A Greek-American entrepreneur lets you sail the Aegean for half the price of a typical yacht rental.
ATHENS (FSB Magazine) -- We're crossing the Gulf of Argolis: 37°8' N, 22°50' E. The water is placid, without a breath of wind, which is a bit of a disappointment - we've come to Greece to sail, but today we're under diesel power, making nine knots off Plaka on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, about 70 miles southwest of Athens.
The yelling of our skipper, Spyros Karayannis, disrupts the calm. He throws down his mobile phone, checks the helm's autopilot, and scrambles to the bow with the grace of a man who has been dancing around deck cleats and rigging since childhood. It takes me a few seconds to realize what he's shouting about. Then I spot them: four dolphins, about 150 yards off our port side. They're on an intercept course and closing fast.
In the time it takes me to reach the bow, the short-nosed dolphins close the gap, fall in line with the boat's bow wave, and begin to show off. They dart in and out, rubbing their backs on the hull and propelling themselves into the air. We hang over the railing and whistle to them, and they occasionally turn sideways to look up at us. After about ten minutes, they break off to feed.
Karayannis tells my wife, Melissa, and me that dolphins approach only when the diesel engines are humming, because they don't know what to make of a large boat moving silently under sail. And they like surfing the wake of a boat under power. Karayannis, 38, would know - he has been sailing the Aegean Sea since he was a boy and has skippered boats professionally for 17 years.
In 2002, Karayannis and Ria Loukaki, now 35, a Greek-American woman who had moved to Greece from Chicago a few years earlier, launched a charter service in Piraeus, near Athens, called Hellas easyacht (easyacht.gr). Their aim was to cut out travel agents and middlemen, whose commissions boost the cost of sailing charters and who often make promises to prospective clients that no skipper could keep.
Years ago Karayannis once had to disappoint clients who had been told by a U.S. agent that their weeklong trip could range from the northern Aegean to Rhodes and then Corfu, a distance of more than 1,100 miles; the trip would have taken ten days of nonstop sailing under perfect conditions.
To eliminate such unpleasant surprises and offer lower prices, Karayannis and Loukaki decided to work directly with clients. They designed a user-friendly website that clearly depicts their boats' layouts, rates, and all additional charges (say, for a cook in addition to the skipper). The model allows easyacht to charge rates that can be half as much as those of competitors. That got my attention. But it was Loukaki's willingness to answer all questions, either via e-mail or over the phone, that won me over.
"We don't want to compete with larger charter companies," says Loukaki. "We want to have an ongoing relationship with our clients. People are coming from afar, and we aim to make their visit seamless."
Yacht charters can be attractive options for entrepreneurs who are used to running things, at work and at play. Richard Kessler, 54, started a diamond retail business 26 years ago in Menomonee Falls, Wis., and has since grown it to $22 million in sales and five locations across the state. He and his family have taken four trips with Ed Hamilton & Co., always in the Caribbean, always on catamarans. On their last vacation they sailed on the 51-foot Purrfection, beginning their journey in Tortola and meandering through the Virgin Islands.
"The idea of going on a big cruise did absolutely nothing for me," Kessler says. "Too many people, too commercial." Renting a yacht, he decided, was the ideal alternative. "The first thing you do is sit down with the captain. He pulls out his charts, looks at you, and asks, 'What do you want to do?' The personalization is unbelievable - I'm allergic to shellfish, so there are never any clams on my boat. If you like a certain type of wine, it'll be there. And, if you want, the captain will teach you how to handle the boat."
Easyacht started with just four vessels, including Karayannis's Eleftheria, a 60-foot sloop. (The name means "freedom" in Greek.) The company now has arrangements with about two dozen boat owners who rent out their motor yachts and sailboats through easyacht. Loukaki screens all skippers, boats, and boat owners before allowing them to join the company's ranks. If a boat isn't kept in top shape or if a skipper isn't a congenial host who understands high-level service, he is dropped from the roster.
Before launching the company, Loukaki learned the travel industry by working for American firms, including Vail Resorts. She visited Greece in 1999 to see family and decided to move back. By 2005, easyacht, which now has seven employees, was posting nearly $1 million in sales.
My wife and I contributed $4,800 to this year's total, for a charter of seven days. That covered the basics-boat, skipper, and enough provisions to get us started (feta, nuts, white wine). We could have done it for less. The two of us certainly didn't need the five guest cabins and many amenities on the 60-foot Eleftheria. We didn't need four bathrooms or a teak, white-cushioned dining area with enough space to host a dinner party of six. We didn't need a separate breakfast nook. Clearly, the boat could have handled more passengers - but we couldn't. After a stressful couple of years, we wanted to be alone.
Space isn't wasted here. The cabins are tight; a real estate agent might call them "cozy." The aft cabins, the largest on the Eleftheria, allowed just enough space for each of us to stand. (I'm 6-foot-2.) Reaching for clothes, books, or supplies resulted in what looked like a game of Twister.
But once nestled into the bed, which was about the size of a full-sized mattress, we were comfortable. The boat's rocking, the sea lapping at the hull, and the ropes creaking conspired to knock us out.
Plaka, a tiny beach resort outside Leonidio, was the third stop on our trip through the Saronic Islands, which stretch northeast from the Gulf of Argolis to Athens. Each day we would stop at an island and explore the local cafés and beaches.
By the time we encountered the dolphins off Plaka, we had already visited the white-washed villages of Poros and the pine-studded island Spetses, where one of the small, excellent museums gives a succinct overview of the life of Laskarina Bouboulina. A national hero, Bouboulina fought against the Turks in Greece's War of Independence in 1821 and is credited as the modern world's first female admiral.
On Plaka, we took a 15-mile taxi ride uphill along precipitously winding roads to reach our destination: the Panagia Elona monastery. An Orthodox Greek landmark, the monastery was founded in the 16th century, carved into the cliffs above a riverbed. It gave off a halogen glow in the morning sun.
After a day on the island, we returned to the boat an hour before sunset to wash off the seawater and sunblock. (Those looking for luxury should ask about all facilities. Each of the small bathrooms' sink faucets is attached to a long hose so it can double as a showerhead. The water is hot, but the cramped quarters make the experience akin to showering in a mini-fridge.)
The sunsets and evenings were particularly vibrant in Hydra, our last island stopover. Karayannis nestled the boat neatly into the picturesque marina, which offered a nice balance of quiet and bustle. From Eleftheria's deck we watched the sun paint the horizon in fire-burst orange, sunflower yellow, and salmon pink. The next morning we set out for Piraeus, where Karayannis would deposit us on the dock, relaxed and slightly sore from the workouts we got setting Eleftheria's mainsail and jib.
Having never sailed on a boat larger than a Hobie Cat, we got a thrill out of cranking the winches to unfurl what seemed like an acre of cloth. The first time we caught a steady breeze I turned off the stereo, so we could hear nothing but the wind and the boat slicing through the Aegean at nine knots. For a few hours I was Odysseus. Sure, Odysseus with GPS, a stocked galley, and twin diesels in case anything went wrong, but nonetheless, it was my moment.
Additional reporting by Mina Kimes.
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