Did you know that when sailing across the Atlantic one of the worst things that can happen is to run out of reading material? That it’s possible to catch a lobster with a mop in the Caribbean? Or that the island of Martinique is a part of the European Union? I didn’t, but I do now that I’ve met 62-year-old mechanic Panayiotis Kontoyiannis.
Kontoyiannis left the Saronic island of Aegina on his sailing boat in April last year. He crossed the Atlantic, took in the Leeward Islands, visited dreamy Dominica, Guadeloupe and the Virgin Islands, and reached Cuba before heading to Bermuda, the Azores and from there to Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea and home. His incredible 15-month maritime adventure was sprinkled with to-be-expected setbacks as well as an array of new encounters and friendships.
Kontoyiannis had always nurtured a passion for sailing. “When I was 35 I took part in races, almost on a professional level. But my dream had always been a long journey,” he told Kathimerini. “I don’t know, a sort of escapism, perhaps? I remember saying jokingly to my best pal, ‘Why don’t we just drop everything and go to Gibraltar and disappear?’”
The opportunity arose during the crisis. Business had reached a very low point and he decided to retire. “I talked with my wife about the possibility of me going away for a year. She said to me: ‘If I prevent you from living your dream you will be miserable. What would I do with you then?’ That was enough.”
In 2012, he bought a sturdy, 38-year-old vessel which was appropriate for the mission. He spent the next three years sailing the Aegean and preparing for the journey. In April 2015, he was ready. Peter, a 54-year-old Englishman with whom he had been corresponding for a year on account of the boat, was to travel with him. They met on Aegina and embarked on their journey. They spent the first few months in the Mediterranean as a trial period both for the vessel and to see how they got along at such close quarters. They crossed the Atlantic in early November. From Gibraltar they descended to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, before heading even further south, to Cape Verde, from where they set out west across the ocean. “It took us 16 days to reach Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. It was an easy journey,” he said. “Sailing west is always easygoing. You read books, you fish, cook – it’s like a vacation. Of course something always goes wrong. Our automatic pilot broke down, for instance, and we ran out of power once, because the batteries were not charging. But we pulled through.”
In December, Peter boarded a plane to return home, but Panayiotis found new traveling companions, a young French couple who were on a round-the-world adventure and working to earn money whenever they arrived someplace new. “Together we sailed to Grenada and went through the Tobago Cays, where there are coral reefs everywhere. We visited unique places. We didn’t have to shop for food, we just fished for our meals. We caught so many lobsters with the mop: I just had to shake it for one to get caught on it.” They continued north, to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and eventually reached Martinique.
“Given that every island is a different state, you have to enter and exit officially, but in Martinique you sit at a cafe, fill in a form and the barman stamps the paper before you go. It was so simple because it was a part of the European Union,” he said. The party of three spent Christmas on the island. “You will never come across friendlier people anywhere else in the world,” Kontoyiannis recalled.
In early January, the French couple took off in another direction and were replaced by a British couple. Kontoyiannis and his new companions set sail for Cuba, where they ended up staying for two months. “It was an incredible adventure. Despite the difficulties they encounter, Cubans are always smiling, they are terribly inventive and the country is gorgeous,” he noted. His fellow-travelers, however, did not prove so amiable, and they parted ways.
There was one appointment Kontoyiannis could not miss: He was scheduled to meet his wife on the Virgin Islands on April 15. He had to travel east – a tougher journey. “Early on the wind was fine, but after Haiti things became rather difficult. It took me a month to cover a distance I would have done in six days in the opposite direction. I found myself more or less in the same spot after four or five hours of sailing. I stopped and studied the wind. I saw it changed between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. I took advantage of this, turning on the engine every now and then, and managed to arrive on time,” he said.
Following a 15-day vacation with his wife, he bid her farewell and welcomed a new co-traveler who was equally passionate about sailing. “Boris was a Canadian national of Jewish Ukrainian descent. He arrived with his daughter, but she left a few days later so that we could start on the journey back home,” Kontoyiannis noted.
The voyage began on May 10. In the middle of the Atlantic they found themselves in a wind hole. Given that they didn’t have enough fuel to cross the area, they had to either sail around it to the south, where the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, or to the north, where the winds would be in their favor but the weather would be a bit temperamental. They opted for the latter. Little did they know that five days before reaching the Azores they would hit one of the worst storms the area had seen in the last 35 years.
“It hit 10 Beaufort, with waves reaching seven meters high. For three days it was impossible to stand anywhere on the deck. Thankfully, the boat was heavy enough and was on a straight course on her own. I’m not sure we would have made it on a smaller vessel. Nevertheless, I was enjoying myself. I tied my GoPro to a stick and took pictures. The waves lifted us to the point where it felt we were looking down from the second floor of a building.” That’s when he ran out of books to read. “It was one of the worst things that could happen!”
The winds finally eased and the sailors safely reached Horta, in the Azores. Boris left for Canada and Panayiotis found himself alone. “In the end, that proved the toughest part of the journey. When you reach Portugal and Gibraltar, there’s a lot of sea traffic. While crossing the Atlantic I came across a boat once a week; there it was one every 20 minutes. You have to be alert,” he said.
But he overcame that obstacle as well and was now sailing in the relative safety of the Mediterranean Sea.
That’s when it hit him. “During the entire journey I never came across a Greek. There are about 40,000 seafaring vessels sailing around the globe, most of them belong to pensioners, not necessarily rich people, but people who at one point decided to sell their home, buy a small boat and sail around the world for a while. I came across British, Spanish, Italian and French people, but not a single Greek.
“Isn’t it preferable to live such an experience than spend your days thinking about [Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras? Life does not end at 60 and you certainly don’t have to spend the rest of it sitting in front of the television.”