It was not without a degree of trepidation that we arrived at Sunsail’s base at Lefkas port to find the catamaran that would be our home for the next seven days. I love Greece; we’ve visited once before with the children, enjoying a fantastic villa holiday on the nearby island of Zakynthos. But sailing? This was totally new to us. And while the thought of drifting from Ionian island to island, stopping off whenever we fancied for a spot of snorkelling or a quick kayak, before mooring up for dinner at a quiet taverna had been enough to get us this far, the reality of life on the ocean wave with barely a day’s sailing experience between us was a somewhat alarming prospect!
Sun sets and the kids get settled on Catamini, the boat that will be our home for the next week
Would the kids be bored stiff? Would the sailing be hard work? And, most importantly, would I spend the week green with seasickness? Of course, with no sailing qualifications, we weren’t about to be let loose on the stunning Sunsail 444 catamaran before us – we were to have a skipper for the week, whose role it would be to deliver us daily to the islands on our Kefalonia Flotilla itinerary. But spoilt as that made me feel, the notion of a skipper came with a whole other list of questions. What would it be like living with a complete stranger in a confined space? How would it all work and, more worryingly, would he like my cooking (my kids weren’t convinced!)?
The boys can't contain their excitement as we prepare to spend our first night on board
The moment we stepped foot on our boat some of my worries evaporated. I’d scoured the net for ideas of what to pack for a flotilla holiday and been advised that as fancy as it sounded, a yacht was basically a floating caravan. Not Catamini! More floating hotel than caravan, our luxurious four berth catamaran could sleep up to 10 and also had four heads (loos, to the uninitiated) and a fully functioning galley (kitchen) including coffee maker, hob, oven, fridge and freezer. It even had aircon! A room each, and one for our skipper (by now we’d met Andreas, who seemed very smiley – I hoped he’d remain that way when he'd sampled my tuna pasta), so we had plenty of space to spread out.
Noah quickly chose his bed - in the tip of the hull!
We were directed to Lefkas’ seafront restaurants for a bite to eat and by 11pm had all settled into our new (slightly rocking) beds. By morning I was feeling positive. So far, no seasickness (although we hadn’t left port) and my long list of questions became shorter by the minute as we sat down to breakfast with the rest of our flotilla members (11 boats would be sailing the same course for the week – after morning briefings we’d be left to our own devices and would meet back up each night). Evenings, we discovered, could be spent socialising at group meals, barbeques and drinks parties if we liked – no pressure to join in if not. And the presence of another family with kids our age seemed promising. We met our lead crew: Ellen, the skipper; Jon, the host and Will, the engineer, who would be with us all week, giving us weather updates, saving spots for us at moorings and generally arranging everything. So far, so simple.
Setting sail on the Ionian Sea
There was just time to buy provisions and then we were off! Within minutes of setting sail into the sparkling blue waters of the Ionain Sea I felt all residual concerns slip away. It turned out Andreas was amazing with the kids: from rope tying to fender arranging, fishing and navigation, he seemed to genuinely enjoy imparting his knowledge to Finn, 11 and Noah, 8, whenever they showed interest. Having a local on-board meant we got to discover all the unspoilt gems (and there are many in this part of Western Greece from tiny ports with just two tavernas to islands inhabited only by birds). I also don’t think it was a coincidence that we were the only boat to spot a turtle and a jumping swordfish on our week on the waves!
The boys get some sailing instruction from Andreas
The children loved the sailing – Finn spent most of the day perched beside our skipper at the helm while Noah flitted between fishing, reading, drawing and DJ duties as he took control of the boat’s iPod dock as we blew from one stop to another. But the evenings were a perfect antidote to quiet family time, and we were delighted to discover that the rest of the sailors (we were the only ones faking it, all others were sailing without a skipper) were very welcoming. Upon landing at our destination, my two would rush off to find their new pals, Eddie and Amelie, and the four of them would play tag, go swimming or row about in the dinghies before we gathered together for group dining.
The lead crew made sure we were wined, dined and entertained (and could fix anything that might go wrong!)
Our hosts arranged games the kids adored (fender tag and ‘Who can find the tackiest souvenir?’ were particular favourites) and it quickly became apparent that the activities were definitely not just for the youngsters! The on-tap amusement and stunning scenery (and the fact that Andreas really did seem happy to eat my lunchtime offerings) were wonderful elements to what we soon realised would become an unforgettable experience. But it was the sensation of pure peace and the power of nature that has converted this previously land-lubbing family into total sailing converts. The feeling you get as you hoist the sails and the motor switches off is hard to put into words. Almost like you’re flying, you feel free – it’s intoxicating. We just didn’t want it to stop.
You can do as much or as little sailing as you want. We were fairly eager: my husband Richard was official First Mate, which meant he got pretty nifty with an anchor. He even dived into the sea at one point to swim a line to shore as we were mooring. The kids and I learned all sorts of knots (they probably remembered them better than I did!) and Andreas taught us the theory, why a side wind was the ultimate, we even started to understand the physics! Not to mention all the sailing terminology.
Motoring into Fiskardo for dinner from our flotilla raft
As for the seasickness, I’m happy to report that as a very bad traveller, I found my sea legs swiftly. I felt a little queasy as the wind gusted into Spartakhori harbour on the first night, spent the second day resolutely staying above deck and by day 3 I honestly never gave it a second thought. A sailing holiday was not something I’d even considered before but I'm so glad we took a leap outside of our family comfort zone. The kids had the (technology free) time of their lives - it’s the first holiday where we’ve had actual tears on our return to London. And while we’re still figuring out exactly how, there’s no doubt we’ll be back on a yacht as soon as we possibly can. We’re even looking into the possibility of taking lessons so that one day we can join a flotilla as ‘real’ sailors ourselves. For the time being, faking it is pretty great!
For details on skippered flotilla holidays visit the Sunsail website. Dates for 2018 flotillas have also just been released.
Noah takes a dive off the bow
FAMILY TRIED AND TESTED CHEAT SHEET
When to go:
We snuck out to Greece in early June and the temperatures were in the mid 20s. Families who can handle the heat (which can sometimes hit the 40s in August) will find there’s even more to do in, with organised kids' entertainment from the lead boat throughout the summer holidays
A stunning spot for a beach barbeque with new friends
Where to stay: Our catamaran was huge and a great introduction to sailing without any of the lean, but for those wanting to experience life on the ocean wave more fully (and at less expense) the monohull boats looked pretty fun too.
Don’t miss: Take a swim or a boat ride into Papa Nicolis’ Cave, eat ice creams at Fiskardo (where Captain Corelli's Mandolin was filmed), wake up early to watch sunrise at Varko Beach (the birdsong is extraordinary), lie on the deck at night to watch the shooting stars, explore the less-visited port of Kastos and its pretty windmill, visit Taverna Lakis on Spartakhori for a bit of celeb spotting (Peter Andre was in recently – check out the pictures of his Greek dancing!)
Sunrise at Varko Beach
Pack light – you really will live in swimmers, shorts and t-shirts, and pack in flexible bags (not cases). Bring some handwash: clothes can be dipped and dried on deck within the hour. Bring LOTS of sunscreen and hats that tie on. Non-slip beach shoes (not flip flops) are perfect for on-board. Flippers, snorkels and mask are provided. Bring plenty of mosquito spray, cream and antihistamine. Stock up on bottled water before you leave the port.
Things to avoid:
Our floating palace had a generator but even with that, electrical items are a bit of a bore on board - leave the devices at home...you don’t need them! Our kayak was great fun but the kids had equal fun rowing the dinghy so not a necessary extra expense.