Sailing Like Homer Over the Wine-Dark Aegean Sea

“Sailing over the wine-dark sea” is how Homer described crossing the Aegean, nearly 3,000 years ago, in his Odyssey. Returned today, neither he nor his contemporaries would be disappointed in what they’d find in the waters that link the archipelago stretching from the Greek mainland south into the Mediterranean.

The Aegean can sometimes look like myth itself, not quite real.

The Aegean can sometimes look like myth itself, too beautiful to be real.

Our guide Stavros is waiting when we pile out our van, late as usual, at Kamiros Skala, the home port for Blunatura, on the west coast of the Island of Rhodes.

In summer, the hills piled up above the water are dry and whitish brown. Barren washes we saw on our way are proof that it never rains here in the high season. Nature saves all that for the cooler winter months when beaches are empty and prices are rock bottom.

Not much of a beach person, I’m already daydreaming about coming back after Christmas when we can join other smart tourists at Rodos Palace. There, we can get spacious rooms and gourmet meals at ridiculous discounts between strolling uncrowded streets through the remarkable remains with which history has left its marks in the Old Town.

But the Aegean is our universe today, and I’m prepared, lathered with sunscreen and ready to have an adventure. The closest I’ve come to the open sea since I was a boy, apart from flying over it, is the Circle Line Tour that includes New York Harbor in its cruise around Manhattan.

I’m about to be blown away as I fall in love with the “wine-dark sea” in which, by the end of the day, both Homer and I will have sailed.

Sea Bream and Dolphins

In a speedboat that is also outfitted for sailing, designed by our pilot and guide, Stavros swings us out into the open sea. To spice things up, he lets anyone who wants take a turn at steering the fast moving craft in open water, careful to be sure we are always a safe enough distance from shore to have the fun without any risk.

We race between islands before curling close to shore. Dolphins greet us near circular, enclosed pools where sea bream are being raised for export.

A marine biologist by profession, Stavros explains that while his tours usually include a chance to feed the fish, we can’t because the current crop is being forced to fast in preparation of harvesting in a few days.

He hands out flippers and masks for those of us who want to try snorkeling. Here, the water is so clear, the bottom, maybe twenty feet below, is easily seen through wavy aquamarine.

My recent friend, Sheryl Wesley, co-founder of the Executive Talent Agency, who will turn out to be one of the most entertaining travelers I can ever hope to meet, floats close to shore and returns with a sea urchin in her hand. She is researching an article for a Christian publication, but for this moment, she’s an amateur marine biologist.

Jumping Into the Wine-Dark Sea

Clear aquamarine all the way down.

Clear aquamarine all the way down.

I save my plunge until Stavros has steered us into a small cove hidden behind one of the Aegean’s many lightly populated islands, lightly populated that is if you don’t count the goats seen at a distance feeding in the dry, rocky terrain.

Two days later, on our way to Simi Island, Daniel Watson, founder of the fashion and culture magazine Livid, and I spend an hour looking out at the islands as we speed by, noticing a surprising number of small, isolated buildings, usually white, perched above the shores. We find out that these are tiny monasteries, mostly unoccupied, hundreds of which dot the archipelago.

But today, we are anchored fifty feet from shore on what looks like another unoccupied island. The water is, again, clear beyond the imagination of a longtime New Yorker adjusted to seeing the bottom of the East River, where I live, at a maximum depth of one foot. And that’s on a good day.

I’m the last to jump overboard, conscious of how long it’s been since my swimming muscles were expected to coordinate in keeping me above the surface.

Because the Aegean is deep close to shore, the water is cool and refreshing as soon as I break the surface, amazed to find I can see things almost as clearly underwater as above. It feels clean like the free running streams I swam in while growing up in the country.

But here, I do and in vastly greater quantities. As I swim toward shore, the Aegean sweeps gracefully away like the surface of a dream, bluer as swells into the distance.

