Ouzo and Octopus
A trip report by Rhoda Daniels, Near Bath, England. September 2007
So what sort of paddlers were Phil and I? I think ‘couch potato cross sightseer’ most closely sums it up; so our current touring boats (Necky Manitou and Carolina 13.5) with their armchair-like seats suited us down to the ground. We’ve always enjoyed reading canoeing articles about plunging over waterfalls and edging past ice-burgs but we used to think of them as an unobtainable world, certainly not for us. We live near Bath and paddle up and down the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal but thought we’d broaden our horizons by taking our boats on holiday to Devon with us. We managed four or five days paddling but rain every single day finally defeated us and we retreated back to the sofa.
For our summer holiday we thought we’d give it another go and flicked through Canoe Focus looking at the holiday adverts, our only priorities: sun, and not too much expense… oh, and we didn’t want to camp!
The Sea Kayak Milos advert was tiny but had all the essential elements so we checked out the website and were hooked. Typical Brits, anything too foreign-looking is daunting for us and you can’t just talk more slowly and loudly to a website…but there in plain English was just what we were looking for: sunshine in bucket loads, warm blue seas, beautiful scenery, comfortable air conditioned accommodation, and a grinning Aussie guide. Even once we’d factored in the cost of travel to Milos (we flew with Olympic Airlines from London Heathrow to Milos via Athens) it still worked out cheaper than many of the other options we’d looked at. Emails whizzed back and forth and the scene was set for the best holiday we’ve had for years.
Never having been to Greece or the Mediterranean before I didn’t know what to expect but flying into a dusty airstrip in a tiny plane the most obvious thing was sunshine, everywhere… after all those months of rain in the UK. Time to stuff my waterproof into the bottom of my rucksack
First impressions of Milos were chaotic; sunshine, blue sky, white dust, olive trees, and girls in bikinis whizzing about on scooters. Most people spoke enough English for us to muddle through and signposts are often in English as well as the unintelligible Greek alphabet. With only around five thousand people living on the Island the taxi driver had no problems knowing where to find our accommodation - Petrinela’s Guesthouse.
Our Aussie guide was Rod Feldtmann, and his wife Petrinela is a local girl with a huge extended family who all helped make us feel at home, although it took a while to work out which baby belonged to which sister! Petrinela’s comfortable guesthouse is situated above her father Perros’ Taverna – a shop, come café, come bar, come social gathering. Everyone there is either a Greek local, one of Petrinela’s family, or there for the kayaking, so conversation (and ouzo) flows easily.
We had come to Milos to paddle but the warm evenings, when the shops and cafes reopened after their long siesta, gave us time to glimpse Greece at its best. Milos is where many Greeks go for their holidays, and within easy walking distance of Petrinela’s Guesthouse is a labyrinth of picturesque lanes and alleyways, strung with fairy lights and flowers, tiny white-painted houses with colourful doors and balconies, and a wondrous array of artisan craft shops and relaxed restaurants (most with English translations in the menus). After dinner, if you have any energy left from the days paddling, I would recommend the stroll up to the top of the hill to the Castle, originally a lookout post for pirates, but now affording beautiful views across the whole island and unparalleled glimpses of the sun setting over nearby islands. I could feel my cares dropping away from me on the very first evening, and soon felt more relaxed than I had done for years.
With the prospect of uninterrupted sun for days (hurrah!) we had opted to do day trips, chosen according to the wind conditions and the abilities of the group, and after a leisurely breakfast in the Taverna the next morning Rod drew up outside with a trailer load of kayaks. After trialling numerous boats during the seven years he has been running kayak trips he has settled for a fleet of Rainbow Laser sea kayaks, a boat with the stability to make those of us new to sea kayaking feel safe but with the edging and manoeuvrability necessary for those with more experience. He also has a number of Rainbow double kayaks for those wanting additional security or speed. We felt at home in the laser very quickly.
