‘Change is in the wind for Cyprus! It will come not from the politicians, but the people.’ ALIX NORMAN meets a woman who, after half a century of division, has achieved the impossible

On September 21, 2023, the impossible was achieved.

Setting out from Larnaca, sailing clockwise around Cyprus, one crew accomplished what nobody has done in over 50 years. A circumnavigation of the entire island.

The project was called Winds of Change. Spearheaded by IOC Young Leader Sophia Papamichalopoulos, it saw a crew of young Greek and Turkish Cypriots overcome every hurdle and surmount every bureaucratic nightmare to sail round the whole of Cyprus.

feature 3 the young crew

The young crew

The aim was to inspire positive change for the island’s future. To promote peace-building and foster dialogue. To challenge the youth of Cyprus to step outside their comfort zones.

And, in a triumph of public drive over political rhetoric, it succeeded.

For half a century, a circumnavigation has been impossible. If, for instance, you want to sail from Ayia Napa to Famagusta, you can’t. Nor can you set off from Latchi for Kyrenia. The minute you cross into disputed waters, you’re either politely turned back (if you’re an errant tourist), or face serious consequences – up to and including fines and imprisonment.

In short, we can’t sail round our own island. Unless we’re very, very determined…

An Olympic athlete turned surgeon, 33-year-old Sophia has long believed in the power of sport to unite. Where political efforts fail, athletic endeavours often succeed.

“The Cyprus problem seems to have become unsolvable,” says Sophia. “My personal opinion is that we have been stuck on the same narrative for so long that nobody is allowed to come up with creative solutions towards reunification or peace-building.

“But Winds of Change has proven that change is in the wind for Cyprus! And that it will come not from the politicians, but from the people.”

feature 3 the young crew aborad the valhalla

The young crew aboard the Valhalla

A competitive sailor in her youth, Sophia saw the sport as a medium for unification and peace. Inspired by the unity of North and South Korean athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, and bolstered by her position as an IOC Commission Member, an idea began to form…

“A full circumnavigation of Cyprus had not been completed for at least 50 years. So when I was appointed an IOC Young Leader, I knew now was the time to put the idea into action…”

While Sophia visited countless authorities and broke down door after door to ensure Winds of Change went ahead, the support team planned for every detail of the voyage, from inclement weather to forced survival in international waters.

A yacht was kindly lent to the team by local sailor Marcus Dimbleby. Funding from around the world flooded in. Quality Group Cyprus offered to sponsor the effort. Sailors from both communities pitched in with help and advice.

10 crew members aged between 19 and 34 (an equal mix of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, some of whom had never crossed a checkpoint before) were chosen and trained.

And with Sophia, her brother, and close friend Captain Nigel Davies at the helm, on September 18, 2023, The Valhalla finally set off from Larnaca Marina…

Sailing clockwise round the island, the crew passed Limassol, where the Episkopi Sailing Club had hoped to join them but were foiled by the approaching night. Then past ancient Paphos, and up the beautiful western coastline.

Rounding the point of Akamas on the following afternoon, they stopped briefly at Latchi. And then, as they sailed along the Karpasia Peninsula, a local captain on his boat joined them for a few hours.

Sharing cabins, working in shifts, and showering in sea water was a new experience for many of the crew. But the camaraderie, the togetherness and the sense of historic achievement inspired throughout.

“On the second evening, we stopped at Apostolos Andreas to watch the sunset between the keys,” Sophia recalls. “It was utterly magical! Amid the silence and beauty, it struck me that history had been made: that what we were doing could inspire young people to believe they could make a change to our island’s long-standing stalemate.

“Then, as we sailed across Famagusta Bay, I was again hit by emotion: this was my family’s home, a place I’d only ever seen from afar. I won’t lie, it was painful to see the ghost town from the water.”

Approaching Cape Greco, The Valhalla was once more in familiar waters. And, as the crew sailed back into Larnaca, a flotilla of boats (including a giant tug spouting water into the sky) celebrated their arrival.

“In total, the voyage took almost 70 hours,” says Sophia. “We set off on September 18 from Larnaca marina and arrived back on September 21, the International Day of Peace. And we did something that nobody had achieved in half a century: sailing 326.9 nautical miles clockwise around the island, within territorial waters.”

Several months on, the voyage is making waves in the international community.

feature 3 sophia has represented cyprus in both skiing and sailing

Sophia Papamichalopoulos

“Winds of Change has been presented at large international events such as the IOC Athletes Forum in Lausanne, and has directly engaged more than 2,000 people as far afield as Spain, UK, Switzerland and the Philippines,” says Sophia.

“Our crew members have become ambassadors for change, and have been invited to publicly speak about their experiences. And, later this year, at the Paris Olympics, a documentary will be released that charts everything from the many bureaucratic hurdles to the final success of this unique voyage.

“We set out,” Sophia adds, “to prove that this could be done; to inspire people to change the status quo. To demonstrate that, despite 50 years of stalemate, anything is possible if you focus not on the limitations but on change.

“This was a project of the people, not the politicians,” she concludes. “It shows us what we can achieve if our communities can collaborate in a common vision. Winds of Change is an example of how we worked together to achieve something everyone thought impossible.

“Nothing is impossible.”

For more information, visit the Instagram account @windsofchange_cyprus. To view the moving trailer for ‘Winds of Change’ documentary, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfvRI-UX9Ss