Sailing from Israel to Cyprus and back: A unique experience

There is something natural and ancient about using the wind, knowing you can go onto the water and go where you want.

 LEAVING ISRAEL behind, having just set sail from Tel Aviv Marina.  (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
LEAVING ISRAEL behind, having just set sail from Tel Aviv Marina.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Limassol Marina is quiet at night. 

It’s around three in the morning when we glide into the flat waters of the marina, passing a small green light on our right, marking the entrance. In the daytime, this light is on a kind of miniature lighthouse that sits atop the end of a kind of causeway made of concrete objects known as tetrapods. These are each as large as a person, with several concrete stumps sticking out, often used to stabilize coastlines or make breakwaters; in this case, acting as protection for the marina. 

We were sailing into the marina, which is a special way to approach Cyprus. A day and a half before, on a sunny day, we had left the Herzliya Marina for the 35-hour voyage. The wind, blowing at around eight knots – meaning it’s not too strong but not too weak for sailing – had propelled us across the sea for around 173 nautical miles. 

It had been a voyage that had kept us two nights on the boat, the first night spent somewhere off the coast of Israel, and now this night, which was bringing us into our welcome at Cyprus. But it was still not morning, so there would be no passport control until sunrise.

Berthing a boat in Cyprus is relatively easy, and costs can even be calculated online. The Limassol Marina is a modern facility, built a decade ago to accommodate up to 650 boats, including super yachts up to 110 m. in length. A few of these large yachts were in the marina when we arrived, looming over us as we searched for a spot to tie up the boat. 

 ABOARD THE vessel: The writer. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN) ABOARD THE vessel: The writer. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The marina was constructed so that the offices of the harbor police and marina operators are on a kind of central island, with marina-like spokes around it, and a road leading to the city. We tied up the boat on the side of the offices, only to be told by the police to move to the other side. They asked us to stay on board for the night. 

So I went downstairs, grabbed a sleeping bag, a hat, gloves and then went back on deck and snuggled in for the night. I had brought along one of those eye masks people wear on planes so that in case of a situation like this, I wouldn’t be bothered by any lights at night. It was somewhat cold because it was still March. 

Three hours later, I was awakened by a man in a blue windbreaker on a little rubber boat saying, “Reception is open.” 

Welcome to Cyprus. 

SAILING TO Cyprus from Israel is not common, and the trip takes long enough that it’s not exactly a pleasure cruise. 

I’d heard about the opportunity through the Yam Sailing School and Yacht Club in Tel Aviv, the same school where I’d studied sailing and received an Israeli skipper’s license in 2022. There are different levels of licenses in Israel; one of them is an international license that requires the skipper to make an international trip for more than several days. 

The Cyprus trip would be a good challenge and meet some of the requirements. Besides the desire for a license, I welcomed the idea of being at sea for several days as a kind of test. There’s something special about sailing – the freedom it accords those on the boat and also the feeling of being untethered to the modern life of noise and electronics; to be out on the water under wind power the way people have wrestled with the sea for thousands of years. 

Our crew was led by Roni Cohen, the founder of the sailing school, who runs the school along with his wife Lea and son Gal. There were six others. Eran Elster, the photographer. Yakir Sheli, a locksmith who is an expert in working with electronic car keys. Vladimir Mikalevsky, a doctor from Ashdod. And there was Ben Saban, who owns eyeglass shops, and Itzhik Ofer, rounding out our team. 

I’d never met any of the guys before, but everyone seemed ready to pitch in when we met in Tel Aviv on the morning of departure. Two men went off to stock up on supplies: mountains of paper towels and beer, as well as tomatoes, pasta, rice, eggs, eggplants and some cheese for several meals at sea. 

The sailboat, which is some 45 feet in length, is a Beneteau Cyclades. On deck, it has two wheels to steer it, so that one can sit on either side of the stern to steer. Next to the wheels are some instruments, such as a wind gauge and an autopilot button, along with a GPS that shows the position of the boat. There are two compasses that glow red at night. A narrow table, which can be opened to triple in size, is positioned between two areas to sit. Those areas are just long enough for someone to lie down to sleep. This area is called the cockpit.

At the front of the cockpit are two winches and a series of ropes that connect to parts of the main sail. From here, one can raise the main sail, let it out so that it catches the wind in different ways, and trim it. If the weather had been warmer and we weren’t trying to make good time to Cyprus, the crew could have stretched out and relaxed on areas of the ship near the bow and gotten a tan. Instead, we spent most of our time crowded together near the table, either watching the autopilot to make sure we were on course, or sitting and talking.

A sailboat offers cramped quarters for seven people, as we were. Six men shared three small cabins, and Roni stretched out in a sitting area next to the stove that forms the kind of living room of this place. There were several small toilets as well, which unless you had to go in them, were not inviting, especially with the boat rocking back and forth. If the experience of airplane toilets is not ideal, sailboat toilets, known as heads, are less ideal. But this is your home for most of a week, so it’s worth getting used to it. 

