A powerful north wind can make your summer holiday at sea difficult, especially if you're voyaging around the Greek islands. Meet the Greek Meltemi: strong, dry, seasonal winds that appear all over the Aegean. We'll tell you how the Meltemi winds arise, when and where you might encounter them, and most importantly, we'll tell you what to look out for to ensure smooth sailing to the port.
What exactly is the Meltemi?
The Meltemi is a dry northerly wind that occurs from late May to late September, mainly in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, but it is at its most powerful in the summer months from June to August. During this period you’ll find your eyes full of sand, get body scrubs on the beach, won’t be able to go swimming and your sailing will be plagued by powerful waves and steering difficulties.
But it's not all bad, the Meltemi has its advantages too. If you've ever experienced Greece in summer when temperatures can exceed 40 °C, this refreshing wind can provide some respite from the heat and make your trip much more bearable. The Meltemi naturally cools the scorching landscape, relieving the heat-tormented locals and tourists alike. Plus, it is a perfect wind for doing water sports, such as windsurfing or kiteboarding.
The Meltemi was known to the ancient Greeks, but they called it the Etesian, or "annual wind," due to the fact it returned at the same time each year. It’s not entirely clear whether the current name Meltemi is derived from the Latin "mal tempo" (bad weather) or from the Turkish "meltem" (light breeze). If the latter were true, it’s
a kind of paradox that the Greeks now call this wind Meltemi, while the Turkish term for it Etezyen is actually derived from the original Greek word.
How powerful is the Meltemi?
Although the word “Meltemi” could have been derived from the Turkish word for “light breeze”, don't be fooled. This wind often blows with a force between 5 and 7 degrees on the Beaufort scale, but it can easily reach
a gale force of 9 degrees. In the straits between the islands, it has even been known to hit 11 degrees, i.e. more than 100 km/h. When this happens, shipping traffic stops and you’d have to properly secure your boat
in the hope it passes as quickly as possible.
The Meltemi is also unpredictable, appearing out of nowhere in clear skies, and can easily take sailors
by surprise. The key is to keep an eye on the weather forecast and, certainly for us, the Windy app has always worked well. Generally speaking, if the weather in Western Europe is warmer than usual in the summer, then you are significantly more likely to encounter Meltemi winds when sailing in Greece. However, if it's a cooler summer in Western Europe with plenty of rainfall, your voyage in the Aegean should be much calmer.
If the Meltemi does take you by surprise on your trip, it is definitely useful to know how it varies in strength throughout the day. In the morning, the Meltemi is generally just a light wind that blows at about 11–16 knots. During the day it speeds up to around 22–27 knots. In the afternoon and evening, the wind tends to be at its most powerful before dying down again at night. Despite this, the power of the Meltemi is almost limitless, and it can sometimes blow at around 50 knots, which is 10 or more degrees on the Beaufort scale.
As we’ve already mentioned knots and the Beaufort scale, let's remind ourselves what exactly we can expect from each degree. Every skipper must know this scale by heart, because it allows them to make an informed decision of when to sail and when not to sail, for example, if it would make the voyage too dangerous or beyond the crew's strength.
Since the captain is responsible for the crew, their decision should be considered sacred and respected by everyone. However, you may encounter the familiar "...but come on, captain, we can give it a go...". And it is
at times like this, that the chart can serve as a reference to the crew, who you can then ask whether they would really like to sail in breaking waves and strong headwinds.
Sea like a mirror.
Ripples with the appearance of scales are formed, but without foam crests.
Small wavelets, still short but more pronounced. Crests have a glassy appearance and do not break.
Large wavelets. Crests begin to break. Foam of glassy appearance. Perhaps scattered white horses.
Small waves, becoming longer, fairly frequent white horses.
Moderate waves, taking a more pronounced form, many white horses are formed. Chance of some spray.
Large waves begin to form, the white foam crests are more extensive everywhere. Probably some spray.
Sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind.
Moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests begin to break into spindrift. The foam is blown in well marked streaks along the direction of the wind.
High waves. Dense streaks of foam along the direction
Very high waves with long overhanging crests.
Exceptionally high waves (small and medium sized ships might be lost for a time behind the waves). The sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam lying along the direction of the wind. Everywhere,
118 and more
64 and more
The air is filled with foam and spray. sea completely white with driving spray, visibility very seriously affected.
Where do we encounter the Meltemi?
The Meltemi occurs mainly over the Aegean Sea. It is strongest in the the Cyclades, the northern Sporades and the Dodecanese. In the vicinity of the Cyclades, it normally reaches between 7–8 degrees on the Beaufort scale. If high pressure forms over the Peloponnese, the Ionian Islands or Albania, combined with a pressure drop from the northeast, it can become a very unpleasant and dangerous companion. If this occurs, it is not only sailing ships and small boats that don’t sail, but even large ferries.
