sea kayak crossings: an aegean odyssey

In Autumn 2005 I spent two weeks sea kayaking with Rod Feldtmann of Sea Kayak Milos, a personal trip across the Aegean Sea from Athens to Turkey. My first sea kayaking adventure in the eastern Mediterranean, the experience was unforgettable. A couple of years later I wrote an article for Ocean Paddler describing the trip. Here it is.

An Aegean Odyssey

The distant cliffs of Amorgos rose and fell behind grey waves as a stiff NE wind blew across our course. Fifty kilometres downwind lay the volcanic island of Santorini; upwind, nothing save a few scattered Greek islets, until the Turkish mainland. With forty kilometres under our kayaks already today, mostly upwind, we were tired. The sun fell in the sky behind us, perhaps another couple of hours before we lost the light.

Departing the sheltering islets of Antikaros, we paddled into the waves, blades catching in the wind as our kayaks climbed each crest. Pete began to diverge from the group, taking a different line through the waves. He was quickly fifty metres from our group.

I paddled to join Pete and looked back for the others. Already they were hidden among the swells. As I encouraged him to take a more downwind course, I considered the challenge of the crossing ahead. Eight days into our planned transit of the Aegean Sea, this combination of commitment and fatigue was creating an uncertain situation. With no land to leeward, we could ill afford any deterioration in the conditions. I hoped for the next two hours to pass uneventfully.

This Greek adventure began with a chance email to Rod, who runs a sea kayak guiding business on the Greek island of Milos. A go-getting Aussie with a positive attitude, Rod had planned an ambitious 500km trans-Aegean kayaking route, linking 20-plus island crossings between mainland Greece and Turkey.

The Aegean Sea is a huge basin of over 200,000 square kilometres, a watery gulf between Europe and Asia Minor. Scores of islands are scattered stepping stones between the two worlds. Reaching for the atlas, I traced a speculative route from west to east; the urge to experience this journey was irresistible. Within seconds of Rod’s invitation to join the trip, I was clicking the ‘send’ button and booking my flight to Athens.

Thus, on the last day of October 2005 I found myself watching a startling tonnage of ferry traffic negotiating the unfeasibly narrow entrance to Piraeus, Athens’ harbour and the busiest port in the eastern Mediterranean.

Rod’s arrival, in a beaten-up Peugeot layered in a thick film of Milos dust and sporting no discernable rear suspension, suggested that his exuberant attitude also included automotive matters. I breathed a silent prayer for the condition of my loaned sea kayak.

A speedy rattle through the back streets of Piraeus brought us to a beach hemmed in by sprawling apartment blocks. Here, loitering among our fleet of sea kayaks at the water’s edge – and clearly ready to go – was the rest of the team.

Brief introductions during a speed-packing session offered snapshot impressions of my companions for the next two weeks: Pete and Justin, a couple of athletic-looking Aussies; Jon, a young UK sea kayaker; Peter, a dry-witted northerner of uncertain age; and, of course, Rod. Immersed to my armpits in the hatches of a borrowed sea boat, I was unable to gain any clearer picture of my new paddling mates before launching into the warm waters of the Saronic Gulf.

The team maintained a cracking pace across the huge bay south of Athens, on a beeline for the Olympic sailing harbour. A light headwind rippled the sea as we glided along the Attica peninsula, gradually escaping the vast urban sprawl of downtown Athens. Eager to complete the 60km of this mainland ‘warm up’, we paddled on into the evening in idyllic conditions, as the sun slid into the mirror-like waters of the Saronic Gulf. Our first camp, amid straggling bushes at the head of a dusty beach, gave us the satisfying prospect of the now-distant lights of Athens.

The next morning we reached Attica’s south tip. Our departure from the mainland followed a visit to the 2500-year old cliff-top ruins of Poseidon’s Temple, an essential place of worship for early mariners and a fitting lunch stop for us. Offshore at last, a 16km crossing in calm waters to the seemingly-deserted island of Kea made a suitably peaceful end to our second day afloat.

Rod also enlivened the day with a demonstration of mid-paddle ‘comfort breaks’, flopping into the briny to thrill the fishes before scrambling aboard again, cowboy-style over the rear of his kayak. The rest of the team, clearly accustomed to colder waters, resorted to trusty ‘pee bottles’ rather than take the big dip. Our concerns at the jagged edges of Justin’s hastily-improvised Evian bottle were forgotten once Jon revealed, some days later, that the mug from which he enjoyed his evening brew served a double purpose throughout the day. For some reason this revelation particularly unsettled the Aussies. Perhaps the sight of him dunking his Chocolate Bourbon into the scalding liquid was too much for them…

We paddled south, deeper into the Cyclades chain. Kea, Kythnos, Serifos, Sifnos, Antiparos – each day brought a new crossing and a new island experience. The balmy conditions gave way to unsettled, autumnal weather – an increasing NE breeze created choppy cross-wind seas between the islands with messy reflected waves greeting our arrival off each headland.

