The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

The Eastern Mediterranean Sea: Egypt to Turkey

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
January 21st, 2020

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather cruised the Red Sea, exploring the coast of Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. This segment of their world cruise sees them exploring countries along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.

Near the end of an 8000 NM one year odyssey from Australia, we continued via countries often in the throes of unrest: Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. In spring 2003 we felt there was a window of opportunity to visit despite traditional conflicts.

Exiting the Suez Canal and entering the Mediterranean Sea spelled the end to a seventy-three day, 1383 NM passage up the Red Sea. We were approximately two thirds through a circumnavigation and looked forward to some less challenging passage making.  We also planned a recess and intended to leave the yacht in Turkey for the winter and return to Canada. The Mediterranean was familiar ground. Heather and I had each spent almost a decade in Europe visiting many Mediterranean countries. We had not, however, visited the Middle Eastern or African countries which border this largest of European seas. As we set out from Egypt, we chose ports of call which included some of those perhaps less frequented by cruisers.

May 30, 2003 saw us depart Africa for South West Asia. Despite the ongoing Gulf War Two, strife in the Levantine was at an all-time low so we chose Ashkelon, Southern Israel as our first port.  Tel Aviv is about 27 NM to the north of Ashkelon; the Palestinian Gaza Strip to the south only 8 NM. Ramallah, part of the Palestinian Territory on the West Bank, is about 100 km by road to the northeast. Once we had cleared a large fleet of fishing trawlers, it was an uneventful overnight passage of 132 NM.

Welcomed by an Israeli Navy gunboat.

June 1 mid-morning, a full-on intercept by an Israeli Navy gunboat gave us clearance to enter Israel. Arrival protocol for Israel is rigid.  We knew that the Israeli Navy could be expected to make contact on VHF 16 about 25 miles out. We took the initiative and made contact and were subsequently identified on radar. What followed was an extensive series of questions concerning the usual details: nationality, vessel type, home port, port of departure and purpose of visit. We were then vectored onto a dog leg north before we were allowed to turn inbound to Ashkelon, which added an extra hour to the passage. As we closed with the coast, we were told that we could expect to be intercepted by a patrol vessel.  The vessel soon made VHF contact as it approached us head-on at high speed, kicking up a huge bow wave. We were advised that we would be approached for close inspection. The vessel slowed and with several guns trained on us, circled and looked us over. Finally, they eased away and transmitted “Argonauta I, welcome to Israel”.

The Israeli Naval vessel withdrew at speed and we tied up at the Ashkelon Customs dock by midday. Our documents were checked and we were asked to leave the yacht while a couple of alert looking officials inspected below using sniffer equipment. They raised no objection to flares, but we assumed they would be looking for weapons and drugs. Satisfied we were benign, they moved us to a full service marina slip.

Later we realized what the northerly vector was all about. As we approached the coastline, we could make out what appeared to be a drilling rig. The vector took us well clear of what at the time was a natural gas exploration project. A year later in 2004, the area became the Noa natural gas field.  With more discoveries, this led to what is now referred to as the Israeli Gas Revolution, where Israel became self-sufficient in natural gas.

We were glad we stopped off in Israel. David rubbed shoulders with many young Sabras (Israeli born), several of whom were ex or active soldiers. He found their uninhibited company dynamic and exciting. It was routine to encounter young people in uniform wandering around with an M16 assault rifle slung over the shoulder. Guns were everywhere, even in a supermarket where we shopped. Heather, a retired teacher, was surprised to see parent volunteers carrying weapons accompanying class trips.

The Western Wall holy site.

Once we recovered from the Red Sea, we hired a car and hit the road. It was easy to drive around. At the time there were few checkpoints and of course, no Wall. We did not consider approaching Gaza!  Jerusalem is a beautiful city, all monochromatic golden sandstone. We strolled the narrow arched streets of the Old Town whose merchants seem to be hurting even more than those in Egypt. There were very few tourists in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and so its sacred sites were virtually deserted. There was extremely strong security at the Western Wall. We spent a morning at the Israeli National Museum where an articulate volunteer walked us through Judaic history.

Down to the Dead Sea.

We drove on via the West Bank through Palestinian administered areas such as Jericho, and then stayed at a Kibbutz/resort with a pool to die for and the tastiest food we found in Israel. At a Dead Sea beach some 1300 feet below sea level, we lathered ourselves with magic mud and naturally, we had to float in the water: 35% salt vs the normal 3.5%; water very greasy and slow to dry.

Dead Sea beach walk with armed civilian.

