Greece: Feeling the squeeze in the Corinth Canal

published in Escape, Sunday Star Times, August 9 2015

seadream in corinth canal

From a distance it’s a crack on the landscape. As we get closer, the Corinth Canal shows as a small opening in the coastline. From a few hundred metres off, it looks like an inlet with a ditch running inland.

It certainly doesn’t look as though a ship could pass through, and even as we enter the canal I have my doubts. As the eye is drawn along the length of the canal, it seems to narrow almost to nothing, although there is a small slit of light at the end.

A tug takes Seadream 1 in tow. We are one of the larger ships to transit the Corinth Canal, there are only a few metres clearance on either side, and we are not permitted to sail through under our own power. Smaller boats and yachts can make their own way, provided they have booked their passage and paid a fee. It’s a one-way system, for obvious reasons, and some waiting is involved.

The small cruise ship Seadream 1 is booked to pass through in the late afternoon. But we have to wait until night-time for yachts coming in the opposite direction to clear the canal, and a tug comes to pull us. By then, we pass through the canal whilst eating dinner at white-clothed tables on the deck. It’s an unusual experience, and strangely exciting. There is a feeling of being in a tunnel, but without a roof.  It might be claustrophobic but for the stars shining down and reflecting on the water.

dinner on the canal

The Corinth Canal connects the Adriatic Sea with the Aegean Sea, effectively cutting off the Peloponnese Peninsula at the bottom of Greece and turning it into an island. It is unusable for most modern ships and cruise liners, but for small cruise ships and private yachts it is a dream route for tourists sailing down the coast of Croatia then cutting through to the Greek islands (or vice versa).

Several cruise companies with ‘boutique’ ships make the transit of the Corinth Canal a feature of their itineraries. As we begin our crossing on Seadream 1, stewards pass around celebratory shots of raki, the strong local liquor, Greek music plays, and there is an attempt at Greek dancing from passengers. This is a five-star cruise which the Seadream company describes as “yachting not cruising”. In a mix of relaxed luxury, a multi-course multi-choice dinner is served on deck despite the fact we are half-way through this astonishing mini-canal.

The Corinth Canal was completed in 1893 but the idea for a crossing of the isthmus of Corinth goes back 2000 years. The ancients did not have the skills to build a canal but Periander, the Tyrant of Corinth, is credited with building, in about 600BC, a stone road with wheeled platforms which pulled ships overland between the two seas. Traces of the diolkos, or stone road, are visible today.

Eventually the canal was built between 1882 and 1893 by Greek and French engineers. It is dug at sea level, so no locks are needed, but currents and tides, as well as landslides from the walls, make it problematic at times for sailors and ships’ captains. In World War II, New Zealand troops were deployed, unsuccessfully, to protect the Corinth Canal during the failed defence of Greece.

A bridge spanning the canal was destroyed during the attempt to stop German troops taking the canal. Rebuilt, it is today a perfect bungy jumping spot and a popular viewing platform for watching ships squeeze through.

The Corinth canal is about 6.4 kilometres long, 25 metres wide at the top and 21 metres wide at the seabed, and the sides are up to 80 metres high. Seadream 1 is 14 metres wide.


Thanks to the Corinth Canal, the writer was able to combine two week-long itineraries. Seadream 1 departed from Venice, Italy, and sailed across the Adriatic to the Croatian coast, calling at Opatiji, Rab, Sibenik, Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia. After Kotor in Montenego, and Parga and Itea on the Greek mainland, the vessel took its 100 passengers and similar number of crew through the Corinth Canal to the Greek islands. Day-long stops were made at the islands of Hydra, Patmos, and Santorini, as well as at Kusadasi in Turkey. The passengers disembarked in Athens, Greece. The cost of each one-week itinerary on Seadream 1 and Seadream 2 (owned by Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club) begin at about NZ$7000 per person.



  1. Sounds enchanting!

  2. Sue Donovan says:

    This brings back happy memories of sailing our own yacht through the Corinth Canal–the most expensive canal to transit per metre in the world. I still remember the shock of the strong winds at the Aegean end–and the fact that no officials would help us to tie up, despite the gale force winds. Very typical of Greek public servants, I’m sorry to say.