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Last updated: Tuesday, September 30, 2008

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So what sort of paddlers were Phil and I? I think ‘couch potato cross sightseer’ most closely sums it up says Rhoda Daniels.

We have always enjoyed reading canoeing articles about plunging over waterfalls and edging past icebergs 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 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 web site 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 web site…but there in plain English was just what we were looking for: sunshine, 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 it still worked out cheaper than many of the other options we’d looked at.

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 baffling Greek alphabet.

Our Aussie guide was Rod Feldtmann and his wife Petrinela, 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 guest house is situated above her father Perro’s 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 flows easily.

My first role

Beautiful views

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 guest house 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 day’s 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 we had opted to do day trips, chosen according to the wind conditions and the abilities of the group. After a leisurely breakfast in the taverna the next morning Rod drew up outside with a trailer load of kayaks. 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 in August the land was parched and dry but in our kayaks it was blissful: warm sun, cooling breezes and the sea clear enough to view the bottom down to ten metres with fish swimming below us. Paddling in warm water was a new experience for us and we were swimming or snorkelling whenever we were not in our boats.

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. Each corner revealed a new surprise: a tiny fishing village, a deserted beach, and 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 hardened kayakers but we needed to start off with the basics. On day two we learned 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. We were given tips on how to paddle into and across the wind, pushing our edging to new levels. We discovered how to use the wind behind us as we paddled down the face of increasingly big waves and had our first rolling lesson, the hip flick. Rod seemed confident that he could get even inexperienced people like us to roll, and what a place to learn – in clear warm water.

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.

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 5 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 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.

Sean Zeihm-Stephen, Dave Burne, Kohroo, Mongolia.
Photo: Paul Sherman

The Bears

On day five we came towards a group of rocks called ‘the Bears’ with a Force 5 blowing and huge waves crashing between them. There was no stopping the white-water blokes from Plymouth who rushed ahead but as I sat in the wind shadow behind the foremost rock it all looked pretty terrifying to me. 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 white 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.

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 octopus.

The kayaking kid
Whilst rock hopping at the base of a huge cliff we were surprised to hear a faint bleating. It took us a while but eventually we tracked down a small goat huddled in the back of a cave, not long born and desperate for company. So desperate was he that he launched himself towards us into the sea as we approached and had to be scooped out on a paddle – a small bedraggled kid, cuddling up against his rescuer. There was no way we could get the goat back up the cliff to the farm at the top so we had no choice but to take him with us. The goat took to kayaking instantly and sat between his rescuer’s knees in the back of the double kayak looking around cheerfully and waggling his ears.
All went well as we headed for home until the excitement became too much and the goat relieved himself on his rescuer’s leg. Time for a beach stop and a rethink…
Thankfully someone came up with the idea of making a teat from the corner of a plastic bag and filling it with water and crushed biscuits. Soon our goat was guzzling away and when he finally stopped drinking he looked much more perky and had a twinkle back in his eye. We still expected him to run away but instead he snuggled up against a kayak and waited for the next adventure.
We felt that both he (and our shorts) would be safer if he was safely stowed in my back hatch. I left the back hatch open a crack for air but after all had been quiet for a while we wondered if our stowaway was alright. Sheltering out of the waves we cautiously opened the back hatch to find our goat snuggled up and snoring gently, rocked to sleep by the waves.
We arrived back on a busy tourist beach and a few moments later a wet nose followed by huge ears emerged and a small goat jumped out. Our stowaway was more than happy to receive the attentions of both paddlers and sunbathers and was quite the centre of attention. We reassured the horrified sunbathers that we were going to return to goat to the farm at the top of the cliff where we had found him.
On reaching the goat farm there was much excited conversation in Greek before our friend was borne triumphantly away in the arms of a small boy. We trust there was a happy ending to our story and like to think of our goat being joyfully reunited with his mum and making the other kids jealous with his seafaring tales. Mind you that night I avoided the kid on the dinner menu; I went for rooster – just as well we hadn’t rescued any chickens!

Day six and we had some day-trippers with us in one of the doubles so we had to do something gentler. The wind was still Force 5 from the north, 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 learned about using transoms to reduce the risks of being blown out to sea. That evening we joined up with the guys from Plymouth and we all went surfing. 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 6 in the morning rising to Force 7 in the afternoon. The paddlers from Plymouth 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 windy day but as we were a strong group Rod agreed we could give it a go and we set out. The off shore 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. 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 5 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 CC.

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?
Rhoda Daniels

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