The Corinth Canal and Gulf


Our third canal with Emerald (we’ve also been through the Kiel and the Caledonian) took us from the Aegean into western Greece and the Gulf of Corinth where we paid visits to Galaxidi, the island of Trizonia, Patra marina and Messolonghi. We took advantage of east winds and added Delphi to our historical sites visited along with a train ride into the mountains of the Peloponnese.

Our route through the Gulf of Corinth

The Corinth Canal

The Corinth Canal is a feat of engineering – a 3.2 nautical mile channel cut through the 90m high limestone rock of the isthmus of Corinth that provides a short cut between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Plans were first proposed for the creation of a crossing way back in the 7th century BC and several attempts followed through the centuries. However, it wasn’t until 1893 that a canal was completed and opened to shipping.

It never really achieved the traffic flow that was anticipated – beset by landslides, limited to vessels less than 17m beam with winds that funnel between the steep walls and the strong tidal currents, it is now mainly used by small cruise ships and yachts. And oh do we pay for it! 225 euros makes it one very expensive passage. Being someone who likes numbers and statistics I also wanted to test if the short cut theory holds up so I calculated two non-stop routes from Cape Sounion in the Aegean to Akra Oxia in the Ionian. Going via the canal the distance is 150nm, and surprisingly going around the Peloponnese is only a further 15nm.

With the sun just showing it’s face above the hills, we headed to the quayside of the canal to pay our dues. Coming alongside was straightforward with help from another yacht’s crew to take a line before we got them secured to bollards. It is a bit more of a stretch than usual to step up, however every so often there are cut-aways to make access to the shore easier.

Looking across to the quay and canal control tower

Emerald on the quay

A tug headed out to bring a small cruise ship through and we were advised to follow it. We thought there might be some swirly waters as it passed by in the close quarters of the channel; however there was very little churn as it went by at 4 kts. As it was alongside us, the radio operator told us to go; being the front boat of three on the quay, we went first. I’m sure it’s not the most fun of jobs, but the radio operator could do with some awareness of how quickly (or not) short handed crew can get away from a quay! He was ever so impatient.

Over the submersible bridge we went as the channel closed in and the walls rose up vertically either side of us. Yesterday’s clouds had cleared and we had a contrast of sunlight and shade. We looked out for points of interest – damage from WWII bombs, natural rock slides, bridges high above and the parallel lines of holes running vertically up the walls that acted as ladders for the workers. A knot or so of current against us created a widening gap between us and the ship and at one point we were told to speed up. Then in no time at all the walls dropped away and we were crossing the western submersible bridge and out into the Gulf of Corinth. It was an interesting experience but an ever so pricy one.

The cruise ship and it’s tug pass us

Off we go

Approaching the overhead bridges. The walls have had to be reinforced as the wake from passing ships caused erosion and rock falls

The rows of parallel holes were used as ladders for the canal workers!

A rockfall. And the wall above it doesn’t look all that secure. The canal is closed on Tuesdays to allow maintenance to be carried out

Looking back

The western submersible bridge

A breeze picked up from the NE, gusting F6 which gave us hope for a sail all the way to Galaxidi. Up went the main, first reef on. Off popped our reefing eye with a clatter on the deck. The reefing eye is a piece of webbing with metal rings in either side which hook on to the reefing horns on the boom. The stitching in the webbing had perished and as Colin pulled on the ring it came free. Backup was the eye built into the sail but it’s not in the right place and causes the sail to be a bit misshapen but we went with it. As it turned out we didn’t need to reef, minutes later the wind died and we were drifting at 3kts. We were very pleased however, when Emerald overtook a Contest 55 sailing alongside!

With little wind we had to motor-sail the rest of the way to Galaxidi. No one was anchored in the north bay so we had the pick of the place to drop the anchor.

Galaxidi and Delphi

Galaxidi is a cute little town but in late September it was quiet, even with 10 or so yachts stern to on the quay. We had a wander around in the sunshine and scoped out the bus for a trip to Delphi. That evening, clouds rolled in and thunder rumbled in the distance but stayed clear of us with just a dirty deck to show from a short rain shower.

