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Greek islands holidays: Sailing the Cyclades

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The squall comes from nowhere, criss-crossing the boat in all directions. The Ikaros, as our 50ft yacht is called, heels from port to starboard in gusts up to 48 knots. The swell is looming behind us. I’m nervous but our skipper, James ‘Jimmy’ Elliott, is up in his cockpit, wide-eyed with excitement. 

Eight of us are sharing close quarters during a week’s sailing and island-hopping around the Greek Cyclades, under the auspices of Jimmy’s company, Off The Beaten Tack.

Into the blue: The Cyclades islands may be the perfect setting for a sailing voyage in European waters

The idea is to let the wind steer you off the tourist trail to deserted beaches, ancient sites, and hidden bars and restaurants while sampling traditional Greek food and befriending locals.

Our group are part friends, part like-minded strangers.

Jimmy has done a good job at matching us up.

There is a game-for-a-laugh retired chief police officer from Cornwall with a fair amount of sailing experience under his belt – as well as my thirtysomething boyfriend, who has (only) been at the wheel of a river boat before. The rest of us are complete sailing novices.

Home is a sophisticated vessel with five double cabins, three loos, four showers, below and on-deck lounge/dining area and galley. No sailing experience is required. We are free to act as crew and learn the ropes, or simply swing languorously in the hammock as dolphins swim alongside.

In no time, I become quite the deck hand.

Talk of unfurling the genoa, hoisting and battening the mainsail, setting and raising the anchor and tying the fenders on has now become part of my vernacular.

The Cyclades archipelago is comprised of about 220 islands in the Aegean Sea – the most well-known being Mykonos and Santorini.

Like Odysseus, we are blown off course, which means we can’t visit Ios. Instead, we take shelter overnight in Katapola on the little island of Amorgos.

Cyclades islands cruise
Naxos

Local hotspots: Tori sourced fish from port markets, and visited the island of Naxos (right), the ‘home’ of Zeus

Breakfast, lunch and drinks are included and served on board while dinner is extra and taken on shore. So in Amorgos we drink to having weathered the storm over dinner at Capetan Dimos on the quayside in the company of a resident cat who takes it in turns to warm our laps.

Next port of call is Naxos.

The landscape is typically Mediterranean: rocky yet verdant with yellow broom brushes bulging from the roadsides. Tiny churches top every other hill, mount and bump in the road.

The island has the most churches compared to any other in the region. It’s said that each time islanders pray for something special which then happens, they build a church.

Greek mythology has it that Zeus was born on Naxos. A mildly Herculean climb has us scrambling up Mount Zeus, passing mountain goats to the cave where his ‘life’ began.

While I’m in pretty good shape, the art of sailing also requires a sharp mind.

I’m not fooled by Jimmy’s unkempt looks and bohemian attitude. Under that unconventional façade is a real command of meteorology, biology, trigonometry, physics and maths, of which I’m in awe.

Sailing requires quick thinking and focus in tricky situations – things we can’t learn in a week.

But we’ve made a start and certainly exercised our muscles.

On Siros, Jimmy and I rise early to buy fish from the quayside.

Then, before we set sail, it’s all hands on deck as Ikaros needs a clean. Jimmy instructs us to batten down the hatches to prevent water going below. We tidy and scrub her top to bottom until she’s shipshape and spotless. However shabby sailors look, their boats are always chic.

Finding God: The Cyclades islands are dotted with small churches – such as Agios Panteleimon on Katapola Bay

I’m loving this bonding experience of us all working and learning together as we hop from island to island and party on land into the small hours.

At Rinia, we drop anchor by a deserted beach. Jimmy builds a basic barbecue and table, and we lunch on prawns, sausages and the fish he’d bought earlier.

Koufonisi is our skipper’s favourite island.

In early evening, it’s eerily quiet. Behind a rustic windmill is Kapetan Nikolas Restaurant. We eat traditional dishes sourced from the family’s farm followed by flaming ouzo liquor.

After dinner we venture further into darkness to what feels like the only bar.

It’s a cute Cornish-smuggler’s-inn affair in an old school building dating back to 1852. Cocktails, crepes and rounds of Jenga see us into the small hours.

Jimmy’s ancillary prowess as a chef, charismatic host and guiding spirit makes the intimate adventure so much more than an official sailing school.

With so many beautiful islands, the celestial Cyclades really are a playground of the gods.

And sailing to and from them on a yacht offers a whole new perspective – something charter planes can never match.

