PIRAEUS, Greece — Sparkling like expensive toys in the golden crescent of Marina Zea west of Athens' port of Piraeus are the yachts that make summer dreams come true. They are dreams of sailing the Aegean Sea with nothing but a small tote bag, a bathing suit, shorts, sneakers, and a good book that you just may never open.
We're not talking about owning one, just about renting a yacht, living aboard, and cruising from one sunbaked Greek isle to another at less than the price of a not-too-fancy hotel room.
Ours was named Doxa I, which suggests that there's a whole flotilla of others, and there are. More than 1,000 vessels are available for charter--crewed motor yachts, motor sailers, sailing yachts and even bareboats (where you are your own skipper).
I was invited to join a party of nine others on a $1,000-a-day charter with a crew of four. Food and fuel are extra, but expenses split 10 ways (excluding air fare to Athens) were reasonable, I reasoned, especially when compared to a luxury cruise on an ocean liner.
Doxa I is a two-masted, 85-foot motor schooner, with a wooden hull, Mercedes-Benz engine and a cruising speed of 11 knots. Built in Greece in 1964 and refurbished in 1970, it is one of 200 belonging to Valef Yachts Ltd. It has four identical cabins forward, with what her owners describe as one double and one single bed each. (In each cabin the single bed is an upper berth over a wider lower, which is considered the double.)
These four cabins share two bathrooms ("heads," we say in nautical talk). A stateroom aft sleeps six in two double and two single beds (if they know each other really well), with an adjoining private head. The crew sleeps forward.
But most of us slept by night or day on the roomy open deck when we weren't out sampling beaches or climbing the topography.
We chose to head southeast among the Cyclades, the best known and the closest island group to mainland Greece. The Greek word for circle is kyklos, from which comes the name for this group of outcroppings.
Each of these islands rises in a little mound like a muffin, some higher than the others, from the Aegean Sea. Somewhere at the bottom of each is where the boats dock. Along the harbor fronts are small tavernas, with chairs and tables set out under trees. There may be a mini-market, a souvenir shop or two, and perhaps a little hotel a short walk from the pier.
The High Town
Beaches usually are on either side of the harbor and a town called Hora (which means "high town") is at the top of each muffin. Some kind of road leads up to the high town. It may be just a donkey path or a narrow lane set with slate flagstones, or perhaps one asphalt-paved street.
Our crew was headed by Capt. Stamatis Katrachillis. He's probably no more than 35 years old, trim and tan and smart. He has a radioman's license as well as his captain's license. He could be working the big "seeps," he says. (Greeks have a hard time with the sound "sh.") But wherever he would go, "I would be stranger. My wife and 8-year-old boy would prefer I stay in my country."
Odysseus, the cook, was the oldest of the men, in his 40s. He spent most of his time performing small miracles in the galley. Gianni, the first mate, is a gentle soul whose poetry has been published in the Kithnos island newspaper. Kithnos is his home, and it was our first overnight stop after a late afternoon swim off Cape Sounion. The Temple of Poseidon there was our last sight of the Greek mainland.
A Quiet Place
We docked just before 10 p.m. in the little harbor of Merihas. Kithnos is one of the least spoiled of the Cycladic Islands, but probably not for long. For now, at least, Kithnos is a quiet, hospitable place, 54 nautical miles from Piraeus, with erratic ferry service that discourages many visitors.
One of the two mini-markets on the quay specializes in rubber thongs, sun hats, post cards and 27-drachma stamps (for sale at 30 drachmas) among the cans of evaporated milk and envelopes of Nescafe. We could have embarked with no luggage at all and would have been able to outfit ourselves adequately at the first stop.
At about 8 o'clock next morning fishing boats were tying up alongside. Some displayed a haul of small swordfish, already beheaded and cleaned; and the fishermen were doing a brisk business with the locals who had been waiting for them.
I asked Capt. Stam if it would upset our schedule if we bought a fish and would Odysseus cook it. Stam cautioned me that it might be expensive, but if the passengers were willing, he would send Gianni to handle the negotiations.
"Always I do the best for you," he said."
My shipmates were agreeable and so was Odysseus. The 4,000-drachma swordfish made a wonderful lunch, which we ate that afternoon in the bay of Livadi on Serifos, 16 more nautical miles away.
Some of my mates hiked up to the Hora, which in Serifos is crowned by the remains of an old Venetian fortress. I went to the beach, the only logical diversion, considering the heat of the day.