Scenes from Galaxidi

Emerald anchored in the north bay at Galaxidi

In hindsight, we should have gone and berthed in the abandoned marina at Itea to go to Delphi. The bus timetable from Galaxidi gave us a potential just over 2 hours of time there. However, our bus was late, eating up nearly half an hour. A quick look around the outdoor site with a route march up to the stadium, back down for a dash around the museum and our time was up. Of course the return bus was late! If we’d relocated to Itea we could have walked back down from Delphi, a downhill 7 mile walk along the path that pilgrims to Delphi used to use.

Delphi was one of the most atmospheric places we have visited so far. Perched up on a rocky eyrie on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, with clouds swirling around above gave it an added ambience. There were the expected tourist crowds but it wasn’t over-crowded and we were able to move around with ease. Walking up the ceremonial pathway we tried to imagine being there for some wisdom from the Delphic Oracle – we asked if we would get some decent winds to blow us to Italy but we couldn’t hear any reply.

There were some impressive ruins including tall columns that once had huge sculptures atop them, now housed in the museum next to the archaeological site.

The Athenian treasury at Delphi

An amazing twisted column with the temple of Apollo behind

The Temple of Apollo

Looking down to the temple of Apollo from above the theatre

The museum was a real treasure trove of amazing artefacts. The sculptures that had once adorned buildings and columns are now housed in safety inside the museum. Seeing a sphinx was incredible – when viewing these wonders we often think back to what our ancestors were doing in 500BC in northern Europe….. and we were still living in mud huts!

The sphinx of Delphi

The remains of a bull made from silver

Gold decoration recovered from the site

The melancholy boy, the charioteer and a cheerful lion

Trizonia

Friends arrived that evening so we had a good catch up with them before leaving for Trizonia under gloomy skies the next morning. Winds were light but picked up in the gulf and by the time we arrived at the island we had a F6 to 7 chasing us in. Trizonia has an unfinished marina, colonised by liveaboards and abandoned boats. We hoped for a spot on the inside breakwater but nothing looked big enough so had to plump for a spot on the outside. With wind blowing us on it was a quick berthing manoeuvre.

Falling into a hole hazards have been replaced with tripping over hazards!

The weather remained gloomy and windy for our stay – it seemed we’d bypassed autumn and gone straight to winter. It made us want to hibernate but we managed to get out for a walk along the top edge of the island on a signposted dirt track. There wasn’t any other direction to go other than along the track but the regular signposts were nice!

We walked the small section of the E4 that runs along Trizonia

Emerald was berthed on the outside of the wall at Trizonia

The wind seemed to be lighter the next morning so we headed on. Once out from the top of the island the wind arrived and blasted us on towards the Rion bridge. The bridge controllers request that you call up from 5nm for directions on which span to use. We possibly have a problem with our radio as we couldn’t get the bridge controllers to hear us until we were nearly 3nm away; we asked a passing boat (the Contest from the other day) to relay a message for us and kept trying ourselves. We were directed to use the middle span with 45m clearance; more than enough for our 20m mast, but it still looks awfully close going under. We whizzed through at 7kts with a scrap of genny flying. Weeeeeeeee!

Approaching the Rion bridge

Off Patra there was just enough shelter from the wind to get sails away and as we motored into the narrow entrance we saw a man directing us into the end berth on the first pontoon. An easy peasy drive-straight-up park.

Being a short passage today meant we had time to explore Patra. It was buzzing in the shopping district with crowds of young people strolling the pedestrianised streets or making a cup of coffee last three hours. We found a huge outdoor veg market stretching over several streets and too late found lots of historical sites – a castle and a Roman theatre which were free to visit but closed at 3pm. We looked through the railings at them instead.

Emerald on the end berth in Patra marina

The Diakofto to Kalavryta Rack Railway

Our main goal of visiting Patra was to take a ride on the rack railway that runs up the gorge of Vouraikos to the mountain village of Kalavryta. We were travelled on a Sunday, so with memories of almost not getting a space on the Volos mountain train, we’d booked tickets the day before to ensure we had seats. A bus runs from outside the train station in Patra to meet up with the train at Diakofto.

The clouds of the previous few days had disappeared leaving a beautiful clear blue sky in their wake. We squeezed into our seats – the train is quite narrow – and soon after leaving the station at Diakofto we were in the gorge and heading upwards. Where the track is steep, the train uses a rack system to provide extra traction. The gorge was stunning and we travelled through tunnels, rock cut outs and over narrow bridges with a river tumbling over rocks beside the track.

