Back in the 90s, I lived for 7 months on the border of Slovenija and Croatia — and I do mean on the border: I could see the crossing from the house. The Istrian peninsula is an ancient, beautiful place. And it was an interesting time.
Yugoslavia had been “free” for a few years, depending on which new “country” you were in; some, like Serbia, were still sorting it out. I was an American actually living there, so I was a novelty, and got invited to gallery openings, weekend parties at someone’s getaway in the hills behind Porto Roz, jaunts into Istrian countryside to explore medieval towns, and churches from the Dark Ages, boat trips down the Dalmatian Coast, to places like Hvar and Lastavo. I even had a couple part time jobs, writing a column for the Koper paper, and being a deckhand delivering boats back to their owners in Dalmatia, who’d spirited them out before the shooting started, stashing them along the coast near Trieste.
It was very pleasant and congenial, and if the language had been closer to any other language I spoke, I might be there still. But a language as far removed from the romance family as Croat and Slovene was a bridge too far. Besides, I was getting old, and it seemed to make more sense to get old in my home country, where being poor was better than being rich in a lot of others. I was tired of watching TV shows where they spoke in one language I didn’t understand, and put the subtitles in two more which I also didn’t understand. Just little things. I’d already done a lot of adventuring, anyway, and had spent the previous couple years in an equally lovely spot in Tuscany. So going home seemed the thing to do.
About the time I had made this decision, I had the opportunity to crew on a sailboat delivery — to Istanbul. The captain asked me to do it because no one else he knew could take the three weeks it entailed, and I was a good deckhand, and cook. I considered it for about a minute: down the Adriatic, through the Ionian Sea, across the Aegean. Places like Corinth, and Athens, Troy, Gallipoli and Istanbul! I would never get that opportunity again. It was just too good.
It was also a very small sailboat, 35 feet, and it was January. The captain was a man I trusted, and he and I were both no nonsense types. We filled the galley, packed all the warm foul weather gear we each had, and loaded half the deck with jugs of gas for the motor, because wind is unreliable and we had a deadline. We had to be at the boat show in Istanbul, because it was part of the new owners’ deal. We also had to man the wheel at all times, because they were buying self-steering and other add-ons in Turkey, where they were cheaper. Four on, four off was how we worked it. One of us at the wheel while the other one slept.
We sailed south and east on the Adriatic, because we would have to refuel in Italy. Albania was still much too dangerous. Then across to northwestern Greece and through the Corinthian channel, a wonder all by itself. We’d had a few minor hold-ups: we had to wait the better part of a day when we entered Greece, because there was no one at the tiny port to stamp our papers (pre-EU), and we’d chosen to spend a night in Corinth because we’d been told there was a restaurant “up the hill” that we really shouldn’t miss. We had to wait awhile to navigate the Corinth Channel, because it’s boats going one way for awhile, and then the other. But, we were making good time.
We cruised past the busy port of Piraeus (Athens) and on to the edge of the Aegean, where we came to a screeching halt at the tiny town of Karystos. There was a raging storm on the Aegean, and even the freighters were pulling in and anchoring off the little fishing village. When you’re in a 35′ boat and freighters are hunkering down, you don’t take that chance.
I loved Karystos. I explored the antiquities museum, the delightful little orthodox churches; I lit candles to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, and bought a little piece of icon art, which is in my kitchen today. The mountains behind the town were covered with snow and if I’d been a tourist, I couldn’t have been happier.
There was a big Beneteau yacht coming out of France and headed for the same boat show. They had a 5 man crew and all the technology. They tied up across from us, and we raised many a glass in the little fishing bar that had CNN and the Weather Channel. The owner of the bar was a Greek-American, who spent half the year on City Island, an island that is part of the Bronx. He was delighted to have another American to talk with. It was a good place to be stuck.
But we were working.
The big Beneteau yacht left at the end of the second day, but we had to wait a little longer for the seas to lay down. Then we were off to the coast of Turkey, where lies Troy and Lesvos, which, not surprisingly was full of lesbian tourists. I had a heart-in-mouth moment as I tried to steer into the opening of the little round harbor of Mitilini, when the Greek Coast Guard came screaming up with lights flashing. We were flying a Turkish flag (and a Slovene flag and an American flag, but the Turkish one was the biggest.) Greece and Turkey have always had a bit of a sketchy relationship. The islands of Greece off the coast of Turkey are a natural destination for who knows what, and the Greek Coast Guard want to know what our “what” was. Once we explained the Turkish boat owners, the delivery, showed our Slovene and American passports, we were fine.
