After almost three months stuck in Alimos Marina we have at last broken free and are now sitting at anchor off the island of Poros, just 30 nautical miles from Athens.
We keep pinching ourselves to make sure this isn’t a dream – but it’s true, we really have managed to drop our lines and start “self isolating”(ie live boat life as we do normally!) on Sunday at sea.
The last few weeks have flown pleasantly by but there has been a mixture of anxiety, frustration and disbelief at the ponderous Greek bureaucracy.
Unbelievably, the process of deregistering Sunday (taking her off the Greek register of ships and “exporting” her on paper so we can register her under the New Zealand flag) which we were told would take three weeks, was only completed last Monday – It took an unbelievable eight months!
Unfortunately, we were (apparently) caught up in the process of office digitization (yes just installing computers in 2020!) in some government departments, including the one that deals with marine taxes.
The first stage of deregistering a boat is to ensure that there are no debts attached, that it had been used for the purpose it was nominated for (in this case a charter boat) and that all taxes and other debts owing had been paid.
Our understanding is that certain forms had to be filled out by the owners and a fee paid. Annoyingly, although this paperwork was apparently submitted correctly the department did not process it within the prescribed one month so then the application became out of date and another one had to be submitted. And so on it went!
It seems our sellers had to submit the forms three or four times (can you imagine how frustrating this must have been?). So from the end of October when we paid for the boat, until March 17 when we arrived in Athens, the marine taxation department simply hadn’t processed the required paperwork.
We heard variously that there was a log jam due to the number of new boats for charter arriving, the introduction of computers, staff not knowing how to work said computers, staff not having access to the Internet making the receipt of email information impossible, low staff numbers due to Christmas holidays, and the list went on.
The day after our arrival in Greece the country went into complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and of course, government offices closed.
Fast forward to 12 May when lockdown restrictions were beginning to be lifted. It took another ten days but we were very relieved to hear that on 22 May the first part of the process had at long last been completed. A week later the next stage had been concluded and the following week we would have a meeting with Customs and would be able to receive our boat’s transit log which is essential to have for sailing in Greece. We could then pay the cruising tax (tepai) and be free to go once we had our transit log stamped by the Port Police at Alimos Marina.
In the meantime, despite being in lockdown and working from home, a lovely man from the New Zealand boat registration office processed our application to reflag Sunday in New Zealand, despite the fact we hadn’t yet received the required Greek deregistration certificate.
In stark contrast to the Greek process our friend in New Zealand took all of three days to send us a temporary certificate and then courier the actual certificate to Greece at no extra charge. It arrived on 3 June, the day after our meeting with the Registrar of Shipping (a Commander no less) at the Customs Office.
Fortunately for us the Greek Registrar was lenient – normally the actual certificate of registration is required before a transit log is issued. We were also fortunate to be issued a transit log for eighteen months as initially the Registrar was considering giving us only one month (I think because he knew our 90 days Schengen visa-free period was soon to expire and that we would have to move on quickly to a non- Schengen country.)
Quick thinking on the part of our lawyer saved the day. She pleaded with the Registrar to come and talk to us which he did. He listened to what we said about wanting to stay in Greece if we possibly could (still working on that) and would return as soon as we could if we did have to leave. He also took on board that Sunday was our home and we had no intention of leaving her to fly back to Australia (we couldn’t anyway as there were no flights to Australia at that time!)
The Schengen rules state that you can only stay in the zone for 90 days out of any 180 days. With this in mind, as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted and government offices reopened, we went to the Immigration Office in Piraeus to seek an extension or better still, to apply for a one-year temporary resident’s visa.
When we arrived we were unceremoniously turned away by a security guard and were handed a piece of paper (naturally, all in Greek). Fortunately Manos, from Zouras Yachts who we had purchased the yacht from, came to visit us that day and was able to translate – he said that we were to enquire by phone.
We called the number and there was a recorded message. As it was all in Greek, we naturally couldn’t understand what the various options were. Fortunately, Manos was again able to translate. There was a website to visit.
We visited the website and found the “contact us” page where there was a box you could type a message in. I dutifully typed in a message explaining that we had been caught in the Covid-19 lockdown and were therefore unable to leave Athens and respectfully asking if we could extend our visa free period or alternatively, apply for a temporary (non working) residents visa.