The morning drives to the launching points were a great way to see the island but kayaking has to be the best way to get the feel of the place. There isn’t a lot of wildlife to see, and when we went (towards the end of August) the land was parched and dry, but in our kayaks it was blissful; warm sun, cooling breezes, the sea clear enough to view the bottom down to about ten metres with fish swimming below us (and following along behind us when we swam). Paddling in warm water was a new experience for us and whenever we weren’t in our boats we were swimming or snorkelling (our wetsuits remained hidden and unused in the guesthouse).
The scenery was amazing. Milos is volcanic and Rod (who came to Milos originally as a geologist) was able to explain about the fantastic rock formations, caves, arches and islands. There was no such thing as ‘just paddling’; each trip wound in and out of rocks, caves and tunnels, a few in complete darkness, one cave even had bats in it! Each corner revealed a new surprise: a tiny fishing village, a deserted beach, a labyrinth of mining tunnels or a kingfisher flashing past.
The first few days were calm, time to get used to the boats and enjoy the scenery. The trips were long enough to make us feel pleasantly tired but nothing strenuous. Each day we had two lengthy stops, usually on a sheltered beach or rocky area good for snorkelling. After morning snacks of biscuits and chilled fruit I was amazed to find I still had room for the huge amount of lunch Petrinela packed for us each day.
By far the best thing we did was explain that we had paddled our touring kayaks quite a bit but didn’t really know much about sea kayaking or the skills involved. Talk about a red rag to a bull, Rod had a mission…
On day one we were taught about steering by edging, stroke technique and trunk rotation, simple stuff for you hardened kayakers but we needed to start off with the basics. On day two we learnt how to empty overturned boats, get back in when out of our depth and how to help someone else back into their boat. We collected a few bruises as souvenirs from these sessions to go with the sunburn and embedded sea urchin spines!
On the third day the wind was picking up, the paddling became more challenging, and we started to play in waves (a new experience for us after The Kennet and Avon Canal!). We were given tips on how to paddle into and across the wind, pushing our edging to new levels as the Lasers don’t have skegs. We discovered how to use the wind behind us as we paddled down the face of increasingly big waves. We also had our first rolling lesson, the hip flick. Rod seemed confident that he could get even inexperienced, couch potato-shaped people like us to roll, and what a place to learn – in clear warm water, but without getting sinuses full of chlorine, and the snorkelling masks were put to a new use.
We had been joined that day by four experienced paddlers from the Plymouth Canoe Club who encouraged us every step of the way and added their tips and hints. They also provided lots of entertainment as they challenged Rod to good-natured feats of breath holding and hand rolling.
We were having such a good time that although we had booked to do six days paddling with a day off in the middle, we couldn’t bear to miss out on a single day and begged to be allowed to paddle on our day off.
By now we were getting the hang of things and the thinly veiled threats of having to go in a double kayak if it got windy had thankfully been withdrawn. With the wind picking up to a force five we had a couple of great days paddling in big seas including an open crossing to the nearby island of Kimolos. Trips were carefully planned with periods of relatively calm water in sheltered bays, interspersed with bursts of effort paddling into the wind or through swell. It would never cease to amaze us how one minute we could be sipping frappé (cold whisked coffee) in a sheltered beach café, and five minutes later we were rounding the headland and battling with five foot swell. No tides to worry about though.
During his second rolling lesson Phil managed his first roll, to the applause of all. I was still battling the overwhelming urge to get my head out of the water as fast as possible, but with Rod’s patient encouragement and advice I was making progress. The wind and waves were also good opportunities to learn high and low braces and stern rudder techniques. Rock hopping became more challenging but much more fun as the waves picked up.
On day five we came towards a group of rocks called ‘The Bears’ with a force five blowing and huge waves crashing between them. There was no stopping the white-water blokes from the Plymouth Canoe Club who rushed ahead and after a few minutes reconnoitring the first of them made it through and the others soon followed. As I sat in the wind shadow behind the foremost rock it all looked pretty terrifying to me, but Rod suggested I ‘poke my nose in’ explaining that if I didn’t like the look of it the waves would push me back out into the shelter of the wind shadow. As I nudged forward I could feel the adrenaline start to rush and I couldn’t resist; I may have been terrified and shaking but I was through the biggest and whitest waves I had ever seen in my life and what a buzz… everyone was cheering! As my heart settled I watching the others, sometimes making it through, sometimes getting swept back out, I felt brave enough to have another go from the upwind direction. Kevin, one of the Plymouth coaches, was explaining about wave sets and watching to see when some smaller waves might carry me through safely, when unexpectedly I was lifted into the air by a wave, and beneath my nose was a huge drop, and I was surging towards the rocks. I’m not sure if it’s a technical term but apparently I ‘bongoed’ The Bears – going through pretty much sideways with both nose and stern ricocheting off the rocks - but I discovered that a high brace really does work, and The Bears spat me out unscathed and exhilarated.
