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All aboard for the sail of the century July 12, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Ionian.
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Imagine skimming the surf of an azure sea, just you and the wind in harmony under the blazing sun. Imagine learning about the joys of windsurfing off an idyllic Ionian isle!

Ever since my father rigged up a sail on our sturdy little dinghy and uttered the words: “You’ll never capsize this thing,” and then watched me keel it over with an almighty splash, I’ve thought that sailing is not for me. Wind and I, so to speak, were a bad combination. Then a friend invited me on a windsurfing trip to the Ionian island of Lefkada, one of the globe’s breeze hotspots, with ideal conditions for learning. On the basis that a board might be easier to handle than a boat, I decided to go along for the ride, even if it all led to a watery end.

Lefkada is not insular in the purest sense of the word, since its north-eastern tip is connected by a causeway to the mainland, where the airport is situated. Our coach trundled across a drawbridge on to the narrow strip of stone to reach the island’s tiny capital, also called Lefkada. The name comes from the southern cape of Lefkata, from whose white rocks the poetess Sappho is said to have hurled herself after a spot of love trouble.

A sharp left turn away from this mini metropolis sent us bowling south along the coastal road. Pine-clad hills rose steeply on our right, with glassy sea visible to port. As we scooted through the lively seaside resort of Nidri, with its regimented rows of sandal-and-ouzo boutiques, I spied the forested islets of Madouri, Skorpios – which is owned by the Onassis family – and Meganissi, half-submerged like green turtles out in the gulf.

A winding descent into olive groves brought us to Lefkada’s windsurfing hub, the bay of Vassiliki on the island’s southern shore. Its long crescent of pebbly beach arcs at one end to a cluster of waterfront tavernas, shops and houses. This is Vassiliki town, home to just 400 locals. At the other, the beach comes to an abrupt halt at the foot of a vast mountain, whose vital statistics, I would later discover, help to create the desirable sailing breezes in the bay. Stretching across all this is a big banner of shimmering blue Med. Even I had to admit that it looked inviting.

My home for the next week was to be the windsurfing centre of Club Vass. The club started out with a couple of mates, Roger Green and Tony Booth, hiring out half a dozen sails on the shore. Sixteen years later, it has grown into a Level 5 Royal Yachting Association training centre (the highest grade possible), with a clutch of instructors and brand new kit every year.

Wakeboarding, waterskiing, scuba diving and mountain biking (yup, up that huge peak for the iron-thighed, otherwise through olive groves) have been added to the core windsurfing discipline. A couple of years ago the club built its own hotel, complete with pool, and this year it has introduced a childcare programme. This is a canny move, designed to retain the custom of loyal clients who have just moved into nappy terrain but don’t want to give up their annual pilgrimage to worship Zephyros.

If you’re an old hand at windsurfing, you can just pitch up after breakfast, grab some kit and head out into the bay. Otherwise you’ll be taking group lessons. I joined other rookies on the grass in front of the clubhouse for our first class. Flanking us were large sheds with windsurfing sails hanging like bright butterflies and boards stacked in orderly rows.

Our instructor, Carol, was a tanned, wiry woman with sun-bleached plaits who looked as if she could effortlessly outrun Lara Croft. She kicked off the lesson with some theory, including an explanation of apparent wind, which is a mixture of true wind and induced wind created by the windsurfer moving through the air. You trim your sail, apparently, to the apparent wind.

Carol also described how the cross-shore wind gets whipped up in the afternoon thanks to sun-warmed air whooshing over the mountain. This wind is nicknamed Eric, after the French speed windsurfer Eric Beale, whose legendary hangovers meant that he only surfaced in the afternoons. As humble beginners, however, we would not be enjoying – or risking – a one-to-one with Eric, but would take advantage of the more gentle on-shore sea breezes in the morning.

On-shore is a reassuring word when you look out into the broad expanse of bay into which you could inadvertently head, although if you went far enough you would reach the welcoming shores of Ithaca or Kefalonia. Happily, a rescue boat is always at hand to track down straying surfers.

Theory lesson over, Carol leapt on to a windsurfing board attached to a pole in the ground and began to explain how to tack (turn upwind) and gybe (turn downwind) by tilting the mast, doing some nifty footwork and swivelling the sail.

We began by standing on the boards without a sail – harder than it sounds, and a good test of balance. Then it was sails on and in we plunged, staggering with our rigs across the pebbled shallows into deeper water. Sail successfully hauled up into position, I was up and away, the wind filling the sail and the board chuntering gently across the water.

Gazing at the horizon, the boom light beneath my fingers, I began to understand what all the fuss was about. Changing direction requires a delicately-balanced shuffle around the mast as you flick the sail to the other side – I can’t imagine that I looked terribly sporty or stylish in the process, but the feeling of achievement when I first managed it was tremendous.

The week flew by all too quickly. On my last morning, flushed with the week’s sailing success, I noticed one of the instructors standing on the beach gazing out to sea. When I asked what he was looking at, he replied dreamily: “Dolphins! It’s an amazing feeling to be sailing out there with them swimming along beside you.” Tacking and gybing aside, that prospect was enough to make me want to come back to Vassiliki. Windsurfing? It’s a breeze.

TRAVELLER’S GUIDE

Holiday details: Club Vass (www.clubvass.com) is open from the beginning of May until 28 September. Private lessons cost about €40 per hour.

Further information: to find out more about travelling to Greece, contact the Greek National Tourism Organisation www.gnto.gr

Comments

1. grhomeboy - July 28, 2006

To our readers >
We have received following email clarifying (see text in italics) the above. The email reads as follows:

QUOTE: comment on ; all aboard for the sail of the century
Dear sir, please post in comments,cannot log on for some reason – E. B.
I have always wanted to windsurf in Greece,and today I discovered that I am famous or infamous there already.Who else has a wind named after them for not being able to get up in the mourning?
Of course there must be a mistake because this speed sailor Erik Beale is actually English,though born in France,and any excessive partying usually makes me wake up at 6 am. I do however prefer sailing in the afternoon,so this must be the source of the confusion,and prefer to be remembered for my exploits on the
water rather than not being able to get there in the first place.
I will be sure to check out this wind named eric – after my French alter-ego, the next time I am in Greece.
Aloha from Maui,
Erik Beale
2 time World Speedsailing Record Holder.:UNQUOTE


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