James Nestor, the author of “Deep: A Sea Odyssey”, is returning to “motherland” only to discover the myth of Surfing in Greece
BOLTS of lightning flashed in cobweb patterns overhead, the gray and storming sea sending wave after wave that crashed on the beach behind us. We paddled our borrowed surfboards furiously southward to avoid the whitewash, then, one by one, turned into the arching faces and rode them to shore.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. There is no surf in Greece, fellow boarders had told me when I was planning my Greek surf safari. Yes, they said, Greece is surrounded by three seas and boasts nearly 10,000 miles of coastline and about 6,000 islands and islets that could be suitable for surfing. But this is the Mediterranean — too sheltered for wind and water to produce waves any bigger than a foot or two, none of which would be surfable.
And yet a quick Internet search suggested otherwise. About a half-dozen Greek Web sites advertised photographs of big, beautiful waves crashing on both the Ionian and Aegean coasts. Not storm-ripped slop but smooth, Hawaiian-style breaks with not a soul in sight.
In mid-September, during a trip to Greece, I decided it was time to see for myself. I selected a beach on the Ionian Coast at random from a tourist map, threw my swim trunks and some surf wax into my rental car, invited two new friends along, and headed west from Kalamata to the tiny port town of Pylos.
We ended up on a dirt-road turnoff overlooking the stunning, crescent beach of Navarino, where, just a few feet below, five-foot swells lunged skyward and exploded on the sand. Not great waves, but good enough — slow and smooth and definitely surfable.
The next step was finding a surfboard to borrow, and I imagined that would be a challenge in a country that was supposed to have no surf. As luck would have it, just a few hundred yards up the beach a quiver of multicolored surfboards leaned against a one-room shack. Beside them, smoking and drinking a beer in a hammock, was a tan, lean, long-haired man named Tweety. Tweety spoke no English, but after a few spastic gestures from me, he figured out what I was asking for and brought us out two boards.
Joined by a friend I had made in Kalamata, I happily surfed the wild waves of the Ionian Sea — totally alone for an hour until we were joined by two locals, brothers named Andreas and Lefteris Maniadakis.
It turned out that our random choice was one of the top surf breaks on the Ionian Coast, and we were surfing with two of the leaders of Greece’s growing surf scene. The Maniadakis brothers run the surf shop at Navarino, another in Athens, and a Greek surfing Web site, surfsalad.eu. Navarino is also home to a premier resort destinationof the same name, where the Maniadakis brothers give sessions in wind, kite and wave surfing to hotel guests — everyone from Athenian day-trippers to Jordanian princes. (During the high season — July and August — the brothers work at the Navarino Sea shop at Navarino; they also operate a shop called Surf Salad, about a quarter mile down the beach, outfitted with wind- and kite-surfing equipment along with surfboards and a fridge full of beer and hot dogs.)
That night, over a dinner of souvlaki and local wine, the brothers mentioned that the number of surfers has exploded in Greece over the last few years, from about a dozen in 2002 to over 1,000 now, by their estimates. Athens now has four surf shops, they added, and surf schools have opened in the last two years along the Ionian Coast and in the Aegean isles. Breaks in Athens, including a popular one called Vouliagmeni, can lure more than 100 surfers into the water at any one time. And at Navarino on a weekend, the line-up can balloon to about 80.
“The locals never had a chance to see the real potential of this place until now,” said Lefteris Maniadakis, 37, who is a former Greek Championship Rally driver and the president of the Greek Kiteboard Riders Association. “Now it seems everyone wants to surf.”
Surfing is flourishing along the Greece coast, I was told by the owner of an Athens surf shop, in part because of huge infrastructural development that took place in Greece in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games. New toll roads connecting the Ionian Coast to Athens, for instance, have turned what was a six-hour one-way drive into about three, making day trips to the beach possible.
Although the stormy winter months between November and March bring the best waves here, the sea can be fickle. Andreas Maniadakis, 31 and a freelance industrial designer, mentioned that I might want to try my luck traveling six hours north to Parga, home to a “legendary” break with some of the best rides in Greece.
After picking up my girlfriend in Athens, we headed to Parga, only to find that its sole self-described surf hotel, the Palmina Mare, was shuttered for the rest of the year, curiously before the surf season even began. We figured we had better try our luck back down south at Navarino.
Greece may have some great waves, but finding them can feel like a game of Whac-A-Mole, with swells popping up here and there along the coasts for only a few days, even hours; before you can drive out, wax up your board and hit the wave, they’ve disappeared back into the wine-dark sea. And unlike major surf destinations, there are no 24-hour Web cams here, few surf forecasts and, outside of Athens, only a few dozen dedicated surfers with whom to confer. In Greece you find surf the old-fashioned way: by ambling down unmarked dirt roads, getting wrong directions from locals and paddling your board out to distant points hoping there’s a hidden surprise around the bend.
On our last night along Navarino, at a beach party at the Maniadakises’ beachside surf shack, though, I got word that the Meltemis, strong summertime winds that howl down to the Aegean from Central Russia, would be bringing epic waves for the next few days to the Cyclades, the islands southeast of Athens. I had to act quickly.
When I arrived via ferry boat on the tiny island of Tinos two days later (my girlfriend having headed home), I was thrilled to see that this time, the stars had aligned. On the island’s east side, big, beautiful waves coiled themselves along the foot of five-story vertical cliffs and spun out onto the white sand of one of the most pristine beaches I have ever seen. The beach, called Kolibithra, is usually home to the Tinos Surf School (tinossurfsessions.com), the first surf school in the Cyclades. But the school had packed up for the season, leaving the beach, and all those waves, entirely to me. Luckily, I had packed my fins and a handmade handplane, a short board perfect for body surfing. For the next week, I spent my afternoons there, finally surfing those elusive and magical sheets of water in the ancient Aegean.