Channelling Odysseus, a family goes on an epic Greek sail

William Powers

THE WASHINGTON POST – When my father-in-law, a longtime New Mexico water rights lawyer named John Draper, proposed one evening that he captain a 42-foot sailboat in Greece for a week – with his wife and my family as crew – we were skeptical.

For one, he was nearly 70. “Seventy,” my mother-in-law, Lucy, told him with a slight frown. “Not 27.”

I noted that he lived in a landlocked desert, far from sailing opportunities, and didn’t have the yachting licence he would need to rent such a boat. “I’ll get one,” he replied.

My wife, Melissa, pointed out that our daughter was five, young for a sailboat, and couldn’t swim. Captain John said that of course we’d always have an adult designated to Clea.

Then he stood, smoothed the thinning hair on his freckled head, and laid out the plan. Yes, he was turning 70, and he wished to celebrate that milestone with his family in the South Ionian Sea, the location of the island of Ithaca, where King Odysseus began and ended the two-decade “Odyssey” described in Homer’s famous tomes. The five of us were to sail a rented boat within a loose flotilla of seven other boats to an itinerary of islands that was Greek to me: Meganisi, Kefalonia, Kalamos and, of course, Ithaca.

Before the storm, we moored Penelope off Kastos Island and spend a rocky night on board

He’d done the research, and a company called SunSail would not only rent us a boat but provide an assistance sailboat. That lead boat would also reserve marina berths and arrange dinner reservations at restaurants at the various ports.

Although SunSail does provide boats with a skipper to do the sailing for you, John was determined to do it himself. He had years of sailing experience – as did my wife and mother-in-law – but it was mostly on much smaller boats, not 42-footers in which you cook and sleep.

“Ithaca,” John intoned in a dramatic whisper. Fluent in ancient Greek, my romantic dad-in-law has been reading “The Odyssey” in that original language with a group of friends for about 40 years. Now, it seemed, he wanted to actually try out being Odysseus.

The South Ionian, along the west coast of Greece, isn’t the more touristy Aegean, and you don’t fly into Athens to get there. Instead, our flight from London bumped down into a minuscule airport in Preveza, in western Greece. A van took us across a bridge to our sailboat docked in a marina on the large island of Lefkada. There, thunder sounded, and the sky came apart in rain, sending the five of us scurrying below deck.

By now Captain John was fully licensed, in possession of the coastal cruising certificate from the American Sailing Association required to sail in the Mediterranean. He had obtained his from the Boston Sailing Center by taking a written exam and a two-hour sailing test in Boston Harbor.

Now, with the rain clamouring outside, we surveyed the interior of the boat, and John began to describe how the loo’s pumping system worked. In great detail.

There’s a slight odd-couple tension between him and me. He’s a relaxed cowboy lawyer who goes slow and easy and has the patience to read a book for 40 years. I’m a New York-bred writer who likes to get things done. For example: Although I’m not proud of it, I once nailed a 30-minute at-home meditation in just 10.

As John explained the engineering behind the manual toilet’s flushing system, I made a resolution: On this close-quarters trip, I would work on patience. The name of our boat, after all, happened to be Penelope. She was Odysseus’ wife, famous for her serenity, having loyally fended off 108 suitors during the 20 years her husband was away. The very model of patience.

The next morning presented a fine opportunity to begin my training: no wind, just drizzle. We sat there moored in the marina, and finally ventured out to – no, not sail – motor into a cold, gray Ionian Sea.

I felt a tad seasick on the choppy water, and was disturbingly aware of the earsplitting engine and stench of diesel. I noticed that the seven other boats, along with the “lead” assistance boat, had gotten out ahead of us. Meanwhile, Captain John shouted “woohoo!” and smiled as we traversed the windless bleakness. It dawned on me that my father-in-law might be an unwitting early adopter of an emerging trend: slow travel.

Slow travel is not about accumulating itinerary stops to match a string of digital photos. It’s instead about the quality of attention you bring to a place. A trip’s novel sensorial menu of tastes, sights, sounds, smells and textures can reawaken our connection to the present moment: the one where John lives and where I’d, frankly, rather be. So I breathed in the diesel fumes and smiled, too.