Infuriatingly before it would upload the message, the site required me to type in a sequence of numbers/letters to prove I wasn’t a “bot” but no matter how many times I typed the sequence it just wouldn’t recognise the combination and allow my message to be submitted.
So I tried to find the correct email address on the website to send the inquiry to and after much searching, found what I thought was the correct address. However, the following morning I received a reply – “Please contact to this email….”. I sent the information to the email provided and the reply I received was “Please follow the link below”. The link had a list of contact details (all in Greek) but no indication as to which address we should use. Argggh!!
Using Google translate and my limited Greek vocabulary I deduced the (hopefully) correct address. Manos kindly translated my email which included a quote from the EU advisory that said people caught in Schengen countries due to Covid-19 should automatically be given extensions. This was sent on 22 May and I’m yet to receive an acknowledgment, let alone a reply!
A few days later our friend Tim from the Kiwi boat Polykandros, was given the name and office address of an official who had the power to extend our stay. So on 27 May, Jonathan and Tim visited her with high expectations.
She was completely disinterested in hearing any extenuating circumstances or that our homes were on board our boats. A call to the Australian Embassy in Athens confirmed that the official was “unmoveable” and they had tried to assist at least 30 or 40 others in the same situation as us.
They returned looking very grim. Basically she said that she couldn’t extend our stay and that we would be fined 600 Euros each for overstaying. Oh and we should leave the country right away by airplane and “go back home”.
From that day, we went all out to get Sunday ready to leave the marina. Now that the shops were open and trades people working, we could get on with all the jobs, big and small, that needed doing – installing our new 33 kilo Rocha anchor and new AGM batteries, plus two new Cristec 90amp chargers; buying a new dinghy and engine; arranging for our EPIRB and radio to be adjusted to show our MMSI (safety identity); buying new life jackets; getting our freezer and fridge checked and regassed; stocking up on provisions etc.
Installing the batteries and chargers was a big job. The electricians took longer than they had anticipated and had to come back the following day to do a couple of other jobs – moving a starting battery nearer to our generator, and installing a new shore power switch. The last jobs to be done and we could leave!
Unfortunately, just after the electricians left our shore power packed up altogether. What a disaster! We were meant to be leaving on the Friday to make way for another catamaran and this was Wednesday night.
On Thursday the electrician came back and spent an hour and a half looking for the fault. He thought that a fuse had blown between the shore power inlet and the electricity board on Sunday.
The following day (Friday, the day we should have left) the electricians drove up and called across to say they had three other jobs and “might” come back later. We were very disappointed and anxious as we were under pressure to leave the berth and couldn’t leave with such a major fault unrectified.
Later that day Jonathan discovered the apprentice had installed the new power plug using the old case that didn’t fit correctly and therefore wasn’t sealed against water ingress. He was justifiably cross and rang the electrician to say so. Although it wasn’t the cause of the fault, it was enough to get the electrician back and in the end, rather than spend a long time looking for a fault he replaced the cable between the shore power inlet and our power board.
Late that evening he finally finished and we were good to go. Our good friends on Polykandros had asked us over for a farewell dinner and as we were running late I went ahead while Jonathan put tools away and cleared up a little.
As I walked down the pier towards Polykandros I spied Lucy and called out to her. She came running to meet me joyously, jumped up for a rub behind her ear and landed back on solid ground. I took my eyes off her for a second to say hi to Nina and Lucy excitedly jumped up again (maybe she smelled the chocolate I was carrying!). As she jumped she hit my right hand and knocked my phone. The phone did a double flip and half pike, landed on the jetty, bounced spectacularly and dived into the water!
The good news is that my phone had recently become difficult to charge and I was planning on replacing it once our boat spending spree was over and we had a bit of “spare” cash. I had also saved the vast majority of my photos on to a hard drive.
I was able to replace my phone at the local shops for a later model with a bigger screen and with the help of my ever patient son, managed to get all my apps back on and everything sorted.
Finally, on Sunday 7 June, we were able to leave Alimos Marina and head for the island of Poros. Tim, skipper of Polykandros came to see us out and after we had let go our forward mooring lines (attached to the marina bed) and about to let go our aft lines, Lucy dog came running up and leapt across onto our electronic gang plank just as I was raising it!
Poor Lucy got the shock of her life when Jonathan picked her up and manhandled back onto the quay. A moment later and we were away!
It was a strange and rather dramatic exit with no time for proper “goodbyes” but we know we will be seeing the Polykandros crew very soon, once their paperwork has been completed.