Fun Under Sail and Sun. Flotilla sailing in the Aegean

A DICTIONARY for ``landlubbers, old salts and armchair drifters'' by Henry Beard and Roy McKie defines sailing as the fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at great expense. So why bother?

To find out, ask a sailor -- or spend a week or two floating lazily around the Sporades Islands here in the northern Aegean, where going nowhere can actually be fun.

Twelve years ago, a British sailor named Eric Richardson revolutionized the way sailing enthusiasts journeyed to such exotic lands as these. He reasoned that both the danger and expense could be minimized by ``flotilla'' sailing, a venture that has since proved wildly popular, especially among those with limited sailing experience.

Among other things, sailing ``in company'' with other boats enables novice sailors to go places they would probably never dare to go alone. And it provides sailors with an instant gaggle of vacation ``friends,'' which even experienced sailors can appreciate.

Today, hundreds of charter companies operate flotilla cruises worldwide.

Richardson's original company -- Yacht Cruising Association, based in Britain -- is still going strong, and while it continues to run trips throughout the emerald waters of Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslovia, it calls the Sporades Islands ``our favorite cruising grounds.'' Stark contrasts and wonderful weather

This small group of islands in the northwestern Aegean is an area of stark contrasts -- from the relative sophistication of this bustling port of Skiathos, to the living history of Skyros Island, where men still wear baggy shepherd trousers and Trohadia leather-thonged shoes; from the unspoiled and haunting wilderness of Pelagos and Jura Islands, to the green island of Skopelos with its numerous hilltop monasteries.

The winds here are also among the best in the area for sailing. During the summer months they pick up from nearly nothing in the early morning to Force 4 or 5 (11 to 21 knots) by midday, then die down again in the evening. In July and August, an often vicious northeasterly gale-force wind called the Meltemi can blow for up to a week at a time, keeping smaller yachts port-bound until it decides to quit. The swells can become enormous.

The sun shines an average of seven hours a day in this part of the world in April, increasing to 10 hours a day in the summer. The average daily temperature is 65 degrees in April, 73 degrees in May, and 88 degrees in August. Trip allows some time alone

Like other flotilla firms, Ricahrdson's Yacht Cruising Association organizes two-week cruises of 8 to 12 fully equipped sailing yachts (most in the 28- to 34-foot range), including a lead boat that carries the flotilla's skipper, hostess, and engineer, as well as spare parts.

YCA sets the route. But it also leaves 6 to 8 days free for ``independent'' sailing, when boats can go off on their own, re-assembling as a group at a predetermined harbor several days later.

Each morning, the flotilla's skipper marks out the day's route at a pre-breakfast briefing on shore, explaining the hazards and the high points of the upcoming passage and designating stopover points for lunch and swimming. The boats stay within sight of each other throughout the sailing day, and VHF radios put each boat within a quick shout of the lead ship.

``We've never lost a boat, or a sailor,'' says YCA skipper Geoff Ranking.

Arrival at the next port-of-call is usually fixed for late afternoon or early evening, in time for a fresh-water shower on board before going ashore for dinner. More often than not this is accompanied by an unforgettably gorgeous sunset over an endlessly beautiful sea. A few bumps in the road

But don't expect the entire trip to be ``smooth sailing. There is, for example, the bus ride from the airport to the departure port, which can be long and hot. On the Sporades cruise, you arrive at the Athens airport after a 3-hour charter flight from London only to be put on a crowded, sweltering bus for an additional 5-hour ride over bumpy roads to the small port town of Orei. This, of course, is repeated in reverse on your way home.

But not even these discomforts can detract from the thrill of sailing in the Greek islands. The clear water is legendary. The people, especially in rural areas reachable only by boat, are as warm as the weather. The food is plain but delicious, and while the cuisine can be monotonous, it takes most people more than two weeks to tire of tomato salads with feta cheese, fried zucchini with yogurt dip, casserole dishes like moussaka, and freshly caught fish. Not too bad for a floating hotel

Flotilla sailing is not, by any stretch of the imagination, cheap. But it can be extremely reasonable.

This year, for instance, from April through October, two-week flotilla sailing vacations with YCA available in Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia for as as 185 to 232 per person, including a round-trip charter flight from London to the airport nearest the cruise's port of departure. That is with six or seven people per 28- to 33-foot boat (a bit cramped) in April (a bit chilly).

During the peak summer months, those same cruises can cost nearly 1,000 per person (two people per 33-foot boat). But that is still reasonable if you consider that you are spending your vacation on a floating hotel. Practical information:

Brochures are available from YCA by writing: Yacht Cruising Association, Old Stone House, Judge Terrace, East Grinstead, Sussex RH19 1AQ, England. Telephone: (0342) 311366.

Another company that operates flotilla vacations in Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia is Island Sailing Ltd., Northney Marina, Hayling Island, Hampshire PO11 ONH, England. Telephone: (0705) 466331.

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