by David Dempsey
by David Dempsey
I had the opportunity to take my third kayaking vacation to the Greek island of Milos in late April and early May this year. My first two trips there in 2006 and 2008 were in the fall so this year I was looking forward to seeing the island and its coast in spring. What I didn’t count on was wind blowing harder than anything I’d ever paddled a kayak in before.
Not so tough the first day, a north wind blowing at Beaufort force four (13-18 mph) allowed me and kayak guide Rod Feldtmann to paddle to the small Arkradia Islands, a short trip from north-facing Milos Bay. On the way we were talking back and forth when an animal broke the surface a few yards away. It was a large seal swimming straight for us and when it saw us it dived and swam under us toward a cove. Feldtmann said it was a Mediterranean monk seal, one of the most endangered sea mammals alive with an estimated population of maybe 300.
On west Arkradia Island we met a Greek seaman named Kostos who was camping out in a cave waiting for his annual work aboard a tour boat to begin. He had just returned by kayak from Milos with a batch of wild spinach he had picked. We shared our lunch and a sip of his raki in his cave overlooking Milos and the Aegean Sea. Raki is a form of moonshine similar to the liquor ouzo but without the heavy spices.
Feldtmann and Kostos were both seeing late starts to their busy seasons because of airborne volcanic ash from Iceland that had shut down air travel over most of Europe. The majority of visitors to Milos, kayaking and otherwise, are from the U.K, and other northern European countries. Feldtmann would normally be guiding six to eight kayakers each day, but on this day I was the only customer. During the next nine days two more U.S. citizens and a Canadian couple would be the only paddlers able to reach the island.
Having booked nine days B&B and only six days of paddling I spent most of the next day hiking to the top of the highest peak on Milos. Profitis Ilias on the southwestern side of the island reaches 2,463 feet-above-sea-level. The trail up was sketchy in places but dotted with an amazing variety of spring wild flowers.
Back to paddling the next day, this time on the southeast coast and with the Canadian couple. They were cruise ship passengers with one day on the island and a 4 p.m. deadline for getting back to their ship.
The trip started easily enough in the lee of the island but as we turned more northeasterly each point we rounded put us more directly into a north wind reaching force six (25-31 mph). It was a good place to start getting used to paddling in high winds. With the bulk of the island still north of us the short distance between the coast and our kayak route didn’t give waves time to build to more than a foot or so. The next day would be quite different.
Feldtmann, myself and a Bostonian named Rebecca Herrmann launched in the most sheltered part of Milos Bay near the port town of Adamas. Our route would take us northwest along the coast of the bay until finally due north into open water and force six wind. We stopped once for a shore side break in the small fishing village of Klima. On a hill above the village and near the ruins of a small Roman amphitheater a farmer unearthed the Venus de Milos almost two hundred ago.
Back in the water we made for the last protected point of land before crossing open water to reach our destination, a set of two 25-foot-tall volcanic rock stacks known as The Bears. Feldtmann and Herrmann were paddling together in a 20-foot tandem kayak, a much more stable boat than the 17-foot single I was paddling. Just before we reached open water and much bigger waves I asked if many people capsize while making this trip. Feldtmann’s reply was something like; beginners don’t capsize here because I don’t bring them here in high winds; experts don’t often capsize here because it’s not that difficult for them; the ones who do capsize here are usually intermediate level kayakers. He wasn’t pointing a finger straight at me, but I got the message.
We rounded the point into bigger waves than I had ever seen from the cockpit of a kayak. Four to five feet high. Doesn’t sound that big. But when your head is no more than three feet above the surface a steep five-foot wave in front of you is a moving wall of water. Exhilarating and more than a little scary for a kayaker who has done most of his paddling on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas.
We made the 300-yard crossing to the wind shadow of The Bears where, except for a four-foot up and down surge, it was calm enough to catch our breath for a bit. Not calm enough to relax, at least not for me. I had a picture in my head of a mouse in a tea cup inside a washing machine. I noticed Feldtmann and Herrmann were doing a lot less bobbing around in the tandem than I was in the single.