Generally, the Meltemi flows from the north, but we also encounter it flowing from the northwest or northeast - the wind hits dozens of islands or promontories in the Aegean Sea, shifting and influencing its direction. In the northern Aegean near the Dardanelles, the wind blows from north to northeast, in the central Aegean it blows from north to northwest, and in the south it is mostly northwesterly.
On land, you will encounter the Meltemi mainly on the eastern coast of Greece or on the Greek islands. Due to their rugged nature, there can be unbearable winds on one beach yet just a few hundred metres away, on the leeward side, no wind at all. This fact should be taken advantage of, especially when anchoring.
What to do when the Meltemi blows?
The Meltemi can trap you for an afternoon, but sometimes it blows continuously for a week. In this case, it is very important to choose the right anchorage in accordance with good maritime practice and safe anchoring rules, to ensure the safety of the boat and the crew get a sound sleep.
If bad weather and powerful winds are approaching, every skipper should seek a safe anchorage on the leeward side of the island. When anchoring, you must think not only about the strength of the wind, but also about its effect on the sea (the swell). When the wind causes the sea to swell with two-metre high waves or more, and your bay is not fully protected, it is likely that the sea will be moving quite a bit, making anchoring uncomfortable or even dangerous. Sleeping soundly is then out of the question. Keep in mind that if the waves are raging around you, being leeward side of a small rock relief will not offer protection.
Every skipper should be able to avoid this by getting to a safe leeward anchorage! Otherwise, there is nothing to do but pray, and try to protect the boat and crew as much as possible with fenders and proper mooring. Unfortunately, it is quite common for boats to get destroyed in port this way.
If the Meltemi is blowing and you are still planning to set sail from your mooring, you have to take it into account and plan the whole manoeuvre in detail so as to avoid unpleasant experiences such as scrapes to the sides of the boat, coiled mooring ropes and similar joys.
How to sail when the Meltemi is blowing?
Before any sailing trip, the sailor should first check the detailed weather forecast – especially what the wind will be like. Only thorough and careful preparation can ensure a pleasant voyage that doesn’t turn into a fight for survival. If you have a crew made up of experienced seafarers, with the Meltemi at its usual strength, it won't be of concern, but if you’re lacking experience, you definitely need to clearly understand what you as captain and crew are capable of dealing with safely.
When the Meltemi gathers strength, the Aegean Sea really undulates, and just swimming at a windward beach can become a real adrenaline rush. In the open sea, the waves always have more room to grow in height. And it is these waves that are unpleasant and treacherous in the Meltemi. Once the wind picks up, due to the combination of pressure below and above, the waves can reach an average height of four metres, and this can unsettle even the most experienced sailor.
The Meltemi should also be taken into account when steering and navigating. If you want to sail south, this can be done quite easily in a milder Meltemi. If you and your crew don't mind the waves, you can sail on a nice tailwind and even reach your destination ahead of time with the Meltemi at your back.
However, when you want to head back north, this could be quite troublesome for a novice sailor, as in this direction you’d have to sail continuously against the wind. But the truth is that sailing upwind should not be underestimated in any direction, even by an experienced skipper. In general, if you are not experienced enough, consider hiring an experienced captain for the first part of the voyage to train you in sailing during the Meltemi. Doing it this way, you will gain experience and confidence.
Which Meltemi to avoid?
Sailing in a more powerful Meltemi requires experienced vessel management. If the forecast is predicting a stronger Meltemi at the time of your holiday, especially off the Cyclades, we strongly recommend that you reconsider the plan of your voyage and change your itinerary. For example, when sailing from Athens, try the islands in the Saronic Gulf - Hydra, Slaminu, Aegina or Poros - instead of the wind-threatened Cyclades. These are also ideal for novice sailors transitioning from sailing in Croatia but want to face new challenges. Here you will find calm seas, ancient monuments and some fantastic taverns. When sailing from Mykonos, you can find an alternative route to the small Cyclades islands of Iraklia, Schinoussa and Koufonisia, where you will discover beautiful turquoise seas.
Always take into account the winds when returning the boat to the charter company, as returning north into strong winds will slow you down considerably, even when motorsailing. At the same time, remember that a genoa or foresail will often give you better stability in the waves.
If you go to the Aegean Sea at a time when the Meltemi reigns supreme, you will almost certainly encounter it. Its strength, as with other winds, is determined by situations that change from moment to moment. If the Meltemi is mild, you should be fine sailing in it under normal conditions, but for a quiet family holiday with children we would still recommend choosing the western part of Greece in the Ionian Sea, where you can enjoy a classic Greek holiday full of beautiful churches, olive trees, turquoise sea and amazing cuisine.