Boat Mania (Part One)
by Willard Manus
GREECE -- Boat-mania. It's a serious, even dangerous ailment common to
foreigners who become resident in the Greek islands. Some of them contract
the ailment from the islanders themselves, who, after all, have been going
down to the sea in ships for thousands of years now. But the Greeks became
sailors and fishermen out of necessity-- the need to make a living-- whereas
the foreigners do it voluntarily, succumbing to what Toad in "A Wind
in the Willows" described as "the irresistible urge to mess
about in boats."
The urge can take hold of the unlikeliest people, both rich and poor alike, people who were landlubbers by nature and had never even been to sea before coming to Greece. I count myself in that category. When I arrived in Lindos in 1961, my total experience on the water was restricted to a half hour of row-boating in New York's Central Park. I had about as much business sailing the Aegean as I did flying a jumbo jet, yet the first thing I did was buy a second-hand skiff, the Maritsa, and outfit it with a lateen-rigged sail.
All it took was one jaunt to result in near-disaster. The winds around the village being tricky, thanks to looming headlands that not only reflected the breeze but turned it topsy-turvy, I found myself, while trying to tack into the entrance of the main bay, hurtling toward the cliffs at full speed. I had to let go of the mainsail, leap overboard and fend off the boat to avert a disaster. After that, I quit sailing, except as crew on someone else's boat. Obviously, canvas and I were not compatible.
This seemed to hold true for my spearfishing buddy, Jerry Schiller. A college professor in the philosophy department at Washington University (St. Louis), he and his wife Wendy and their two small children had come to Greece on sabbatical, found their way to Lindos and bought a house. Now he wanted to learn sailing, but when I didn't favor letting him experiment on Maritsa, he made up his mind to buy his own boat.
When he returned to Lindos that next summer, he had the boat with him--in a bag. It was something called a Klepper, a "foldboat" made by the same German company which manufactured the brown leather trenchcoats favored by Hitler's SS troops. Jerry caused a sensation when he emptied the bag down at the fisherman's beach and started sorting all the little bits and pieces. One of the fishermen, Yiorgas, took a look and said incredulously, "Varka ine?" (that's a boat?)
Yiorgas grew less dubious as Jerry worked for the next hour to put the thing together. It was an ingenious construction, that Klepper Master. It required no tools to assemble it, as it was held together by struts and snaps. The tricky thing was to fit the deck-hull over the framework and make it sit precisely. Jerry finally managed it and there the little kayak sat, looking jaunty with its bright-blue canvas deck, red splash guard and Klepper flag. We dubbed it the Adolph.
The Adolph had a sloop rig, roller reefing and adjustable leeboards. Jerry asked another would-be sailor to join him on his exploratory jaunts around the main bay: Peter Meloney. An American, Peter was a contemplative, reclusive chap with a drooping grey moustache who had once taught philosophy on the college level. Like Jerry, he was interested in Plato and Plautinus. They had long talks about the Human Condition while tooling around in the Adolph, Jerry with a copy of Bill Wallace's "How to Sail" sitting in his lap.
Jerry's practice runs taught him a few things about the Adolph: it was a bit tippy, would not jibe easily, and did not stand up easily to a strong head wind. The Greeks thought it was more of a toy than a boat, relenting only when Jerry bought a small, 2 1/2 hp outboard for auxiliary power. Jerry was determined, however, to sail the Adolph, no matter what.
Came the day when he decided to take his family on a jaunt to Pefkos, a rural village south of Lindos. It meant having to cross St Nicholas Bay (whose high cliffs were made famous in the WW II adventure film "The Guns of Navarone") and to round Cape Foca, not an easy move when the wind kicks up from the south. As there had been only light winds blowing for the past week, Jerry felt the trip would be easy and safe enough to leave his outboard engine at home.
Going was fine; in fact, when they neared Cape Foca the wind dropped so much that they became becalmed and had to break out the Adolph's paddles. They made it to Pefkos, did some swimming and picnicking. When the wind began to blow, strongly, friends offered to take the Schiller kids back to Lindos by car. Jerry and Wendy set off on their return trip about 4 PM.
They made Cape Foca in good time, only to find doldrums around the corner. Jerry leaned into the paddles, fully expecting to catch a swift breeze. After twenty minutes of exertion he saw white water foaming halfway across St Nicholas Bay. A nightmarish experience followed.
Here is a description of it, taken from a book Jerry later wrote about his sailing adventures in Greece, "An Aegean Log": "We did not go over, though we got pretty wet. Even with no reef in her sail, Adolph stood up to the blast. Still, I could not get her to go anywhere. There was Shark Island, still half a mile away. An hour elapsed and innumerable tacks and there she was still. Same place. And Wendy? She was sitting forward, gamely handling the jib sheets, terrified to death and hating every minute of it."
As for Jerry, he was fascinated and challenged by the experience. The two of them were stuck at sea in a 12-foot rubber kayak that could easily be swamped. "It was totally absorbing and exhilirating," he said.
With some frantic paddling, they finally got past the doldrums, taking the wind head on. Jerry put out to sea, trying to make a tack that would deliver them to St. Nicholas Bay. They got nowhere again. He kept trying. Finally Wendy, drenched from head to toe, said, "Please. No more. Don't put out to sea again."
Jerry headed to an inlet opposite two small islands known as Chinas, only to discover that his and Wendy's sandals were missing. It meant having to clamber over the rocks, brambles and thistles in their bare feet.
It was pitch black by the time they found their way back to Lindos, feet torn and bleeding, their marriage in danger of dissolution. They knocked on our door just as we were conferring with Yiorgas about organizing a search and rescue party.