Discovering the Eastern Mediterranean - Blue Water Sailing (2023)

The Eastern Med Yacht Rally opens the doors to the wonders of the "cradle of civilization" (posted March 2013)

In the spring of 2011, while enjoying the quiet life on board in Turkey, we were transfixed by the news of the development of the Arab Spring. We were staying in Kemer, in southern Turkey, and the shores of the Mediterranean in the Middle East and North Africa were only a few hundred miles away. In fact, we had sailed to many of those countries just a few months earlier, in the summer of 2010, when we took part in the East Mediterranean Yacht Rally (EMYR). Looking back, we're glad we completed the ride when we did. In 2012 we would have faced a very different political climate that would have added a new dimension of challenges to the cruise.

The EMYR consists of two segments: the Turkish coast, which starts in Istanbul in the Aegean Sea, runs through western Turkey and ends in Alanya in southern Turkey; and the international segment, which starts in Alanya and calls in to Northern Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, with plenty of sailing and sightseeing along the way. The rates are reasonable and they take care of all port planning, tours and paperwork for entry and exit. We only took part in the international part, so we joined the rally in Alanya, about 200 miles from Marmaris, where we docked.

The weather on the way to Alanya had called for 15 to 25 knots on the open sea and some rough spots were expected. Coming out of Marmaris bay we had some nice gusts of wind and by the end of the afternoon the wind was steady at 20+ knots across. With the genoa and mizzen up, Three Rivers sailed well at 8 knots under a beautiful sky. The Mediterranean was a brilliant turquoise blue, glistening with white capers, and it was pleasant sailing until the waves began to build, and when the wind changed and put us in a dead end, the rolling seemed unbearable.

On the third day we arrived just in time in Alanya. The town's fortress loomed dramatically in the rising sun, with low clouds and morning mists it was an impressive scene, only heightened by our joy at reaching our first port. We registered with the EMYR organizers and received our rally package with detailed information about the rally, t-shirts, bags and flags. We met our designated group and were introduced to other members of the rally. There were over 70 EMYR yachts in the marina representing many different nationalities and the boats that docked next to us were full of Italians and Australians.

The first port we called in was Girne, Cyprus, about 160 kilometers from Alanya. We sailed at 4 knots with 10 knots downwind for a few hours before starting the engine, as we had to reach Girne right on time. On the open sea the waves started to build up and we heard that a storm had passed earlier resulting in big uncomfortable rolls. We stood watch for three hours and held out well due to increased risk of collision while sailing in close company with a large convoy. At one point we passed a ship that was off course and had to swerve to avoid collision.

We had a great time in Cyprus before sailing back to Mersin in Turkey. Mersin is a large city with a well-developed promenade. A 15-minute walk from the old town has many things that are sold cheaply, including fresh produce, fish, meat and pastries. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice costs 70 cents.

We took a bus tour for some sightseeing and found the area steeped in history, with many well-preserved ruins dating back to the Hellenic period. At Narlikuyu we visit the famous limestone caves of Heaven and Hell which are located deep in the belly of a mountain near the sea. An underground river flows through the Hell Well and empties into the sea at Narlikuyu. The fish from this bay, less salty than the Mediterranean, is renowned for its taste, and we were treated to a delicious lunch in one of the seaside restaurants.

The trip to Syria was especially interesting. Syrian security requires the yachts to follow a specific route and to remain at sea for at least six miles. We then had to make a 90 degree course change which placed us directly in the city harbor under the watchful eye of the Syrian Navy. After two hours we settled into our berth in Latakia harbour, dropped a stern anchor and sailed through other yachts.

Syria is the cradle of civilization and a crossroads where east and west meet. Here was the last stronghold of the Crusaders, as well as a place with 5,000 years of continuous history that was an independent country for only a few generations. We found Latakia to be a boring town with uniformly dilapidated buildings from the 1960s. However, Christians and Muslims lived side by side here in harmony.

But you mainly come to Syria to visit historical sites, many of which date back to Roman times. We joined EMYR bus tours and traveled inland over barren mountains to visit the Lost City in Idlib, where an impressive Roman city was built and then suddenly abandoned. We visited Crac Des Chevaliers (Crusader Castle), the last castle held by the Crusaders against the Muslim tide. Almost intact, the castle is an astonishing feat of architecture and engineering.

Further south we went to Damascus, which claims to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. We stroll through the grand bazaar in the center of the old city and visit the Umayyad Mosque. The next day we cross the vast Syrian desert to visit Palmyra, a metropolis built on a desert oasis in the 3rd century AD. C., which flourished until the ambitious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome's rule. A persistent desert wind blew through the yellow sand and in the shade it was 35 degrees Celsius. More than two millennia ago, a kingdom flourished in the oasis and built a majestic Roman city. The carefully constructed columns and arches still stand under the same eternal blue sky and blazing sun.