My friends are already exploring the island and taking photographs. So, I quickly pull on my flip-flops, which Stavros brought ashore in a waterproof container, and walk into a sandy area marked by hearty shrubs that bear the heat all summer and wait for winter.

Daniel, Sheryl, Kinya Claiborne (Style & Society Magazine), travel writers Isoul Harris (Uptown Magazine) and Jan Eckland (TravelRave) were all smart enough to pack swimming shoes, which I confess I’ve never heard of before this. They explore an old abandoned chapel while I struggle to keep the sand from wrecking my feet, stopping every ten steps to shake it out of my open footwear.

One of more than 150 islands in the Dodecanese, located just east of Asia Minor, where the continents have met, not always peacefully, throughout history. The structures and landscape are so fascinating, Stavros has a battle to round everyone up and stay on schedule.

There’s more swimming ahead and a lunch that defies the term, as we understand it in the U.S., at an open air restaurant in Halki.

Swimming Under the Gaze of Cyclops

Before leaving the Aegean for a lunch to end all lunches, Stavros navigates our boat, free sailing much of the way with the engine shut off, into another hidden cove.

Our group indulges in a remote cove beneath the Cyclops Cave.

Our group indulges in a remote cove beneath the Cyclops Cave.

Cut into the top of a sheer rock face is the cave of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant of Greek and Roman myths, also written about  by Homer in the Odyssey. A cave, shaped like a single eye, stares out into the Aegean.

But who needs mythology when theres an empty beach waiting onshore? Most of my friends jump into another calm pool of irresistible aquamarine, the sea’s bottom clearly visible beneath the gentle wake of our boat.

I stay behind, somewhat enviously, meditating in the perfect peace of the Aegean.

When I open my eyes again, my friends are luxuriating near the shore, some still in the water, a few soaking up sun on the soft sand.

For a while, this is time out of mind, a perfect stretch of endless enjoyment, the world standing still. But, alas, we have a schedule to follow, and Stavros gets busy shepherding a flock that may never willingly leave the Aegean back onto the boat.

Halki, Food, Wine, and “Yamas!” All Around

There should be another word to replace “lunch” when it refers to the pleasures of this late afternoon feast in Greece. Back in New York, lunch means a sandwich, maybe a salad, and back to work.

In Greece, at least for us, lunch means a couple of hours of great food, wine, conversation and frequent shouts of “Yamas!” the Greek way to say, “Cheers!”

Unless your job is tour guide or bon vivant, your likelihood of returning to work is close to nil while the chances for a nap while a cool sea breeze sweeps over you are relatively high.

First, though, there is the food. By the end of the week, I’ll be convinced that there is no such thing as bad Greek food, and this is an important step along the way.

A Greek (What else?) salad comes first. A big chunk of feta balances atop cucumbers, peppers and onion. Local wine fills our glasses while we wait for the main courses.

Simple food, perfectly prepared, a classic Greek salad.

Simple food, perfectly prepared, a classic Greek salad.

Even in a casual place like this, the food is as much presentation as taste treat. Everything looks great as it is carried out of the kitchen. Octopus, calamari, shrimps and more appear in plentiful quantities, all finished off by perfectly prepared sea bream, the local gourmet fish of choice.

What eventually strikes me about Greek food is the sheer variety, the boundlessness of creative ways to prepare it.

At the end of an afternoon filled from start to finish with unexpected pleasures, we walk slowly along Halki’s sun-washed waterfront to the dock Stavros will pick us up for our trip back to Rhodes.

A few of us stop to pick up souvenirs. Waiting, I glance at small boats tied up nearby and, amazingly, am able to see their shadows darkening the harbor’s bottom through the clearest water with which any God ever blessed a world.

Water so clear, you can see the boats shadows cast on the bottom.

Water so clear, you can see the boats shadows cast on the bottom.

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I am a career writer with numerous online and hard copy article on many subjects. Currently, I am the founding editor and publisher of the Roosevelt Island Daily and a contributor to the Stewardship Report, among others.

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