More fuel and food and a fast perusal of the amazing little street market in Mitilini and we were off to Canakkale, the Dardenelles Straits and across the Marmara Sea to Istanbul. Canakkale is a rather inhospitable (at least in January) and rather dreary spot, but I learned two things there: a recipe for the finest roasted tomato and sweet pepper spread I’ve ever had, and that American women are identifiable everywhere, even if we’re bundled up in foul-weather gear and hats. “Something about the way you walk,” I was told, again. (Evidently we don’t sashay like European women.)
I was at the wheel when we cleared the top of the Dardenelles. It was just before dawn, in that silvery time I love the best when sailing. The water and the sky were the same magical, metallic hue, and when the dusky dolphins started popping up alongside me on the starboard side, I was so enchanted I didn’t really register that the sun came up looking like a cherry candy…..”red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”
A few hours later, the wind started to come up too. I stomped my feet to wake up the captain, asleep at the end of his “four hours off,” to let him know we could raise the sail. We’d had such minimal wind for so many days, we were used to motoring. But motoring uses fuel, and a good wind could make us some good time. We were in the middle of what should be our last day before Istanbul.
We got the mainsail raised and started zooming along with the wind at our backs. Perfection. But as the captain got coffee down below, he had me read him the wind speed. 20 knots, 21, 22, 26…..29….35….And that was when we knew it wasn’t perfection. Because the wind kept rising. Pretty soon it was more than unnerving, and then it turned direction. We’d gotten a long ways into the Marmara Sea and had started seeing small Turkish fishing boats. Now those boats started heading back towards the west, and as they did, they started disappearing behind huge waves. One minute you’d see a boat, and the next there’d be a wave in the way.
We didn’t have charts for the Marmara Sea and the wind was now straight at us if we continued in the direction of Istanbul.
In a very risky move, we came around, and now the wind was at our backs again.
“Take the wheel, while I get the mainsail down!”
But I couldn’t hold the wheel. I was 5’4″ and in those days weighed 120 lbs. The seas were so strong and the wind had the mainsail in its grip. Even bracing myself against the bulkhead, I couldn’t do it. Which gives you some idea of what we were dealing with. So I had to crawl up on top, hook one leg around the mast to keep from being blown off, and pull down the heavy sail. The only thing I could do with it was stuff it down into the cabin as I went, so it wouldn’t blow out and cause even more problems.
I managed it, mostly one-handed, and when I was done, I just sat down on top of it, piled in the companionway ladder. I was physically drained, but I was also emotionally drained, so I just sat that way, until I got it together. I didn’t want to look like a wuss, after all. I had a reputation of being pretty fearless. But I was shaking from the effort.
Now we were flying in front of the wind, with a tiny corner of a jib still out to maintain direction. It was the size of a napkin but we were zooming. The wind was howling and there were streamers of spray everywhere. When I felt strong enough to turn around and look at my buddy, the captain, who was somehow maintaining our course — the waves behind him were the size of houses and foam was blowing off the top of them like pennants.
I think I screamed, because he said, in that no-nonsense voice all captains have, “just don’t look at them.”
I put the sail into a more organized pile and prayed. I wasn’t much of a Christian in those days, but I had been, and I still knew how to pray.
We flew along like that for hours: howling wind, air filled with spray and a following sea with gigantic waves. We finally reached the top end of the Dardenelles in inky darkness. We remembered seeing a sheltered harbor on the east side. I had my eyes peeled for the red and green marking lights at its entrance, but there was so much water in the air and the wind was so strong, neither one of us could see it. All we could see was glimpses of masts and a long stone wall with big breakers throwing out more mist.
Then a ro-ro ferry started honking its horn, and I realized it was training its spotlight on the entrance, so that we could see it. It had moved the light back and forth between us and the entrance, and we didn’t understand. But when we did, and started moving in the right direction, it kept the light right there. (It was going to a dock on the outside of the wall and must have seen our confusion.) If there’d been any way to get to that bridge and hug those seamen, I would have done it. But that is what sailors do for other sailors. I’m sure they didn’t think anything of it, and were just glad to help a little boat in a big storm.
