Responsible sailing in Greece

Greece has had a tumultuous 21st century. The financial crash brought the country to its knees in 2008, and it’s still in recovery. In the financial tumult, it was hard for Greece to put resources into the responsible management of its tourism industry, which has grown and grown. Subsequently, Greece, like many places in the world, finds itself with pollution, ocean plastic and over-tourism problems. In the busy summer months, Greek islands too often find themselves with too much waste, and too little water, and struggle to cope.

As a sailor, it’s easy to move on from an island if it’s too busy or too polluted for your liking. But by turning a blind eye you’re not helping. Instead, learn a little bit more about Greece, and you might find out how to make the islands better for everyone. Here are a few good things to ‘know before you go’.

Water woes

Drought and water shortages are a very serious problem on the Greek islands. In high summer, parts of Greece get no rain at all. The likelihood of drought in Greece increases every year, particularly in the Peloponnese region. Wildfires are more likely, too. In Europe’s 2018 heatwave, Attica wildfires near Athens proved to be the second deadliest wildfires of the 21st century, killing 102. Islands in the Aegean import millions of cubic metres of water – and due to climate change, they are forced to import more every year. Some islands shut off their water supplies for a few hours every day. Desalination plants are one solution, but they aren’t being built fast enough to cope with demand. The water they produce doesn’t always taste great, so people buy bottled water anyway. Smaller islands don’t have drinking water available at all, and the only option is buying it bottled if you’re visiting on a boat.
What you can do:
Water should be treated as a precious commodity, especially on board. Nothing harmful should be washed into it. Look for paraben-free and ‘eco-safe’ products and keep your showers short. If you can, bring your own reusable water bottle to fill from the boat’s drinking water tank.

Annie Antonatou from our supplier Mystic Blue explains further:
“The biggest problem here is the water, because they’re small islands so not a lot of water. It’s barren. There is a drought. So people have to think about how they use their water. It is best to avoid plastic bottles and use your own bottle with a filter or just drink for a week the desalinated water.”

Plastic problems

Greece has one of the longest coastlines in the world, and it’s estimated that 11,5000 tonnes of plastic waste makes its way into its seas every year, along with ‘ghost nets’ (discarded fishing nets) and cigarette butts (one of the highest volume sea pollutants in the world). Sailors know all too well about plastic pollution in the sea. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reporting at the World Economic Forum predicted that by 2050 there’d be more plastic in the sea than fish. Greek waters are no exception. In 2019 environmentalists found what they called a ‘gulf of plastic corals’ – thousands of rainbow coloured plastic bags littering the Aegean off Andros Island. Elsewhere, the Saronic Gulf near Athens is particularly badly affected by ocean plastics. Thanks to years of economic crisis, Greece has neglected its waste management systems in favour of more pressing issues. But the tide is finally turning towards ocean clean up. In 2019, The Guardian reported on small schemes in which fishermen were being paid to collect any litter they caught in their nets.

Unfortunately, boats are part of the sea pollution problem, since they empty their waste water tanks into the sea. Some larger sailing boats have sewage treatment facilities on board, but others are simply too small. Whilst some marinas have pumping out facilities, most Greek islands don’t have this kind of infrastructure.

What you can do:
Don’t buy or use single use plastics in Greece, and never throw anything overboard – if you see plastic on your voyage, pick it up if you can. When you empty your tanks, you must do it at least 2NM (nautical miles) from shore.

Panos Koniavitis from our Greek sailing supplier EY Sailing explains how they’ve made recent changes to help: “One of the things we did last year was stop using bottled water. We realised that we used 70 to 90 bottles a week on our trips, so last year we installed a drinkable water tank and a carbon filter on board.”

Overcrowding

Three million Brits visit Greece every year – millions more come from around Europe, and the majority come in high summer, to a few ‘hot ticket’ destinations – the top five most visited are Santorini, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes and Mykonos. This short, sharp concentration of vacationmakers creates a ‘feast or famine’ situation, and it’s miserable for everyone. Tourists complain that it’s too busy and polluted, whilst islanders struggle with the associated waste management and water shortages. Irresponsible visitors come too close to the wildlife, scaring timid, endangered species like the rare Mediterranean monk seal. Sailors aren’t exempt. No one gets much sleep when the riotous ‘Yacht Week’ is in town. This party flotilla of 20-30 yachts runs out of Athens, visiting Poros, Spetses and Dokos with a huge raft of revellers.
What you can do:
Visit out of season. This doesn’t necessarily mean Christmas in Crete. Rather, go in May, or October instead of high summer, and use your sail power to visit lesser-explored islands. You’ll love claiming an uninhabited island as your own for a day, it’s much nicer than milling round Mykonos for a week.

Responsible tourism tips

If you see dolphins whilst sailing, stay back at least 50 metres and put your engine in neutral if you want to stay and observe them. Rare Mediterranean monk seals might use remote caves as a hideout, and they’re easily scared. Listen to your flotilla leaders if they tell you certain areas are out of bounds. The Ionian Islands are privileged enough to be a breeding site for loggerhead turtles – they often swim in the Bay of Laganas, so this area might be out of bounds to sailors. Pay attention to your skipper or base team. Use mooring buoys whenever you can. These are places where you can tie your boat to a buoy, rather than dropping anchor. Anchors can tear up the sea floor, and damage sea grass beds. Don’t throw any rubbish overboard – it’s no hardship to keep it on board until the next port. If you need to pump your tanks, do it at least two nautical miles from the coast. Remember, anything that goes down the toilet or down the drain will go in the ocean – so don’t flush paper, and definitely don’t flush sanitary products. Use paraben and phosphate-free soaps – look for an ‘ocean-friendly’ label. When you go ashore, or even when you’re swimming, you could take along a small net bag and collect any litter you see. You probably don’t speak Greek, but it’s helpful to learn a few phrases before you go. It can be spoken very loud, and very fast – to the extent that you might even think people are arguing when they’re just having a friendly catch up.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alex Antoniadis] [Water woes: _dChris] [Overcrowding: Aegean Party Life]
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