The weather forecast promised moderate winds of 15 to 20 knots from the southwest, in the wrong direction. Such is sailing, so we set out early in the afternoon to ride the wind for the 100-mile journey. We sailed upwind at 6 knots in choppy seas before the wind fell almost straight ahead; we started the engine and sailed under the engine against increasingly choppy seas and a rough current.
Our large displacement Nauticat traversed the rough seas with no problem and the autopilot worked faithfully. We experienced the rough side of the Mediterranean, an annoying shortcut that builds quickly, similar to the waters of our Lake Erie home. The waves washed over the foredeck from time to time and crashed over the windows of the wheelhouse. Inside, however, we were relatively comfortable and the cabin remained dry. We made our usual night watches and kept a close eye on the yachts around us, some sailing while others went back and forth.

Beirut is known as the "Paris of the Middle East", and Lebanon is a modern, well-developed country with many world-class ports and beautiful cities. Despite its war-torn past, Beirut is attractive with a beautiful waterfront and an elegant downtown area where luxury cars flitted along the highways.

Sheltered by high mountains and tempered by sea breezes, the climate here is cooler than the desert-influenced regions of southern Turkey and Syria. Apartment buildings filled the hills overlooking the harbor, and at night residential lights lit up the evening sky and glinted on the water.

We went on tours and visited some famous sites including Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley. We almost expected rocket launchers to point at Israel, but all we saw were people peacefully going about their business. Known as the "City of the Gods", the Roman Temple of Baalbeck is the largest Roman temple ever built. It took more than 100 years to build and after two millennia much of the temple is still standing.

Sailing to Haifa, Israel was also quite interesting. Finally we had fun sailing into the wind between 5 and 7 knots, with all three sails up and out. Once we entered Israeli territorial waters, we came under the watchful eye of a naval warship, pilot boats and a helicopter.

A naval vessel surrounded each yacht, identified the yacht from the EMYR list and radioed the yacht for further confirmation of crew details. When this was completed, any yacht was allowed to change course to enter Israel. When we were two miles from the port of Haifa, we were intercepted by another patrol boat with police and immigration authorities to verify our identity. We were ordered to surrender our passports by throwing them into a fishing net held by an Israeli officer. After extensive checking, we got our passports back in the same interesting way.

The sailing trip to Egypt was EMYR's most demanding leg. It was crossing a dangerous stretch of water filled with oil rigs, fishing boats and the busy entrance to the Suez Canal, so we decided to leave Three Rivers in Haifa and board another vessel. The sailing to Port Said, Egypt started in beautiful conditions under sunny skies and flat seas. Of the 70 yachts originally with EMYR, many had decided not to continue to Egypt, so only 38 yachts were on this voyage. Along the way, we pass several hazards, including an oil rig and a floating oil drum, and encounter a long line of fishing boats, some with lights, some without. At one point we counted a hundred ships on the radar.

The procession to Port Said, the terminus of the Suez Canal, had been pre-arranged with canal officials and the EMYR yachts were to form a circle at 5:30 am. M. At that time, commercial traffic to Suez was temporarily suspended and the 38 yachts lined up at the entrance to the canal, 50 meters apart. That was the plan. However, due to various delays, all yachts had to wait outside the harbor for several hours, some at anchor and others slowly circling in rough seas. After five hours of waiting and tossing and turning, it all worked out, and at 10:00 am the time had come. m., we were safely moored at the wharf at Arsenal Basin; a secure area normally used for commercial vessels.

The EMYR ended in Herzliya, Israel. The marina there was beautiful and we stayed there for almost a month while taking land cruises to visit Jerusalem and Jordan. Finally we had to go back to Turkey, a 300 mile passage in the open sea.

Once Israel's coastline and skyscrapers sank below the horizon, there was nothing but a vast sea of ​​endless shades of indigo dotted with white caps, beneath a friendly sky with a few patches of cotton clouds. We were really alone now, unlike EMYR, where we always sailed in the company of other boats and our position was always known and regularly updated with the team.

We managed to navigate about halfway and power the rest. The wind was fairly steady at around 10 knots from the northwest and blew 200 miles this side of the Mediterranean. It was an uncomfortable journey withThree Riverson two meter waves and after our break in Israel it took us a while to get our legs back into the sea. By the third night, with the Turkish coast only 50 miles away, the wind direction changed to the west and across. The sea was also much calmer which made sailing easier as the full moon shone through the cloudless sky illuminating the sea behind us, a perfect way to end our 2400 mile sailing odyssey.

Ben and Eliza left their suburban lives in Ontario, Canada, three years ago and are now cruising aboard full timeThree Rivers, a 1986 Nauticat 43 ketch pilothouse. They started from Turkey and slowly worked their way west to the Balearic Islands before deciding to return east to Sicily to spend more time in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are currently enjoying the mild winter in Licata, Sicily.

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