Once inside the tiny opening, the water was considerably calmer. These little keyhole shaped harbors are all over the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Middle East. They build walls to protect the docks from the wind and then leave a tiny opening to keep the big seas out. But the wind was still howling. So, after throwing out the anchor, making sure it was holding, we still had to swap watches all night. Anchors and ropes can fail in strong winds.
The next morning was clear and cold. The deck was covered in ice but the winds had died as quickly as they’d come up. We motored across the strait to Gallipoli, where, without the benefit of any mutual language (amazing, since we had a half a dozen between the two of us) we managed to refuel, get more coffee and cigarettes, and replace the glove I lost to the wind.
We set out again and made it to Istanbul, where we found out we’d been caught in a Force 9 gale which had taken down 3 boats. The owners were relieved that we weren’t one of them, but I kept seeing those little colorful fishing boats trying to get home.
Why do I tell this story? There are a couple reasons. Most people in their lifetimes will not experience a Force 9 gale in a small boat and live to tell about it. When I got back to Italy, I walked through the living room one day and some guests in my friends’ B&B were watching “White Squall.” It was the scene where Jeff Bridges is trying to get to his wife, who is trapped below decks. I was stopped in my tracks and stood there shaking. I realized I had to continue watching, or I’d probably never sail again. I did and I do.
The other is a matter of trust and the question of safety. Both are worthy of discussions all by themselves.
If I hadn’t trusted myself, I couldn’t have hauled down the mainsail. If I hadn’t trusted the captain, I would have been a wreck, and probably couldn’t have finished the journey. If I hadn’t trusted God’s plan for me — even though I was a lousy Christian at the time — I wouldn’t have believed we would make it. And let’s face it, sometimes believing you will make it is the only reason you do.
But what about the concept of “safety?” For some people these days safety is never leaving their house. For others it is wearing a mask. For many it is a vaccination. None of those things were in play 25 years ago. But for many people 25 years ago, the idea of sailing a small boat across even small seas was beyond their concept of safety. This was not an era of cellphones with maps and GPS. There were GPS available, especially on boats, but it wouldn’t have helped us see the entrance to the tiny harbor when the air was full of seaspray, and the waves were over our heads. And we weren’t completely safe, even inside the harbor. We still had to watch the anchor line all night.
Of course, the type of trip that became, was exactly why my mother still worried about me. Bless her heart.
If I’d been overly concerned with safety, I’d have had an entirely different life. Which is not to say I was “reckless.” There’s a difference. Being too cautious is one thing; being reckless is another thing altogether. I grew up on the coast of Maine, so going out on the sea in ships, in boats of any size, was not considered reckless.
If we had set out knowing there was a Force 9 gale in our future that day, that would have been reckless. But we didn’t know, or we would have stayed put. Our access to “real time weather” was not even close to what I can pull up on my phone these days. We didn’t have the bells and whistles available to the crew of the Benetau yacht, either, which beat us to Istanbul by a day, and watched the storm from their hotel.
Safety is a relative concept. Safety for us was having the best equipment available to us and staying alert. Safety for others might have been to not go at all. But really, we are never actually “safe” until we sit at the feet of God in heaven. Nothing in our lives is guaranteed. Nothing is really safe. The vaccine you take to keep you safe from the virus might kill you. You can’t count on anything but your faith in God.
Years before this particular adventure, we’d been sitting around Henry’s in Charleston, drinking and telling tales, and a woman I knew asked me how I’d been able to do all the things I’d done. I told her I knew when to say “yes.” You get opportunities to do things, and the offer is in the air once. It doesn’t come back around. You weigh the pros and cons, and decide if it is worth the risk.
The voyage to Istanbul is one of the best choices I ever made. I found out things about myself – about trust and danger and survival – I would never have known. I got to travel through ancient (and modern) history. I’ve seen places that I read about in my Bible. I’ve bought cigarettes in Gallipoli. I have been to the capitol of the Byzantine empire. To Corinth. I sailed past ruins that go back 3000 years.
If I wanted to do that the safe way, I could have saved my shekels and taken a Viking cruise. But that’s not how I roll. And, let’s face it: it wouldn’t make much of a story.