Unpublished Tour Guide stories: Sailing into paradise

The plan is to sail from Piraeus, through the Cyclades islands, towards Cyprus and then to Haifa, over 10 days, and deliver the boat to the club in Herzliya.

June 21, 2015 00:37

Fish (illustrative). (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

We were sailing through the night on a 37-foot yacht with a strong wind blowing from the stern. The main and forward sail were trimmed. The sound of the water was rushing underneath the boat as it glided over the dark swells, and swerved with the movement of the waves. Overhead the sky was a brilliant canopy illuminated by the stars. Holding the helm, I wrestled with the waves, and each time the boat lunged forward with the momentum of the wave, I would then readjust the direction of the bow to follow a course set by a guiding star. The boat rocked from side to side buffeted by the stiff breeze.

We were a group of six members of a club called Via Maris, all of us having qualified as skippers, and looking to expand our experience at sea. The course was to sail from Piraeus, through the Cyclades islands, towards Cyprus and then to Haifa, over 10 days, and deliver the boat to the club in Herzliya. Variations in the course would be dependent on prevailing winds.

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I was commissioned to stock the boat with food supplies in Piraeus, and subsequent supplies for fruit and vegetables would be refurbished along the way, when we docked to refuel and fill our tanks with fresh water. Essentially the crew had met briefly only once for an orientation meeting in Herzliya before flying to Greece. So aside from the challenges associated with sailing, it would be an interesting experience from a sociological point of view – sharing close living quarters over the next 10 days, and dealing with disturbed sleep patterns while sailing through the nights.

In addition to the sailing and navigational experience, my curiosity for the adventure was aroused by the visual landscape of the Greek islands and surrounding coastline. I carried with me a volume related to Greek mythology – and many of the characters in the stories originated from the nearby islands that we passed. My thoughts also contemplated the early Sea People, the Philistines, who traced their ancestry from the islands around the Aegean Sea and made their way by sailing boats to invade the southern coast of ancient Israel around 1200 BCE. Their journey also raised interesting questions regarding the provisions they would have carried and obtained along the way, and their navigational assistance.

After leaving Pireaus, our journey took us through the scattered set of islands known as the Cyclades – an important passage of the ancient trade route. We settled into a pattern of motoring and sailing between the numerous islands – depending upon the wind strength – the islands often sheltering the wind until we found open passages for sailing. We had a reassuring satellite forecast of reasonably good weather and made good headway over the first two days. When I was not steering or preparing food I was deeply immersed in my book of Greek mythology. We sailed past the islands of Mykonos, Naxos and Delos – the birthplaces of Apollo and Artemis, and the scene of interesting tales of Theseus and Dionysus. Our first landing, after 60 hours of sailing, was to arrive on the island of Symi, off the coast of Turkey.

Our boat entered the protected cove of Symi and we were greeted with a magical display of sparkling lights and gaily painted houses with attractive colorful facades facing onto a dock lined with coffee shops and restaurants – an enchanting tourist village.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner of Greek salad; tsatsiki – a yogurt dish with dill, cucumber and a garlic tang – grilled eggplant salad, roasted pita bread and grilled bream on a charcoal fire with lots of fresh lemon.

The next morning, we purchased baguettes from the local bakery, and supplied with cheese, some vegetables and water, we hiked up the hillside village behind the harbor – to explore the castle and church perched on the summit. Narrow alleys separated the pastel colored houses – two-story dwellings with French windows and delicate iron grill-work surrounding the protruding balconies – and from above we enjoyed the panoramic views of the coves and inlets of the island and surrounding deep blue colored water.

Inspired by the beauty of our surroundings, and with an overflow of enthusiasm for discovery, we descended through the village and climbed the opposite hill, to investigate the old rounded stone towers remaining from windmills located along a barren hilly ridge. Our vantage point exposed another cove, called Pedi – with its own anchorage. We then crossed back through the harbor and found an isolated swimming cove – to immerse ourselves in the refreshing clear water – located near a taverna, called Paradise, with an excellent kitchen and delicious menu. I was satisfied with the chickpea vegetable soup, and crusty bread accompanied with a glass of ouzo, while I waited for my delicious grilled sea bream, served on a bed of lettuce with baked potatoes, and squeezed lemon. Symi is like an idyllic fantasy, a picturesque movie set alongside the water for tourists who would like to indulge in a quaint Greek island village experience – complete with restaurants and summer fashion.

We set sail into the sunset, after snagging our anchor line on another boat’s submerged mooring chain – perhaps the volume of ouzo consumed on land had assisted in the relaxed manner by which the drama was resolved. The boat was navigated through a sea passage guided by lighthouse lights on rocky outcrops and further lights viewed from the Turkish mainland.

As we passed beyond the shelter of the nearby islands the wind picked up, and again the prevailing wind blew from behind our stern. The sails carried us forward to the accompanying sound of the lapping waves.

My shift was 10-12 p.m., and the wind increased in velocity – I had to redirect the sail position numerous times, to compensate between harnessing the wind strength and maintaining the direction of the course.

