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The island-hopping circus crew reimagining a life at sea

The Sea Clowns journey from port to port, bringing their unique act with them wherever they dock. For the ocean-dwelling collective, it’s part of a mission to spread knowledge and laughter, all while remaining committed to an unshackled, freewheeling existence.

The sun is burning brightly over the crystal waters of the Ionian Sea as three small boats appear on the horizon. They’ve been trying – and failing – to link up ever since they set sail from their respective winter resting places. Sailing without engines and placing themselves at the mercy of the fickle winds, it’s been a grueling week for the three crews of the Sea Clown Sailing Circus: stopping in safe harbours only at midnight, then casting off at the first break of light. But now the three brightly painted vessels have united at last, a few nautical miles out from their final destination, the island of Paxos. The mood is ecstatic.

Valkirie, painted with blue spirals, weaves between the other two boats, passing so close that the crews can throw tambourines and other musical instruments to each other – which they all begin to play together frantically, hollering as they do so. As Paxos’ small port comes into view, the three vessels race to reach its small mouth first, which works out like a nail-biting game of nautical chicken. After managing to avoid grounding on the seabed or colliding with the huge rocks stacked to protect the port, the three boats tie up and their clown crews disembark. As they begin unloading trumpets, accordions, unicycles and juggling equipment, the puzzled looks on the faces of the locals reveal they’re not quite sure what to expect from this motley band of sailors. But then, neither do the clowns themselves.

For the last 15 years, the Sea Clown Sailing Circus has been following whichever path the winds take it. Each summer, a group of around 20 performers – acrobats, musicians, clowns and jugglers – set sail to perform free shows for locals and tourists on islands across the Aegean and Ionian Seas. From port to port, they never fail to make an impression, drawing huge crowds to their seaborne circus spectacular.

The collective is based in Greece but its roots go back decades and extend across the Atlantic Ocean, with co-founders hailing from Uruguay and the United States. Fred Normal, for instance, was born in Alaska. As soon as he was able, he joined a small “home-made circus” that travelled the length and breadth of America in cars, buses and trucks, performing in major cities such as Chicago, New York and Seattle.