For some, the experience of sailing brings with it concern about seasickness. Being down below in the kitchen or cramped cabins is where people often say they experience getting sick, having to rush up on deck to puke. I’d never spent so much time crossing a sea on a boat, so I wondered in the beginning if I’d adjust. In my case, it was fine.

IF YOU leave Israel by air, you’re used to going through Ben-Gurion Airport. For sailors, the equivalent is Herzliya’s Marina, where there is a small passport control office. 

It’s located upstairs from a restaurant serving sushi, so you have to pass plates of exquisite dishes to get your passport checked. At that moment I wondered how much I would miss land-based restaurants. There’d be no sushi where we were heading in the heart of the sea. 

Leaving Herzliya, the path to Cyprus takes you on basically a beeline course 315 degrees heading almost north. It was a cloudy day. As the trip took us out to sea, Herzliya faded quickly into the background, yet some landmarks remained. The Hadera power station, with its large smoke stacks and flashing lights, kept us company for a while. 

Later, the gas fields off the coast of Israel came into view. The important development of energy infrastructure off the coast has been a major initiative for Israel. Last year, Israel and Lebanon signed a maritime agreement to demarcate a water boundary. Israel’s exclusive economic zone extends far out to sea, beyond the country’s territorial water which ends around 12 miles off the coast. The Karish field is some 50 miles off the coast. This is a reminder of how important and strategic this coastline is. 

Alexander the Great marched down this coastline in his campaign of 332 BCE to take Tyre, ending Persian domination of this part of the Mediterranean. In those days, ships consisted of Greek triremes that dominated Mediterranean warfare for hundreds of years. These ships would have been as long as 30 m., with up to 170 men rowing them. 

There were merchant ships as well. A reconstruction of one of these ships, a Kyrenia II, sailed 600 nautical miles from Piraeus to Cyprus in 1986 in 15 days on the water. In those days, the Greeks used square sails and did not have the more modern lateen or triangular-style sail. 

Rome took over areas of what is now Israel in 63 BCE, and later the port of Caesarea Maritima was built between 20 and 10 BCE. It dominated the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, making it a kind of Roman sea, referred to as Mare Nostrum, meaning “our sea.” Trade at this time saw the size of vessels grow, and their cargo also grow to hundreds of tons. 

Today the coastline is a bit different than 2,000 years ago. The ports are different, such as Haifa or Ashdod, and of course, Lebanon is divided from Israel, whereas in centuries past, the borders would have been different.

Similarly, on the other side of our journey, the port of Limassol is part of a city that flourished after the Crusaders fought over Cyprus in the 12th century. It was badly damaged when the Ottomans conquered the island in the 16th century. New schools were opened in the 19th century, and electricity came to the city in 1912. 

SAILING ACROSS the sea to Cyprus is a singular experience because for a day, all that surrounds the boat is water. 

It’s easy to lose track of time and also to wonder whether one is living in a kind of dream, floating along with no change in scenery. Perhaps one could just vanish out here, or go on for days with nothing around. 

There isn’t exactly nothing in the ocean. Although the birds vanish as one leaves the coast, and there is no evidence of fish or dolphins, there are large container ships plying the trade routes. These come and go across the horizon, sometimes passing disconcertingly close. These might be 300 m. or longer, and if they were close to a sailboat they would tower over it. You’re just a speck in the sea compared to these leviathans. 

 ARRIVING AT Limassol Marina. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN) ARRIVING AT Limassol Marina. (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

There are rules that govern navigation and ships to prevent two boats from colliding. These take on more importance at night because a small sailboat is not easy to see then. Small red and green lights at the bow indicate which way a boat is traveling (green on the right or starboard side, red on the left or port). 

Larger ships carry several white lights, so it can be determined how long a ship is and where it is going. But this is not an exact science; by the time a large ship is close enough to see its lights, a keen eye must be used to determine what is the best course of action. In this sense, not much has changed on the high seas in decades or hundreds of years. 

Technology is deceptive. There is no phone service at sea, and one is at the mercy of the elements as seafarers would have been long ago. It gives one immense respect for those who must have embarked on journeys like the Vikings or Columbus, sailing into the unknown toward what for them was a new world, far away. 

Perhaps they would never come back, sailing forever until their water and food ran out. Ferdinand Magellan, who first circumnavigated the globe, set out with 270 men on a fleet of ships; only 19 returned three years later. Magellan died on the trip. In the age of trade and exploration, millions died from scurvy at sea due to lack of vitamin C. 

As we sailed toward Cyprus, with nothing but water around us, eventually the island’s presence could be felt in the distance. It was night, but there was a sense of something looming, a line of clouds far in the distance swaddling the mountains of Cyprus. The tallest mountain on Cyprus, Mount Olympus, is almost 2,000 m. high. 