A Palestinian attack on an Israeli soldier in Gaza heralded a relapse into continuing strife. We returned to the marina to learn of an Israeli reprisal attack on Hamas. The attack helicopter holding point was over the marina and when the Israeli spotter on the ground targeted a vehicle in Gaza, they moved in using Hellfire missiles. We could see things were getting worse by the hour so clearly it was time to get out of ‘Dodge’!

With intensifying conflict in our wake, we left on June 11 for Limassol, Cyprus.  A favourable WSW wind gave us a fast two night passage and an early morning arrival at St Raphael Marina.  The marina is well‑protected but tie-up unbelievably complex: a spaghetti of lines just beneath the surface secured to the bottom. This was our first encounter with med-mooring. There was little maneuvering room. We were neophytes at the technique, and thus embarrassed ourselves with our ineptitude. Visualize a stern-to approach turning into a bow-in with much arm waving and shouting from the dock master! We avoided fouling submerged lines with keel and prop and did not collide with other vessels, but made every other mistake. An instructive experience!

Experienced  locals back in all the way from the freeway and then in neutral, coast backwards  into the slip, picking up fixed bow lines  with a boat hook on the way in. The procedure looks easy but we were definitely unprepared for the intricacy of using a boat hook to grab semi submerged lines. Since most Mediterranean marinas do not have side floats, local yachts were equipped with a boarding bridge called a passerelle d’embarquement or simply a passerelle. The device can be deployed from either bow or stern, which gives the crew a choice of which way to dock. We would have one built for us during our next haul out as it was obvious we needed to be properly equipped.  Indeed, many marinas or town docks did not provide anchored docking lines, thus yachts relied on just the anchor.  In fact, as we gained experience, marinas or town docks without docking lines became our preference, as dropping our anchor while backing in provided more directional control, as we did not have a bow thruster.

Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa church.

We took two bus tours rather than renting a car. This gave us the advantage of a knowledgeable guide and the chance to relax. There are some archeological sites to rival Greece and Turkey: remarkable Byzantine mosaics at Pafos; the birthplace of Aphrodite on a spectacular coastal drive. Inland there was the magnificent scenery of the Troodos Mountains, reminiscent of the Black Forest in southern Germany.  We ate the wonderful dips: tzaziki, tarasalamata, hommous, stuffed grape leaves and kebabs.

Byzantine mosaics at Pafos.

June 19, 2003 we departed Cyprus for the 192 NM passage to Kemer, Turkey. The two night passage was routine with little wind.  On June 20, 2003, we were greeted by the craggy Taurus Mountains looming out of the early morning haze above the small town of Kemer on the western shore of Antalya Bay. Arrival went smoothly and with help from the docking staff, we were soon stern-to the quay. We had chosen Kemer Marina, with its full service boatyard and haul out facility, as we intended to leave Argonauta I on the hardstand. It was time for us to take a break and return to Canada, after some 17 months away from home.

Of course, the boat was heavily laden with equipment, domestic impedimenta and necessary luxuries such as books. It was interesting to note with relief the things we had not needed: malaria medication, life raft, emergency rations, sea anchor and the video necessary to deploy it, medical kit with its catheters and tourniquets, rig cutter; almost a complete stock of Imodium. Now we faced the onerous task of weeding, packing, and mailing at least some of it. There was NO leftover wine and the scotch had been traded for Kraft Dinner back in the Red Sea.

Secure in Kemer Marina, we could look back on what had been the longest unbroken stretch of our west-about circumnavigation.  Townsville, Australia at latitude 19 15 South, Longitude 146 49.4 East to Kemer, Turkey at latitude 36 34 North, Longitude 30 31.7 East represents west bound progress of just under one‑third the distance around the globe. We had moved from within The Tropic of Capricorn to well north of The Tropic of Cancer. It was about 17 months since we had departed Canada on January 29, 2002 to begin this odyssey.

David flew back to Canada June 25. He had joined us twice: in Australia from Port Douglas to Darwin and again from Phuket, Thailand to Kemer, Turkey. He had proven himself to be a good crew member and we valued his assistance both on passage and in port. With his flights and some 6000 NM on Argonauta I he had circled the globe by the time he reached home in Toronto. Not bad for a twenty‑year old!

Argonauta I hauled at Kemer, Turkey June 30, 2003.

Monday, June 30, we hauled the boat and July 5, flew back to Canada. The hull looked good; no osmosis! We looked forward to a recess, perhaps until March 2004. Then we would return to Kemer to continue westbound. Winters can be severe throughout the Med, so we planned summer cruises of three or four months until we regained the tropics. The first season would see us cruise the Greek Islands before continuing to Malta. We would then return to Africa, finally heading north to winter the yacht, this time in Southern France.


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