Transiting the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth

The two gulfs – Patras and Corinth – are areas where we have almost always come across high winds and challenging seas – particularly when heading west as you are nose into the afternoon blast.  There are also very few places you can stop along the way.  Apart from the sailing challenges, you also have to deal with the navigation challenges of passing the Rhion Bridge and the Corinth Canal – but if you follow the rules and keep the authorities happy, this can be done without any trouble.

Day 1 – Messolonghi to Galaxidi – Transiting the Rhion Bridge

We pulled up our anchor in Messolonghi at 10h15 and returned down the channel to a glassy sea and very little wind from the SW.  This was not a morning that we would be hoisting our sails – we are not in for bobbing around at 3 knots – guess that comes from the motor boat history!  We only usually sail if sailing is faster than motoring (ie. we can do 6 knots or more) or the sea conditions are heavy and sailing gives us better stability (this will probably incur the wrath of many sailors out there, but that’s how we are!!).  At 13h00 we were approaching the Rhion Bridge and had to start the procedure for transit.

Rhion-AntiRhion Bridge is one of the world’s longest multi-span cable stayed bridges and longest of the fully suspended type – it crosses the Gulf of Corinth near Patras and links the mainland to the Peloponnese Peninsula.  In the past, this crossing was made only by ferry – and the ferries are still running today, constantly crossing in each direction underneath the bridge.  The toll bridge is 2880m long and is widely considered to be an engineering masterpiece, not only because of the length of the span, but also because of the necessity to deal with frequent earthquakes and other seismic activity – of course it has had a big positive impact on traffic flows in this area of Greece.

The bridge was opened in 2004 – it has four main pylons spanning the gulf and the clearance in the middle is around 57m.  Commercial shipping traffic is generally directed through the high middle part and smaller traffic takes the side passage which has clearance of at least 30m we believe – although we’ve never managed to work it out exactly as the chart is so complicated with clearance figures of the lights that it’s hard to find the actual clearance you need!

When approaching the bridge, you need to radio “Rhion Traffic” on VHF channel 14 about 5 miles out (there’s a radio call point on the chart) and check in – they will ask for the type of boat, LOA, air draught, and which direction you are coming from – they will tell you to call again at 1 mile out.  You have to head for the starboard side of the bridge, keeping 3 pillars to the left and 1 to the right, heading close to the port side pillar for maximum air draught.  At 1 mile away, you check in again and they give you permission to proceed – you then have to stay on channel 14 for 7 miles after passing the bridge – they don’t tell you why you have to do that and we have no idea!

There’s a reasonable current under the bridge and in the approach – and since I’m pretty bad at judging distances, it is always a scary experience for me, as I’m convinced there isn’t much space above the mast!  This can’t be true as we’ve seen much bigger yachts than ours passing, but it still scares me every time 🙂

Having safely navigated the bridge, we are now in the Gulf of Corinth which is where we are expecting to get horrendous wind and waves!  When you keep a watch on the weather maps across Greece, this area is almost always blowing up with 20-30 knot winds every afternoon!  Today, however, it was great!  We did get the afternoon breeze but it was blowing around 20-25 knots, W to NW so we were flying downwind again with the foresail out at 7-8 knots.

We crossed to the other side of the gulf as we wanted to spend the night at Galaxidi where we had been before, dropping the sails around 18h45 and the anchor at 20h00.  Galaxidi has a sheltered town quay where most people stay – there are a lot of very shallow areas and obstacles at the entrance to the bay, so you need to keep a close watch on the chart and the depth meter to navigate safely through them.  We have stayed on anchor a bit further along past the town as we prefer to have plenty of space to swing around – this area does get a bit of a swell all night, but we’re used to that by now!

To add a bit of history (although not from first hand experience!), from Galaxidi you can visit the Ancient Site of Delphi – this is something I would love to do, but we always seem to be here on our way to somewhere else in a hurry!  If you do plan to visit Delphi, then it is probably better to stay at the marina at Itea as access from there is easier.  Maybe next time we’ll do that!

We are hoping to get through Corinth tomorrow but the weather forecast is not looking great, so we’ll see!

Day 2 – Galaxidi to Corinth – Transiting the Canal

I didn’t sleep well in Galixidi for a number of reasons – the swell in the bay and continual rolling of the boat all night was more than usual and it was also stifling hot in the cabin.  I also had a few worries on my mind as my daughter is expecting our first grandchild and had some worrying results from her scan which need to be investigated further.  We’re pretty sure everything will be fine – but still it was playing on my mind and I missed her, wishing I was there to give her a hug.

We woke a later than usual and I felt groggy !! We left around 11h15 – on engine as there was no wind and a flat sea – the forecast had changed since last night when it was 19-20 knots expected in the Gulf of Corinth!  Not sure where that was supposed to be as no sign of it now.  We had a flat sea all the way – wind SE-SW until the approach to Corinth when it turned E-NE – but less than 10 knots all the way and most of the time not enough to sail.

We arrived at Corinth at around 17h15 and followed the procedure to gain access to the canal – it’s always funny listening to the radio and other yachts who have not bothered to read up on the procedures.  The authorities go nuts as leisure yachts think they can just pass when they want to – or when the gates are open – when in fact they give priority to commercial traffic and, of course, the gates open to let traffic out the other way!

As with the Rhion Bridge, you have to call “Corinth Control” about 5 miles out and announce your wish to transit the channel – same information to be provided as above regarding your boat information. They will tell you to proceed to 1 mile and call again – then they will give you instructions. You have to hang around and wait for them to give permission to approach the canal – DON’T get close because they get pretty upset if you block commercial traffic or traffic coming the other way!  In bad weather, this can indeed be very difficult, but there is no option.  There are red and green lights – you can only proceed on green of course but DON’T proceed on green until they have told you to do so.  They will send commercial traffic through first and you follow – doing 4-5 knots in the canal.  When you get to the other side, you have to tie up on the dock on the starboard side at Isthmia just after the exit – and go into the office there to pay your dues.  It cost us 175 euros for the passage which is not cheap!

The Corinth Canal is another engineering masterpiece but one which has been around for a lot longer than the Rhion Bridge.  The canal is 6.5km long, 8m deep and 21.4m wide at it’s base – this is too small for most modern commercial ships, so it’s usefulness to general shipping routes is these days limited.  For smaller ships, it does save the VERY long trek around the Peloponnese Peninsula when you want to travel between the Ionian and the Saronic Gulf/Aegean (although this trip is worth doing just for the fun of it at least once!)  Construction started on the Corinth Canal in ancient times – the Emporor Nero actually dug the first bucket of earth in 67AD but there had been numerous ideas and plans for hundreds of years before that.  The proper construction started in 1881 and has been beset with financial and operational difficulties all along.  These days it is mainly used by leisure craft, small commercial ships and as a tourist attraction.

This time we had the new experience of following a small cruise ship through the canal – this was trickier than our previous transits as they went very slowly to the point that we needed to hang back!  However, the crossing passed without incident and we docked at Isthmia easily enough, although as usual when we have to moor the boat somewhere, the wind had come up!

At the dockside there is a restaurant (which we’ve used in the past but didn’t this time) and also a fuel tanker with reasonable fuel prices – we refuelled as we were almost empty and paid 1.35 euros per litre.  We didn’t venture any further than Isthmia and headed towards the anchorage at Kalamaki, which is just to the North of the channel entrance.  We dropped our anchor at around 20h00 – it’s been a long few days but we are now officially back in the Aegean.


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