We arrived in the late afternoon, damp and freezing, to a marina on the small island of Meganisi, our first stop, along with our fellow flotilla boats. We then hiked 20 minutes up a steep mountain to the picturesque village of Spartochori.

At TavernaLakis, we inhaled the aroma of spanakopita, baked cheese and giant baked beans called gigandes while we got to know our fellow flotilla sailors, vacation-going Britons of all generations.

We were the only Americans on the trip. Then the traditional Greek dancing started, and, tipsy on traditional retsina, we all joined in. Lakis, the cheery, 50-something owner, danced Zorba style, and then a young Greek woman quite remarkably balanced a large table on her head while dancing. She offered a bottle of juice to any woman who could replicate this feat for 10 seconds.

I nudged Melissa, a former gymnast who teaches yoga, to try it. Reluctantly, she did. When the resounding audience count reached 10, my wife was still dancing with that very big thing on her head.

Shocked, the young hostess explained that no guest had done the trick for more than five years. She seemed less than pleased to hand over the juice to Melissa.

The next morning, the sun reappeared, the wind rose and John went into action. While steering, he called out to Melissa to crank out the jib. (SunSail required my wife, as designated first mate, to have sailing experience, but not a certificate like the skipper.)

Second mate Lucy cleated off the lines. Last mate son-in-law, meanwhile, babysat. A thrilled Clea clapped in my lap as the winds took us flying out into the Ionian.

The sea was a deep, rich blue I’ve seen only in Greece. I pulled off my shirt, feeling the breeze on my skin. On deck with Clea, as eight-knot winds pushed Penelope on an extended tack, I listened to the slicing of water below and focussed on the moment.

Slow travel encourages us to tune in to our senses, and I tried it as the days on board passed. During stop-offs in coves, I really noticed Clea’s little legs in the water as she scooped up snails, hermit crabs and, to Daddy’s chagrin, dangerous-looking sea millipedes.

On twice-daily swims, I enjoyed the cool water and the crisp air upon emerging on deck. The sensations of wind and sun were heightened in the absence of phones and computers; we’d left them in Lefkada and were reveling in a more basic form of connectivity.

Our SunSail lead boat was crewed by three 20-something Britons who organised get-togethers and trivia contests in the evenings: the wiry Captain Dom, buff first mate Will and a gregarious hostess named Charlie.

John and the seven other captains would meet each morning to coordinate that evening’s meetup port with the SunSail crew, but otherwise we were on our own, and during the days, we rarely saw another boat in our group.

We had our breakfasts and lunches on board. We’d stocked up on pasta, sauce, eggs, fruits, veggies and drinks at a small supermarket at our departure marina, and each evening we would purchase further necessities, such as fresh bread, at small shops in the villages where we moored. Below deck, our tiny kitchen featured a fridge, sink, stove and basic cooking paraphernalia. We ate on deck at a pullout shaded table, enjoying our meals – afloat – with a new view each day.

In Ithaca, John pulled Clea onto his lap and told her tales of the Odysseus and Penelope epoch (the Mycenaean, spanning 1,600 to 1,100 BC), when Ithaca, now nearly abandoned, was a powerful capital of the Ionian kingdom-state. Ithacans, he told her, were great navigators and explorers, and I sensed a thrill in his voice at taking his granddaughter on a likewise bold expedition.

Later, I rowed Clea in the dinghy to Ithaca’s parched shore, and we hiked amid prickly plants to the highest summit. Not a person or house was in view, just our tiny boat below and a few bell-dinging goats. My daughter and I silently gazed out over a blue that stretched to the Peloponnesus.

Clea, who’d been quiet for a long time, asked, “Daddy, could we live here?” Then she added, excitedly: “We could build our house right here!”

A big storm was forecast for our second-to-last night at sea. It also happened to be the night we had an option of an evening away from our flotilla, to free-sail to a destination of our choice. The seven other boats opted for the WiFi connection, social ambiance and reliable taverna food of a marina.

“You’ll join us in the marina tonight, too, right?” Dom asked John. “I advise it, because the water’s going to get kind of wild.”