For the next half-hour we played in the waves and swells that were crashing about The Bears. I remained upright though tense. By the time we started the return trip the muscles from my hips to my shoulders were aching from the constant adjusting to keep my center of gravity over the boat. That single trip was the first real test of my abilities since I started paddling five years ago. The only thing that kept me from bragging to Feldtmann about not capsizing was the knowledge that conditions could get worse. If that happened and I capsized I would only be a wet paddler and not a wet braggart.
Happily conditions got better instead of worse with winds subsiding to force five and even four during my last few days of paddling at Milos. A 10-mile round trip to the spectacular southwest coast of the island started in force six winds that quickly subsided to no more than a nice breeze long before we reached our destination, the area known as Kleftico.
I am not a very religious person but I think God may spend a lot of time at Kleftico. There is a greater feeling of spirituality there than in any church I’ve seen. Convoluted white bluffs hide natural arches and small beaches. There are sea caves everywhere along the way, some are barely the width of a kayak while others open into great halls with high ceilings and more than one entrance. In the larger caves the surge makes a slow rhythmic sound something like a bow drawn across the lowest strings of a bass. In some caves the only light seems to come from within the water itself. Sitting in near total darkness with blue and turquoise light coming from below makes the world seem upside-down.
After the caves the last small bay opens up to reveal a free standing monolithic arch surrounded by clear blue water. Kayakers paddling through and around it are dwarfed in a way that brings to mind the 1960’s Hollywood spectacle Jason and the Argonauts. It is my second trip to Kleftico and it is still the most beautiful place I have ever paddled a kayak through. On the way back our old friend, force six, came back at about the same place where it had subsided during the trip in. Feldtmann said he had seen this happen once or twice before but did not understand it.
On my last day of paddling we launched from the town of Pollonia on the northeast coast for a trip to the nearby island of Kimolos. I had made this trip twice before, crossing a mile or so of open water before reaching the lee of the south coast of Kimolos. I was looking forward to what would have been the most relaxed day of paddling of my vacation when Feldtmann decided to change course to show us a newer route he was incorporating into his bag of day trips. The new route was, of course, on the windward coast of Kimolos.
By then, paddling straight into a force four and five north wind for more than four miles was much less daunting than it would have been only a week before. Rebecca Herrmann had been paddling a single kayak with confidence in high winds for the last few days and my own fears of capsizing had largely given way to enjoying the waves and the ride.
On the return leg we were serenaded along one stretch of secluded beach by the braying of a friendly but allegedly larcenous donkey. During a circumnavigation of Milos and Kimolos the year before Feldtmann and his group had camped on the beach, waking the next morning to find the donkey had used its teeth to rip the rubber hatch covers off their kayaks to get at their food supplies.
The last downwind open water crossing was one of surfing waves all the way back to Pollonia, a good ending for a demanding vacation.
My first two trips to Milos were in less challenging weather conditions, but when I boarded the plane to leave the island after this one, I did so much stronger and more skilled than when I had arrived. ••••••
About Rod Feldtmann:
Australian Rod Feldtmann and his Greek wife Petrinela operate Sea Kayak Milos, the only full-time kayak outfitter in the Greek Cyclades. They offer bed and breakfast combined with day trip paddling packages including all equipment. Feldtmann is a level four British Canoe Union coach. In addition to day trips he offers multi-day expeditions and kayaking courses. They maintain a website with booking information and an excellent virtual tour of the island at: www.seakayakgreece.com/index.htm. This site can also be accessed by a search for sea kayak Milos.
About the author:
David Frank Dempsey is a staff photographer for Northwest Arkansas Newspapers. Formerly a merchant seaman, he has been on boats or dreaming about being on boats most of his life. He discovered kayaking five years ago and now paddles year round on the lakes of northwest Arkansas and on the White River.