How could anything follow that?! But the day was to get better still – after a fortifying lunch and a lounge in the sun I finally got the better of my head’s instinct to make for the fresh air and managed my first roll, which soon extended to three in a row! Nothing could have removed that grin from my face…
It was beers all round back at the taverna and that evening we met to discuss our adventures while Perros plied us with ouzo and octopus.
Day six and we had some day-trippers with us in one of the doubles so we had to do something a bit more gentle. The wind was still force five from the North (the prevailing wind direction), so we headed to the south of the island for a largely sheltered paddle with the opportunity to witness the strange effects the wind has as it spills over the cliffs or funnels down a valley. We learnt about using transoms to reduce the risks of being blown out to sea. My roll hadn’t deserted me and Rod and I even rolled the double kayak three times in a row. I managed to convince him I was doing at least some of the work when he compared the effort required, to rolling it on his own while I lent forward hugging the front deck. If he thought I was too heavy he shouldn’t have fed me so much lunch!
That evening we joined up with the guys from Plymouth, back from their day off sightseeing, and we all went surfing, which the Lasers do surprisingly well. I even managed a roll in the surf, my first ‘for real’ without wearing the snorkelling mask. We paddled until I could hardly move my arms anymore, reluctantly surfing up onto the beach just as the sun set in glowing splendour behind the nearby islands.
And so to our last day of paddling, and the climax of our holiday. The wind had continued to rise and was a steady force six in the morning rising to force seven in the afternoon. The paddlers from Plymouth Canoe Club had had wind every day of their stay and had not done the longest and most spectacular of the day trips, to Kleftico (which we had done in the calm earlier in the week but were keen to do again). Not really the trip for a blowey day but as we were a strong group Rod agreed we could give it a go and we set out. The offshore wind was blowing the spray in sheets across the water as we rounded the first headland. I needed every ounce of strength to keep pushing forward to the shelter of the next cave. Where the wind funnelled down the valleys the wind strength was phenomenal; despite my best efforts I was slipping backwards and my inexperience showed – my paddle stokes got fast and desperate as I lost more ground. The hard fought headway I had made was slowly slipping away when Rod clipped a tow line to the front of my boat and helped me round the corner, where we were applauded by two German tourists enjoying the sheltered beach. Somehow the Kennet and Avon Canal will seem a bit tame in the future!
Well, it had taken seven days paddling, an evening surfing, and a force seven gale to do it but we were finally worn out… and with more high winds forecast I wasn’t altogether sorry to be taking things more gently the next day. We spent our last morning on Milos like happy kids, buzzing about on a hired quad bike around the narrow streets, dusty roads and deserted beaches; a great way to end a brilliant holiday. It was years since we had had such a great holiday, but the most satisfying element was the experience and confidence we had gained as paddlers, aided by the conditions, Rod’s relaxed guidance, and the encouragement of the kayakers from Plymouth Canoe Club.
Back at home, and after one look at our touring boats we knew they would have to go. Prior to our trip to Milos we ‘paddled around the edges’ of the sport, pottering here and there whilst reading of the exploits of others from the comfort of our living room. Now we want to be up and out there, and will be joining our local canoe club without delay.
What more can you ask from a holiday?!
(For more information check out the website www.seakayakgreece.com. Rod runs everything from one off day trips for people who have never paddled before, all the way through to trans Mediterranean expeditions. His main season is April until October, but with the sea warm all year round he is now offering specialised winter training courses for all ability levels. About 60% of Rod’s clients are from the UK and 30% from the USA. )