Team Australia suffered the first casualty on day four as we surfed downwind before a squall that raced us to Kastro’s sheltering harbour on Serifos’ east coast. Justin, clearly new to such conditions, finally embraced the elements as a wave lurched unexpectedly under his boat. Swiftly rescued, he determinedly battled into calmer waters.

Camped that evening in distinctly un-Mediterranean temperatures, we discussed the likely challenges ahead and the ability of our team to meet them. Rod’s plan had allowed little scope for delay. A daily distance of around 35km – a reasonable target given the modest cruising speed of our Rainbow Laser kayaks – would require all fourteen available days to reach the Turkish mainland. It was also clear that Pete and Justin, despite world-class outrigger canoe skills, were pretty new to this game and finding the conditions taxing. A lengthy debate produced a considered decision and a subtle plan for the days ahead: ‘keep going until it all goes pear-shaped’.

The discussions had also revealed that Rod had first arrived on Milos as a gold-seeking geologist. Having failed to unearth the real stuff, he had discovered a far more precious gem in Petrinela, a beautiful islander who caused him to forget his original quest. Thus, the sea kayak business was an inventive project for his new island-based existence. His available time for our Aegean adventure was squeezed to a minimum – Rod was clearly under the cosh and had a ferry booked for Milos several days hence. As the wind blew across the restless sea, I began to sense the true commitment of this trip.

All sea kayak journeys develop their own unique character; this one was no exception. Committing paddling days, combining 16-20km crossings and long unbroken stretches of limestone cliffs, typically ended in the calmer waters of protected inlets that hid peaceful fishing villages; the fleshpots of civilisation that weary sea kayakers craved. Beach bars abandoned for the winter provided grassy terraces upon which to pitch tents; village stores allowed daily restocking with fresh bread and local delicacies; taverna owners supplied fresh-caught fish, washed down with the produce of the islands’ vineyards. Accustomed to sea kayak journeys in more isolated environments, I found myself questioning the virtues of wilderness paddling compared to the delights of this Aegean gastronomic odyssey.

Seven days into the journey we reached the 8km sound between Paros and Naxos. This central region of the Cyclades group is notorious for the strength of the prevailing Meltemi wind; sure enough, our progress from Athens had been marked by a daily increase in breeze. We had spent the morning battling a headwind as we paddled north up the east coast of Paros, snatching refuge wherever possible as we inched towards our planned crossing. Hunkered down in the lee of Marpissa’s harbour wall, we gazed across a wasteland of breaking wave crests towards Naxos’ distant shore, as a 25-knot crosswind turned the sea to foam.

For the first time since leaving Athens we risked losing momentum, conditions threatening to bar our progress east. I felt conflicting emotions; my desire to take on the challenge was balanced by concern for some of my fellow group members. My uncertainties were short-lived; with confidence enough for all of us, Rod announced our impending departure.

House-sized waves surged past as we organised ourselves under the cliffs of the final sheltering headland. Pairing up with Pete and Justin, Rod and I paddled out into the sound. Gauging the effort required to make a rescue, set up a tow and regain the protection of Paros, I didn’t dare consider the implications of a mid-crossing incident. Boom! Only 300 metres into the sound a large wave met us, the foaming crest catching Pete in the chest. He disappeared downwind in a wall of water. Surfing after him, I could hear Pete long before the wave released him.

‘Yeah!’ he roared, still upright, paddling determinedly towards Naxos. I grinned in relief; maybe we would get away with this wild crossing. Two hours later, I was still smiling as we surfed down Paxos’ west coast in a 30-knot tailwind, competing for rides on the bigger sets.

That evening, camped among sheltering bushes at the head of a crescent beach, we lazed around a driftwood fire, recalling our near misses and great waves. It seemed that nothing could prevent our onward progress towards Turkey. The next day, we figured, would be an easy paddle to Amorgos…

…that next evening, we finally reached the south tip of Amorgos as the last rays of light illuminated the water ahead.  Weary from a twelve-hour day battling headwinds, we beached our kayaks with relief and pitched camp on a windswept gravel beach. Sleep came quickly that night.

By daybreak the wind had gained strength – the tent fabric pressed against my face offered an definitive forecast. Breakfast gave us the chance to review our physical condition: all minor aches and pains were forgotten at the appalling sight of Pete’s weeping sores, his sides chafed bare under the waistband of his shorts. Eight days of Aegean exposure had not been kind to Pete’s delicate skin. These soggy craters vied for attention with his fantastically blistered hands that now attempted to provide first aid to the rest of his tattered body. As the horrified team gazed silently at this sorry spectacle, Peter found the words that eluded the rest of us:

‘By ‘eck Pete, for a trained athlete you’re a f***ing mess!’