Eventually, we could make out lights and the Akrotiri Bay that surrounds Limassol. On one side of the bay is the Akrotiri air base, home to Royal Air Force units, a throwback to when Britain ruled the island. The red lights that lead to an approach to a runway can be seen from the water. 

Even though the lights were in the distance, we still had hours of sailing ahead of us. The wind tends to drop a bit after sunset, and we found ourselves forced to use the engine to propel us forward. At sea, you run the engine every few hours to charge the batteries. A boat uses batteries for a variety of things, such as to run a fridge and the autopilot that helps keep the boat on course. A person could also man the wheel at all times, but it’s easier to maintain a course rather than have human error always moving the wheel a bit back and forth. 

For long journeys, the autopilot doesn’t eliminate the necessity of having people on watch at night, but it keeps the boat steady. As long as the wind remains from the same direction, the sail should go well. In our case, we had relatively consistent winds to Cyprus. On the way back they were more chaotic.  

Sailing at night has its other delights. Constellations, such as Orion and the Big Dipper, loom larger. It becomes apparent why the ancient navigators were able to navigate using the stars. While sitting on deck from one in the morning until sunrise, my favorite time, I let my mind wander and think back to all my favorite films about the sea. In the old days, when the night watch was divided up between men on British ships, there would be a bell every half an hour, eight bells for a four-hour watch. I thought back to those bells as I sat up, the minutes ticking by slowly, with only darkness around. Give me something to do, I thought, ships lights in the distance, something to keep me occupied. 

Sailing can be a rigorous activity: letting out sails; tacking; pulling ropes and reducing the size of the main sail when the winds pick up by “reefing” it, basically letting it down so its triangular size decreases; or putting up a Gennaker sail, similar to a spinnaker, billowing off the bow to catch more wind. But often there is little to do if conditions are pleasant. And on our voyage, they were mostly pleasant. 

Getting ready to return to Israel

AFTER A night in Cyprus and a day spent touring, we prepared to return to Israel. 

We had to reprovision the boat, so I went shopping. We bought vegetables for a soup, and fixings for salad, as well as bread and beer. I’d brought along rum, so I grabbed stuff to make rum punches for the return trip. Rum seems like a natural drink for the ocean, since it has so much history tied to the Caribbean and the era of piracy. Some of my crew mates preferred Arak mixed with orange juice for brunch. Overall, we were well fed.

The trip back brought some surprises. When Cyprus faded in the distance, we had to navigate around two fishing vessels off the coast. We watched a large ferry pass us to the stern, heading southwest. When we finally got out of sight of Cyprus, the clouds moved in and rain threatened. I went down below and put on storm pants and a jacket, in case it came down heavily. Instead, the clouds just teased us. Pregnant with water, they moved off and left us instead with a kind of heavy air, thick but not quite fog. The air was so thick that we could barely see the gas platforms that marked our return. 

When we were 12 hours from the shore, we also expected to start seeing Haifa, which has a large navigation light on Mount Carmel that can be seen some 30 miles out to sea. Instead, I went to bed and awoke when we were off the coast near Hadera. We’d already arranged with the authorities that we were returning, meaning that the usually extra-cautious Navy didn’t come up to the boat to see who we were. At Herzliya, we waited for customs and passport control, and then three of the crew took leave, going ashore to head home. It was seven in the morning.  

From Herzliya, it is another hour and a half  back to Tel Aviv. The sun came out. The wind was blowing, and we unfurled our jib and put on the engine and slowly sailed back home. The remaining crew, four of us, were exhausted. It had been 36 hours on the water both ways, and another 36 hours in the marina of Limassol. Everyone wanted another shower and a normal bathroom and to be able to cook without the stove constantly sloshing back and forth, rolling with the water and the boat. We’d also run out of coffee. Clearly, we could not go on. 

OUR FIVE days at sea were short compared to what many endure on long voyages. 

Sir John Franklin, when he set off from England in the 19th century to find the Northwest Passage, put enough supplies on his two ships to sustain dozens of men for several years. Nansen, the Arctic explorer, purposely wedged his ship into ice and expected to stay years in the Arctic. His ship, The Fram, remained in ice from October 1893 to June 1896. 

It’s not clear how those men endured years in a ship stuck on the ice, but they did. We’d endured only a few days, and it was a welcome sight to be back on land. Nevertheless, the experience of using the water to go from country to country was exceptional.  

There is something natural and ancient about using the wind, knowing you can go onto the water and go where you want. The cultures of marine life are also simpler and more welcoming, with less of the bustle of airports. A different time dominates – a time that is more relaxed, slower, and also more pleasant. In our haste in life to always have things at our fingertips, such as smartphones, it is nice to get away from the 21st century and take a journey back in time a bit.

Returning to Israel by boat has other historic overtones. Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion first came to the country by boat.

What better way to arrive in the Land of Israel, the Holy Land, than the way pilgrims, pioneers and peoples have, for so long in history? 