Travel Facts: Plan your own odyssey around the Cyclades

Seven nights aboard ten-berth Beneteau Cyclades 50.5 costs £675 per person per week (£450 per person for whole boat group bookings). Available until end of October 2014 and taking bookings for 2015 season from May.

More info at www.offthebeatentack.com. To book, contact: skipper@offthebeatentack.com.  


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It's all fans on deck (or dock) for sailing races in Annapolis

The weekend begins on Wednesday nights in Annapolis with the blast of a starting gun.

That’s when dozens of sailboats jockeying in the Severn River harbor head to the starting line for the Annapolis Yacht Club’s Wednesday night races, a summer tradition in this waterfront community since the 1960s.

What began as “beer can races” — just a casual event to break up the week — has become serious business for the sailors, as well as for City Dock bars and restaurants.

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“This is real sailing,” said Bobby Frey, the yacht club judge who runs the races, which are perfect for the competitive sailors who don’t have the time to travel the country to regattas. One hundred and fifteen boats are registered in 15 classes. Protests over rule infractions are not rare, and they can go all the way to the top of the U.S. Sailing Association.

The midweek races are a part of the Annapolis summer scene for spectators, too. They line the sidewalks on the Spa Creek Drawbridge to catch the finishes. They hang their feet off the side of a dock with a cooler nearby. And they take their own boats out to party and watch — and avoid the racing boats.

The spectator boats “are more afraid of us than we are of them,” said Rod Jabin, commodore of the yacht club and skipper of RAMROD, a Farr 30 that is a regular winner. He was smiling. “We know what we are doing.”

Even so, you often hear the crews on the racing boats yelling, “Get out of the way!”

Tom Weaver is a seasoned spectator, a veteran round-the-world and America’s Cup sailor as well as a boat builder. He takes the Eastport 32 powerboat he designed, Eau Revwah, out to one of the marks, or turning points, for what he calls “Wednesday night heckling.”

“I give a lot of unsolicited advice,” said the native New Zealander, who owns Eastport Yacht Co. “I figured out it was a lot more fun than racing.”

Lots of waterfront communities have weeknight races, in Maryland and around the country. But the Wednesday races in Annapolis appear to give the whole town permission to ease on out of the workweek. Though there are weekend regattas during the summer, the Wednesday races are a way to mark the hump day.

“It’s all downhill from here,” said Weaver.

It was former Annapolis Yacht Club Commodore Gaither Scott who installed the races here. He had seen a similar summer racing series in East Greenwich, R.I., and he organized the first Annapolis races in the summer of 1959. There was no race committee, no scoring, no prizes. Just a picnic at the end of the evening.

The races are now run in three series from April through the first week of September. There are class trophies and overall performance awards. And the picnic at the end of the evening of racing is grand.

“It is a lifestyle,” said Jabin, who grew up racing with his dad, Bert, a sailing legend in Annapolis who died last fall. His son took over the helm of his boat-building empire here, too. “Easy sailing is part of the fabric of our lives as Annapolitans. Most of us were born into it.”

But even those who were not can join the races. Sailors looking to hop on board as crew used to hang around the dock in front of the Chart House restaurant, which in its previous incarnation was where John Trumpy built his legendary yachts. Now restaurant patrons and spectators watch the races from there.

Skippers can easily find an able pair of hands through social media. Peter Elvart is one of those strong guys. He knew someone who knew someone who needed somebody to crew on Bat IV, a J 105. “If you aren’t any good, you don’t get asked back,” he said.

He has a Tartan 30 cruising boat, Inertia, for his family. But the insurance broker grew up sailing on Lake Michigan and likes to race, although it is much different on the Chesapeake.

“The wind can be dead until the end of August,” he said. “On those nights, people just drink a lot more beer.”

It isn’t all pros out there. There are plenty of hangers-on who are, well, hanging on. They shift from port rail to starboard rail as the boats tack to and fro, literally throwing their weight into their job — keeping the boat’s fanny in the water. “The goal is not to fall off,” said Elvart.

Weather decisions are made by 5:30 p.m. by the race committee with the help of sophisticated forecast technology. Only the threat of lightning will cancel a race.


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Police Believe Champion Powerboat Racer Faked His Death In Boat Crash

The official story goes like this: Last month, a pontoon boat carrying two men crashed off of Longport, N.J. One swam to shore safely; the other, 44-year-Andrew Biddle, has not been found and was reported missing. But local police now believe that Biddle faked the accident in an attempt to escape prosecution on a series of complaints that he scammed boat buyers.

On Friday, the Press of Atlantic City reported on a flyer distributed by Egg Harbor Township police. It alleges that the accident was staged by Biddle, who is believed to be “alive and well and on the run.”

