An eventful visit to Karpathos
Isabel Joce and husband Bob witness Europe’s migrant crisis firsthand while cruising in Greece
In late June 2017, our plan was to sail to Rhodes from Crete, island hopping as we went. From the tiny island of Kasos, we sailed the 18 miles to the long thin island of Karpathos, renowned for being very windy. Initially we had a smooth Force 4 reach across to its southern tip; like many mountainous islands, the leeward coast of Karpathos is prone to severe gusting as the wind is channelled down ravines – so we reefed in anticipation for more wind as we approached. The wind duly increased to Force 6 and eventually we just had a tiny genoa, but were still making 5 knots in the right direction!
We had moored in harbours for a week now and thought an anchorage would be nice. We rejected the first possible anchorage on Karpathos as it looked as if a hurricane was blowing through it, and the wrecked ship just outside was rather off-putting.
The wind dropped as we approached the next anchorage, Ormos Amorfos, a large, very open bay where we set the anchor in crystalclear water then had a well-deserved swim and rest. We were alone. When we went to bed, the offshore wind had increased to around 15 knots but we were content, as we knew our anchor was well dug in and there was no swell.
The wind increased though the night and I was having trouble sleeping due to the noise of the wind in the rigging. At 0130 I heard some voices, so got up and, although it was dark, saw a boat behaving erratically upwind and quite close to us. Perhaps it was some local lads on a late-night fishing trip? I was concerned as they were so close, and woke Bob. He was not impressed at being woken, as initially he thought they were fishing due to lots of torches flashing. Then he looked through the binoculars and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s a migrant boat!’
The vessel was a 50ft wooden gullet-type boat with about 50 people on deck. Then,
another vessel appeared seaward with bright lights, and it was heading straight for us. As it passed, we saw that there was a port policeman on board. As soon as he was sighted, all of the lights on the migrant boat went out and the engine was turned off. The port policeman started shouting, ‘Eyes down, no talking, sit down’ in English several times, very aggressively, and then tried to find the captain or someone who could speak English. Unsurprisingly, there was no response from anyone on board as anyone deemed in charge of a migrant boat would have been in serious trouble.
By now, the fishing boat was alongside the migrant boat, but upwind and gradually drifting towards us. I was in my best pyjamas but decided to shout out loudly as both boats were being blown inexorably towards our bow.
The port policeman bellowed at me to stop talking. I replied that they were both going to hit our yacht. He shouted at us to ‘go away’, ‘leave this place’ and ‘throw away your anchor’. It was very dark and windy so we didn’t want to go anywhere, let alone ditch our anchor.
The fishing boat gave a nudge forwards so Bob was just able to push the boats off our anchor chain and fend them off the side of Capella. There was lots of shouting and eventually, the fishing boat put a towline on the migrant vessel. It took a long time, but it was towed to the nearby port of Pigadi four miles away. I think the port policeman had been trained to avoid panic on board the vessel and avert a potential capsize. We really were not scared by the migrant vessel (once we had seen other boats arriving) as the people on board looked traumatised and really wanted to be taken ashore. We watched them go off into the distance for a while and then had a cup of tea before going back to bed. I didn’t sleep well.
After our mad night, we sailed upwind still in Force 5 to Diafani, a small harbour to the north of the island, where we moored alongside a tripper boat. The captain told us the migrant boat had arrived safely in port with 120 (not 50 as we had estimated) people on board and had come from Turkey. They had made an international distress call to alert the authorities, claiming to be sinking.
Our anchorage was more than 80 miles from Turkey and there were several other closer Greek islands such as Rhodes. How they ended up in Karpathos is a mystery.
Although we’ve seen such incidents on TV, it is absolutely heart-wrenching to see with your own eyes the dangers people will go through in order to achieve a better life. We were able to just sail away and move on.
Despite our nocturnal experience, we loved Karpathos and strongly recommend a visit – preferably when the winds are benign.
The crystal-clear waters of the Greek islands
The remains of windmills can be found along the top of the mountain
We decided to give this anchorage a miss but hadn’t bargained on the experience we would have at Ormos Amorfos
The Byzantine-style church at Olympos attracts tourists every year