Improving conditions allowed us to reach the sheltering waters of Katapola, where we spent the rest of the day as tourists among the bars and restaurants of this welcoming village. Rod obtained a forecast for the week ahead, with the happy news that we could expect calmer conditions as we paddled east. Fears that Amorgos would be the end of our Aegean adventure were dispelled and we looked forward to the next, most committing section of the journey with renewed confidence.

Twenty four hours later we had exchanged the comforts of village life for a barren, rocky beach at the north tip of Amorgos, surrounded by towering limestone peaks and equally mountainous stacks of driftwood. An exhilarating white water ride beneath overhanging sea cliffs, swept along on the decaying swell, had taken us to this distant edge of the Cyclades chain. 80km beyond lay the island of Kalymnos, part of the Dodecanese group and our final stepping stones to the Turkish mainland. Two rocky islets, Kinaros and Levitha, rose sheer from the ocean to provide the only landings in this eastern expanse of the Aegean. We hoped for two calm days…

A restless night led to a 5am start, afloat before daylight and beyond the huge sea cliffs of Amorgos’ northern tip as the sun cleared the horizon. With a gentle swell beneath our boats, we absorbed the inspiring view before turning to our task: the 25km crossing to Kinaros. Poseidon was in an indulgent mood as we cruised effortlessly toward the calm waters of this isolated islet. We paddled along its sheer southern shore in search of a landing place. A hidden inlet produced a remarkable surprise: a tiny shingle beach between guarding cliffs, a driftwood shack, a chicken coop and an old couple, visibly startled by our arrival.

One more 10km hop took us to the south east corner of Levitha, where we scratched around for a suitable camp site among bushy limestone terraces. A brief hike to the summit of this small island revealed an almost unbroken seascape, with no sign of Kalymnos on the hazy horizon, still 35km distant.

The next dawn found us at the eastern tip of Levitha as the first rays of light lit up the horizon ahead. Already a fresh northerly breeze blew across our course, creating waves that slapped noisily against our hulls. Aiming a few degrees upwind to compensate the likely drift, we began the crossing. With no visible land ahead we followed a careful course, ticking off rest breaks each hour. Mid-crossing, as the hills of Kalymnos began to appear ahead, the monotony was enlivened by a passing freighter that seemed determined to match our every course change. The irony was not lost on us as we sought to avoid a collision on this otherwise empty ocean. Finally, we watched our would-be pursuer pass 100m astern, with no sign of life on deck.

Kalymnos played cat and mouse among the clouds; distant hills gradually took detailed shape, white smudges became villages and inshore boat traffic began to cross our course. Eight hours after leaving Levitha, we beached our kayaks and set off in search of the nearest celebratory drink. Nothing now could stop us reaching Turkey.

Two days later, our final day afloat, such confidence was but a memory as Rod sat alongside the Greek naval vessel that had intercepted our course. Departing the final island of Pserimos, our beeline route for the Turkish mainland – tantalisingly visible only 10km distant – had taken us past a Greek military outpost. The sight of a sentry racing from his observation post was alarming enough; before we could discuss a plan, the roar of diesel engines brought our challengers into view. No grasp of the language was necessary to understand the outcome of Rod’s discussion: shaken heads and arms pointed in the direction of Kos told their own story. Deflated, we turned our kayaks and headed back towards Greece.

Ashore in Kos town, it seemed that we had reached the end of the road. Turkey was a one-hour paddle across the Skandari strait; it might have been the dark side of the Moon so far as the Greek military was concerned. The game was up; or so I thought, not reckoning on the never say die’ Aussie spirit. Pete and Justin triumphantly returned from their meeting with the harbour police, clutching permission papers for the crossing. We raced around the harbour to the customs’ office, stamped our passports and charged back to the beach on a wave of euphoria. An hour later, we were disbelievingly sipping Turkish beer, our quest to cross the Aegean complete.

That evening, we began our farewells. Pete and Justin remained in Kos, en route to Istanbul, while the rest of us boarded the overnight ferry back to Athens. It seemed strange to be sailing, in fifteen hours, what had taken the previous two weeks to paddle. As I reflected on our adventures afloat, I realised how little I had known of the Aegean before I began the trip. With no expectations upon arriving in Athens, my impressions of the islands, and the kayaking between them, had been hugely impressive. Rod’s imaginative plan and excellent leadership, combined with the fine company of my team members made the entire experience unforgettable. I will return to paddle the Aegean again one day.

Nick Cunliffe spent two weeks crossing the Aegean Sea in November 2005 with Rod Feldtmann, Peter Roscoe, Jon Hunter, Peter Avery and Justin Gallager.

Rod is the owner of Sea Kayak Milos, specialising in sea kayaking holidays to this magnificent island in the Greek Cyclades.