

Our route started somewhat conventionally; we sailed for picturesque ports in Mykonos and Naxos where tourists flock to pose near windmills and whitewash. After two days following ferries, we shifted our focus towards tinier, less popular places: harbors where Greek people, history and nature are still at work. On Irakleia, we tied up the only sailboat on a fisherman’s wharf and bought fresh fish from the locals returning from their catch. At Koufonisi, we returned to the empty beach where my wife, brother and I swam and sunned twenty years prior on a quest for the best beach in the world.

The Island of Delos turned our attention to the ancients. If you’ve not been there, look it up. Delos was the worship, government and physical center of an island-based ancient Greek civilization and is the mythical birthplace of the Gods Apollo and Artemis. No modern development exists on Delos, since the entire island is an ancient ruin, with a vast ghost town of columns, theaters, water-systems, dwellings and temples, still being unearthed by archeologists. It’s like sailing to the beginning of democratic time.

At Amorgos, we followed dolphins into an empty mountain-ringed anchorage to hunt Octopi, an ancient craft my brother learned while living in Greece for many years. After catching and eating our lunch, we sailed south for a city-side harbor and tied up among freighters to go ashore for a long trek across the island to the opposite shore, where a monastery clings high on a cliff housing a couple of old bearded men guarding the records of early Christians.

Finally, we set sail due south for tiny, nearly forgotten Anafi.

If you’ve been to famous Santorini (Thera) and looked east, you’ve seen Anafi. It’s a nondescript rock, about seven miles long, with only about 250 residents, but it has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years by persistent islanders.

The ancients were there. They built a temple on one of its mountains, still not fully explored by scientists.

For centuries, generations of aspiring farmers have moved and stacked miles of rocks into rows on mountainsides to create terraced wheat fields and olive groves out of a land that would otherwise be useless as a source of plant food. Some of these high fields are still in use, cultivated by hand. Local farmers still collect seaweed at the shore and haul it on mule-back to add nutrients to the thin and fragile soil clinging in high rocky crevasses.

The Byzantines were there. They reclaimed polytheist temple stones for their monotheist churches and mountaintop chapels. Somehow surviving Ottoman occupation and modernized by the Orthodox, they are today cared for by a few Christian monks and the local worshippers who pack them on Easter Sunday.

Anafi’s eastern shore is an 1800-foot vertical cliff that locals claim is as large as the rock of Gibraltar. It would’ve been a critical navigational signal to Athens-bound merchant sailors from Egypt, or to invading Turks with their sights set on the riches of the west.

Modern day visitors all arrive from Santorini in the west and miss the rock altogether. We decided instead to come in from the east, as the Turks or the Egyptians might have done, sailing around the huge twin-peaked mountain that breaks straight up and out of an interrupted and annoyed sea. A micro climate manifests in its shadow. On a sunny moderate air day, our sailboat was battered by confused eddies and ebbs and winds that went from off to on to all around in seconds as we rounded the mountain toward the south shore. To ancient mariners, it might have seemed comforting to see land from so far away. On closer inspection, Anafi would’ve been a mean joke to the weary and mistral-battered. There is no safe harbor. A modern concrete ferry dock on the south shore requires rebuilding every year after crumbing in winter storms. The north shore is a treacherous, unapproachable coastline of rock and shoal.

Blessed with newly forming light northwesterly, we anchored near the ferry dock and looked up to the tiny mountaintop village.

There, about halfway up, perched on a ridge, was the house where my great grandfather had lived and died. It was mom’s idea to sail to Anafi and see it this way.

Mom isn’t a sailor, but she knew, perhaps instinctively, that sailing to Anafi would be special for everyone. I suspect that she anticipated that her kids and grandkids would learn important lessons in human and cultural history from Delos and Amorgos. I’m guessing that she knew that sandy, empty beaches, and fresh octopus and muscles, and swimming among mountains, and sailing in wind shared by ancient Gods would soon become vivid family memories. I suspect that she thought that everyone would recognize a clear, unbroken link from the old man, whom she barely remembers, to her grandkids, my kids, whom she helps raise.

Mom was right. Sailing can take us backwards thousands of years, if we let it. Just as it gives us a chance to see a hopeful future. That, I would suggest, is just as good as the best nostalgia.

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