The flyer, circulated to law enforcement agencies, calls Biddle a “current U.S. and European offshore boat racing champion and has contacts throughout the country and abroad and could be anywhere.”

Police Believe Champion Powerboat Racer Faked His Death In Boat Crash

So who is Biddle? Along with business parter Tracy Blumenstein, he is one half of team Livorsi Marine and Team Pro Boat, which captured the 2012 and 2013 U.S. championships in P1 SuperStock, a small offshore powerboat racing series They also hold a world speed record certified by UIM, the international governing body for powerboating.

Biddle and Blumenstein also own Professional Boat Sales in Egg Harbor, and it’s there that they’ve run into some serious legal trouble. The Philadelphia Inquirer sums up some of the things that Biddle would theoretically be on the run from:

A number of criminal complaints this year against Biddle and Blumenstein, provided by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, allege they conned customers.

In May 2013, according to one record, they sold a boat and trailer for $17,000, plus taxes and fees, through the company and never provided the owner of the property with compensation. Another filing states that in 2012, Biddle sold a motor as new even though it had been used for more than 150 hours.

The pair are also accused of failing to provide a pontoon boat to a man who paid a $20,000 deposit for it in March 2013.

Blumenstein was arrested in February at the Atlantic City Boat Show, following a months-long investigation, in the alleged “fraudulent sale of a boat,” and charged with issuing bad checks totaling $33,000, police announced at the time.

Egg Harbor detective Ray Theriault, who signed the seven complaints totaling nine charges against Biddle, is the one who circulated the flyer alleging that he faked his death. Theriault said he was “proceeding with the investigation as we would if [Biddle] hadn’t been reported missing.”

Police Believe Champion Powerboat Racer Faked His Death In Boat Crash

Biddle’s boat allegedly crashed around 11:30 p.m. on July 20, according to the man who swam ashore, later identified as 23-year-old Justin Belz, another P1 SuperStock racer. Belz told police Biddle (pictured left) had been driving and struck rocks near the inlet to Great Egg Harbor, just a few miles down the shore from Atlantic City.

The coast guard conducted an 18-hour search that covered more than 60 miles and included helicopters and the help of private boaters, but no trace of Biddle was found.

“We have no proof Biddle is dead at this point,” Theriault said when asked by the Press about the flyer.

The flyer was never meant to be made public, so Egg Harbor police are keeping mum on the department’s official position on Biddle. But they did put out a brief statement confirming that Biddle staging the boating accident “to avoid prosecution” was “a scenario [that] must be considered.”


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Drought forces some boats from shrinking Great Salt Lake in Utah

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) – Drought forced an early end to the sailing season for some Utah enthusiasts on Monday as a huge crane lifted boats out of the Great Salt Lake State Park Marina, where officials say the water is at its lowest level for more than 50 years.

“We’ve had a couple of tough winters here,” said harbor master Dave Shearer, watching as the crane gingerly raised a 37-foot Ranger sailboat out of its slip then lowered it onto a trailer in the parking lot.

“Some of the deep draft boats are having to pull out now, rather than make the hard choice of having their keels stuck in the mud all winter ’til the lake comes back up.”

Fed by four rivers and a handful of streams, the Great Salt Lake sits about 20 miles west of Salt Lake City, stretching 75 miles long and about 35 miles wide.

Its deepest point is only about 35 feet, and its shoreline can grow or recede dramatically depending on the annual influx of snowpack runoff.

A large crane lifts a boat out of the Great Salt Lakenbsp;hellip;

So far, that has forced about 70 boats from the 320-slip marina, where water levels have been dropping consistently.

“You can attribute this to persistent drought over the past 10 years,” said Paul Miller, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City office.

“There’s been a few high years, but even those just haven’t been enough to make up for those persistent dry ones.”

In 2013, the annual snowpack hit about 125 percent of normal in some of Utah’s mountains. But most of that never made it to the lake, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) hydrologist Cory Angeroth said.

Instead, that moisture mostly went back to the aquifer or into the state’s reservoirs. 

USGS records show Great Salt Lake water levels dropping about 1.5 feet annually over the past three years. If winter fails to bring above-average snowfall, that pattern is likely to continue, Angeroth said.

Ian Jacobson, 25, is not planning on waiting. He pulled his 27-foot Catalina out of the marina on Monday and is fast-forwarding plans to move to the Oregon coast. Jacobson bought the boat back in March and is just learning to sail.  

“I had no idea it got this bad,” he said.

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jim Loney)


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