After the halfway point of Mega Spilia the scenery widened out and we had views of meadows and forest towards the jaggedy peaks of the inner Peloponnese.

The train goes over a bridge

Tunnel and gorge

Kalavryta has a sad and tragic history, being the location of a massacre in WWII. German soldiers took all the males aged 13 and above away to a nearby ridge and shot them, less than 20 survived out of 500. The women and children were locked in the school house which was set on fire – luckily they were able to break out and escape only to find their menfolk dead and their homes burnt to the ground. The school house was rebuilt and now contains a moving museum and tribute to those who lost their lives. The videos of the survivors recounting their memories caused tears to stream down our faces.

The church square where the clock stopped at the time of the massacre and has never been restarted

Back onboard Emerald that evening we were alarmed to hear fireworks going off right by the side of us. Sticking our heads out we saw there was a fishing boat decked out with jaunty flags and with a choir and musicians on it singing traditional songs. A crowd had gathered in the small outdoor amphitheatre behind us and the boat bobbed backwards and forwards entertaining them and us. They finished off with more fireworks!

A choir on a fishing boat entertains us

The morning of our departure Colin noticed that our house bank voltage was very low despite being plugged in to shore power. The tunnel between the saloon and our aft cabin was very warm and the heat was coming from our battery bank. We took the lid off the box and could also hear them bubbling away. Oh no – failed batteries! The batteries are 6V and are set up in pairs to provide the 12V system to the boat. After some investigation it seemed one of the pairs was the cause of the problem; Colin was able to remove them from the circuit so our house bank was reduced to 4 batteries out of 6.

Our next unknown was whether the four batteries could cope until we were in to the winter marina or if we would need to get some ordered and delivered to Nidri. We hoped we could keep them going to Italy as this would give us much more flexibility in ordering replacements as once plugged into shore power, we could bypass the batteries.

Messolonghi

We blasted across to Messolonghi under a scrap of genoa. What was supposed to be a F4 turned out to be a F6 gusting F7. Does the wind ever not blow strong down this gulf?

Not a F4

It was an exhilarating romp across and as we approached the entrance to Messolonghi the wind kindly died away. However, looking back there were still white horses galloping down the gulf so perhaps we were in some kind of wind shadow. The channel was flat calm with white herons balanced on their stilt legs waiting for some prey to come into view.

Competing for fish

We took a walk around the town – it was very, very quiet at 4pm in the afternoon. Lord Byron lived and died there and he became a hero of the Greek nation for his support in the revolution against the Turks in the 1820s. A statue has been erected in his honour.

Emerald at anchor, Lord Byron’s statue and stilt houses

Sunrise on the morning of our departure

We only stayed one night at Messolonghi and the next day motored off to Vathi on Ithaka and back into the Ionian.

Sailing Info

25th September: Corinth Canal to Galaxidi – 42nm (5nm sailed)
Anchored in 6.5m in position 38 22.825’N 22 23.221’E
Breakages – first reefing eye on the mainsail
It took us three goes at anchoring. We thought the second one didn’t feel right but when we lifted the anchor it was well loaded with mud. We realised later that the graunching noise we had heard was the chain crossing a rocky patch on the seabed, shown as the 5m area on the chart.
Landed the dinghy on one of the small concrete quays in the north bay amongst local boats.
Small supermarkets in town, however the place was very quiet.
The museum was worth a visit.

28th September: Galaxidi to Trizonia – 19nm (7nm sailed)
Alongside the breakwater wall, on the outside. 3m depth at position 38 22.160’N 22 04.493’E

30th September: Trizonia to Patra – 20nm (13nm sailed)
Bows to at the end of the first pontoon in Patra marina.
42 euros for two nights (the marina charges per two night stay rather than for a single night) including wifi, water and electricity. Showers and toilets in the small amphitheatre accessed by key.
Problems – the range on our main radio set did not seem to be sufficient to contact the bridge control from 5nm out. Needs further investigation.

2nd October: Patra to Messolonghi – 19nm (14nm sailed)
Anchored in 9.5m in position 38 21.613’N 21 25.279’E
Breakages – at least one of our batteries failed from the main house bank. As the batteries are in pairs to make 12V this means two were unusable. Colin was able to rewire them so that we are running on reduced capacity with the four that are still OK.

The stadium at Delphi

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