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How did I become a skipper?

Greetings from Greece!

Let me introduce myself. I believe, that if you are going to trust me with your safety and welfare, you got to know a little bit about myself!

Leaving Hydra. Sunshine and Butterflies, Skippered Sailing Cruises

How did I end up being a skipper?

A quick story of my life, is thus warranted.

First of all, I did not grow up on a boat. Noone in my family has any relationship with the sea either. I come from a line of printers. My grand-grandfather was a journalist and publisher of the first newspaper in the suburbs of Athens I currently live in. My grandfather was a supervisor in newspapers and my father owned his own printshop. All this heritage was actually quite strong to break away from.

Until the age of 23, I did a Bachelor in Marketing and got a degree in Graphic design, working part-time as a graphic designer.

But something felt wrong. I was not so sure this was what I wanted to do in life. The truth is that everything was a given. I was being raised towards a safe life. Yet, I loved to travel and this won me over... at least for awhile. At the age of 24, just after I finished my military service, I bought a Canon EOS-5 and followed the campaign of an Eastern Roman Emperor throughout modern day Turkey. The emperor was Romanos Diogenis, who chased for three years the Seljuk Turks that had invaded Minor Asia, until he was defeated in 1071 at the famous Battle of Malazgirt. I did some research, linking the medieval with the current name of every place he went through and traveled his route by bus. I was then able to use this experience to get employed in a publishing house that was writing travel guides for Turkey. I spent three years traveling in Turkey. Eventually, I reached a stalemate. You write one book, then another, then another, then the 6th one gets to be a bit boring. There was no progress.

So printing called me back and in 2004, at the age of 27, I went to the US to do my Masters in Print Media. I spent two years in Rochester, NY and then got a job as an Color Assurance Engineer in a big printing and packaging company in Modesto CA. I loved my job. I was able to implement successfully every technology I learned at school working with world leaders like Apple Computers and Adobe. It was highly technical and it required a lot of people skills. Gladly, my company supported me in my efforts and we were all very successful.

During the fifth year of my employment I was getting fed up with everything. As an engineer, there was nothing else to accomplish. Waste was down to record low levels, the desired color was achieved with minimal effort, and everyone was trained to the processes established. I needed a change. The desire to travel -or more precisely to abandon all safety and just go- was again steaming in myself and at one point I almost quit my job. I got scared. Instead, I got a promotion as a supervisor.

This gave me a new fulfilling challenge. I started as a shift supervisor and moved up to the position of a team-leader at a newly acquired factory. At this line-position, I had much greater responsibilities and stress, with 90 people under me split in three shifts. I was responsible for safety, waste, production, color, die-cutting, gluing, laminating, vacations, maintenance, hires and terminations, the machinery and all the people working them. After 1.5 years, I had no personal life anymore, waking up at 5:45 am and finishing work at 6:30. Then, I would stop to eat a burger, watch football and drink a couple of beers without talking to anyone. I felt like a zombie.

Until I met a couple who had just finished their trip by bicycle from Alaska to Patagonia. It was the inspiration I needed. They showed me that life doesn't have to be so predetermined. My fear was that if I quit my job, I would end up being a bum. They were a living example that this was not necessary. Things at work were not so good anymore either. My Mediterranean temperament was incompatible with the policies of the HR department, so I lost a promotion. Enough was enough.

Wherever I may roam

I gave my company two months notice that bought me enough time to find a renter for my home and sell all of my possessions. First through craigslist, then by yard sales, and finally through the Goodwill bins, I got rid of everything. I was free to roam the world.

I will never forget the morning that I closed the door of my home and stepped in my car not knowing where I'd be sleeping for the night. But I had to go. I started traveling to the Grand Tetons by car and day by day, I realized that indeed life goes on. On the way back from the Tetons, my car broke down on a dirt-road out of the Racetrack in the Death Valley. It was clear, that I couldn't afford a motorized vehicle and that I couldn't carry my camera, cooking supplies, tent, and laptop on a backpack. Thus, a bicycle: a most logical choice. With it, I cycled from San Francisco to Athens.

One day at a time, I lived 15 months on the road, never spending a single dollar in a hotel. I would camp out, couchsurf, or even more randomly meet people on the road who invited me over to their place. Travelling by bicycle is so liberating: all my possessions were loaded in two wheels. I could stop and go as I pleased. I was free. I had finally won my biggest fear in life. It took me 37 years to mature as a man, but I finally did it. I was then able to define my life in my own terms.

My first experience with a sailboat was crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I found a sailor with a 37.5 foot Endeavour and together we sailed from Florida to the Bermudas, and then the Azores. At Punta Delgada, he kicked me out of his yacht. After spending approximately 3 months together (including the time we spent waiting for the right season to do the crossing) we were pretty fed up with each other and it was clear we couldn't go on. We had also lost the autopilot and getting a new one in the middle of the Atlantic would be very time consuming. So there I was, on a rainy day, with a bicycle and four panniers, 900 miles from the shore. So the bicycle went on a box and we flew together to Madrid.