Holding the helm and combating with the waves in the darkness demanded focused concentration. The sky was filled with stars.

The boat rocked from side to side plummeting through the waves. Afterwards when I went to my cabin, I had difficulty falling asleep because of the excessive boat movement.

Then wind dropped and the engine was droning next door to my cabin. It seemed I had slept little when I was called upon to begin my next shift. It was a challenge to emerge from a short sleep, climb up the steps and land into the cockpit and function at 4 a.m. for another two hours.

The wind picked up in the early hours of the morning and the sea became stronger – holding the helm woke me from my sleepy trance and once again concentration was required to maintain a course.

Slowly, light illuminated a corner of the sky – and then streaked across part of the horizon – land masses became more evident – the dark colored water turned to a cobalt blue – and then it was back to bed for me.

The boat seemed to be tossing and turning more than me in my restless sleep. I dreamed I was a passenger in an open wagon hurtling out of control – the disastrous situation was about to reach a dangerous conclusion. When I woke up – the boat had stopped – clearly something had happened. I ascended to the deck, there was a Turkish missile boat blocking the passage of our boat, apparently there was a war exercise being conducted and our movement was being prohibited. I think it was fortuitous that at this stage we were flying a Greek flag and not an Israeli flag.

Over the next six hours our course was monitored by the Turkish boat – the ominous radio communication duel was between “sailing boat” and “warship” – and the outcome would extend our journey for a further six hours – another 15 km. through two-meter waves. Toward late afternoon the wind dropped and we cruised into the sunset between Greek islands and the Turkish mainland.

After 24 hours of sailing since our last port, late in the evening we entered our next land destination – Kastellorizo – a sheltered cove, amongst a collection of small islands, with an inviting harbor surrounded by gaily colored houses in complementary colors of joyful pastel. There were brightly colored fishing boats and a line of graceful yachts and sloops along the quay, and restaurant tables and chairs set out along the wharf.

Friday night dinner was blessed over ouzo – and a crusty fresh bread – grilled snapper and Greek salad. My taste for ouzo definitely improved during this trip. Later in the evening, music from the restaurant next door encouraged the proprietor to perform a traditional Greek dance. Despite his advanced age, he moved gracefully – his intricate footsteps were lightly placed and accompanied a sensitive facial expression – with outstretched arms swinging horizontally and elastic twisting legs – his body moved dramatically in rhythm to the music and embraced its spirit.

We left Kastellorizo on Saturday night, which was Erev Shavuot, and motored into the darkness, past the shelter of the islands.

The wind picked up and we raised the sails and the evening shifts at the helm began.

The sea had a 1.5-m. swell, and for the first time we were sailing into the wind, instead of having a prevailing wind from behind.

The boat plowed through the waves.

It is intriguing to share the knowledge that the early Sea People sailed along this passage in their search for sea trade routes and conquest. The earliest sea battles were recorded in the Temple of Luxor in Egypt during the time of Ramses III , around 1200 BCE – between the Egyptians and the Aegean Sea People – the latter were defeated and either in their retreat, or whilst employed as mercenaries by the Egyptians, they colonized the southern coast of ancient Israel – from Gaza along the coast to the sources of the Yarkon – and then became known as the Philistines.

We arrived late evening into the port of Paphos, Cyprus, after a further 24 hours of sailing. The following morning we visited a renowned archeological park located nearby – famous for the discovery of outstanding mosaic floors depicting stories of Greek mythology – dating from the 1st to 2nd century. It was fascinating to see pictorial representation of the legendary stories that I had just been reading. My companion, Rina, an archeologist, was extremely enthusiastic and systematic in her approach to the site – nothing was to be missed from the brochure – and everything to be found, as we combed the site and left not a stone unturned – including a beautiful Crusader church built on the ruins of an enormous Byzantine basilica with detailed floor mosaics from the earlier period. Lunch under a grapevine arbor provided an intimate respite from information overload, while enjoying a variety of local salads including halloumi cheese, stuffed grape leaves, tsatsiki and sampling the local beer.

Sailing from Paphos to Haifa takes about 30 hours. Darkness descended as we left the harbor, and the wind velocity seemed to improve. My shift was from 12-2 a.m., and once again I wrestled with the helm to hold a course with 1.5-m. swells. We were on the homeward journey. The following evening, we spotted the lights of Mount Carmel during my shift, and there was an increase in maritime traffic with a corresponding increase in our raised vigilance. The weather that morning was warm and moist from the dew. I was woken again around 4 a.m., and felt very drowsy. The Israeli customs in Kishon Marina, Haifa, wanted to identify me for passport control. The formalities were short and I fell asleep again.

When I awoke, the day was already warm – the breeze was short-lived. We were sailing south along the Carmel coastline towards Herzliya, and it was reassuring to view the familiar coastline. We stalled the boat and dived overboard to swim in the refreshing turquoise water. Progressively, Herzliya came into sight, we entered the protective breakwater at the entrance to the marina and a reception committee awaited our arrival. The journey had ended.

The writer is a licensed tour guide and can be reached at [email protected]

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