From there I went back to Porto, then Santiago de Compostella, Bilbao, Marseilles, Ancona, Split, Greece. These were some of the best days of my life: picking grapes at France with 30 drunk Polish people, cycling for three days in the night with a group of 13 French and German cyclists who were travelling to a festival in Porto, the foothills of Tuscany, the medieval cities of Spain... so many unique experiences!

I arrived in Athens planning to stay here for just 6 months and then continue with the bicycle to Mongolia. In that timeframe, I took some sailing lessons to get an open sea diploma and I liked it. The last day of school, I wondered out loud "what am I going to do now with my life that I won't be able to be on the water?" My instructor invited me to a transfer the day after: Athens to Thessaloniki. I went without second thought.

Mid-way through the trip we lost the engine. We fixed it, only to hit a storm. It was a grey cloud coming straight at us in the middle of the night. When we arrived in our destination, people at the harbor where looking at us like we came from a different planet.

Next day, back home, I went out for a smoke in the balcony. Then, it became clear to me: I will be in the Aegean Sea. I was the most fortunate person. Finally, I had no second thoughts about which direction I would lead in my life. I had fallen in love.

Two days later, I got a job as a sailor doing daily cruises in the island of Mykonos.


Mykonos is the perfect place to start for two reasons.

Firstly, you get a lot of experience. Everyday it is so windy that it is typical that you sail with 6 Beaufort. Actually, the cruises I was working for were travelling with winds up to 7. This means that -topically- we would run into 8 or 9 Beaufort! You get a lot of experience in handling the sails and the lines under such conditions. I was dropping and picking up the anchor every day for six months!

Moreover, I was a sailor for 5 different skippers throughout the season. Some knew a lot and didn't share anything. Some knew a lot and shared everything. Some knew a little, if anything. I learned a lot from each one of them. I also learned a lot from observing other crews going in and out of the harbor. It was a huge advantage that I spent one year as a sailor. Two might have been better, but at the age of 37 it was not easy having to clean plates daily, mop floors, and to follow every type of order and for whatever reason that order was given for. But I persevered.

The other benefit was that Mykonos is a crossroad for sailors. During the chartering season I had the opportunity to meet a lot of skippers, hosts, owners, and agents that visited the island. I started building my network. These acquaintances and friendships were very important when I bought my boat, as when I first stepped in the marina in Kalamaki (Alimos) I was not a stranger... I was the guy who had crossed 1/3 of the world on a bicycle. Mitsos (the nickname for Dimitri), who worked in Mykonos last summer.

Proud boat owner

It was clear that I couldn't be a sailor for another year. Therefore, the only way I could be in the sea was to become a skipper. With one year experience as a sailor, it would be difficult for someone to trust me with their boat. So I had to get my own boat. I sold my home in Modesto and got the downpayment for my yacht: PLACEBO, a 45.5 Dufour from 2005.

Again, it was of great help that I had some built type of network during my stay in Mykonos. I found people to talk to so as to understand what type of boat I needed for my budget, people to help me get the right one, others who helped me with the required maintenance, and people who helped me on my first trip.

The best way to actually learn is through your own boat, if fortunate enough to have one. At first, I didn't even know if I had to turn a screwdriver clockwise or anticlockwise to do my job. And a boat requires all types of skills. Knowing how to trim the sails is not enough: you got to be a mechanic, an electrician, a woodman, a plumper. Knowledge comes with responsibility and pain. If people are coming in next week the boat has to be ready. You are forced to find solutions and in doing so learn.

Still, the first year was pretty stressful. I have a lot of stories about adventures during that time. Most of them came from accepting to do things that were too dangerous. The first time I got a crew for a weekly cruise I had to dock side-to 10:30 in the night at Thira in Santorini with a 5 Beaufort western wind... Oh! and I was solo on the yacht! And the customers didn't show up on time, so I had to undock and dock again one hour later. I would try to avoid putting the crew, the yacht, and myself in such dangerous situations now.

The other difficulties were business related. Luckily, Placebo was in good condition. Still, there are a lot of costs, both in terms of maintenance and equipment that you cannot get away from. The seawater is corrosive and a yacht undergoes a lot of stress with the winds, especially in the Aegean. You also have to pay taxes to the government, insurance, boat registry... these costs are inevitable.

After two years in the business, working as a skipper either on my own yacht or on other yachts, it is very clear to me that what we skippers are offering is not a boat. It is an experience. And not just a sailing experience. People can sail in the Carribean, in Croatia or Turkey, in the lakes next to their homes. What people enjoy most, and what I feel obliged to communicate, is an experience of my country, and sailing is the best way to see Greece. Arriving at the crowded port of Hydra, finding a secret cove that no one else knows about, the heat and the refreshing salty water, the strong winds as you approach Mykonos, the rock formations of Milos... all these are Greece, a country whose destiny is bound to the sea. And this is what I want to share with every crew, every day from April to October.

- Dimitri

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