e-book published September 2013
9 Chapters 10 Maps 317 Pages
It is a little over seven thousand nautical miles and a little under eight months by sea from Torquay to the coast of Egypt. Or it is if you sail a yacht there in a leisurely fashion for a few weeks every summer for nine years and enjoy the landfalls as much as the sea passages. And if you linger in Gibraltar, look at Roman ruins in Tarragona, anchor amongst the islands of Hyeres, dine in the trattorias of Tuscany, moor under the ramparts of Grand Harbour at Malta, sail past Sunion’s temple, drink sun-downers with the sea-gypsies of Turkey, motor past the Topkapi Palace and into the hamsi fishing fleets of the Black Sea, drop anchor in Ancient Knidos or make a night passage under the Pleides towards the Great Pyramid of Khufu. And it is if you balance in a fifteen ton yacht aground on the dark coast of southern Brittany, if you motor as a tiny dot lost in the empty millpond of an oddly benign Bay of Biscay, if you see grim Finistere across heavy seas, if you see nothing at all in the fogs off Portugal or glimpse illusory fish rafts in the middle watch barring the entrance to Cadiz. And it is if you swelter in the hot calms of the ‘concrete coast’ of Spain or race for shelter from the fierce summer storms of the Mediterranean Sea. Or move from the packed marinas of the west to the crowded harbours, the stink of rotting fish, the call to prayer and, sometimes, the outstretched baksheesh hands of commercial ports in the east. And, in these passages of Penguin II, if you carry with you the thoughts and reflections of the many who have voyaged over this sea and been part of its changing – and yet changeless – nature over the centuries.
The real Mediterranean can be a benign wonderland of blue water, golden sunsets and delightful anchorages; but it is also a place of powerful storms, sudden disasters and dangerous shores. And along its shores, modern Europe, modern Africa and the modern Middle East meet. In these three greatly contrasting places, the pace of change is now accelerating. Indeed, the new is replacing the old so fast that any personal account of passage-making, of its ports and of its people becomes history as fast as it is set down.
Three thousand years ago, when Phoenician trading ships plied the length and breadth of its waters, underlying the diversity of the people and cultures along the shores lay a common heritage. A trading ship could be welcomed in ports from one end of its waters to the other; east, north, west and south. The pace of change was slow.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans made that sea and that heritage their own. Huge vessels moved cargoes and manpower. Grain ships plied across what the Empire knew as the Middle Sea linking producers with consumers and ensuring Rome had its free bread. The Mediterranean wind and its seasons still controlled movement but the pace of change was quickening.
One thousand years ago, a new and powerful religion had severed the Middle Sea into two halves. Along the southern and eastern shores, muezzins sent the call to prayer echoing across harbours and ports; along most of the northern shore, bells rang from church towers and castle battlements. Long centuries of Moslem and Christian conflict lay ahead with territory gained and territory lost in this (seemingly still enduring) struggle. The clash was not all negative: across the waters of the Middle Sea, ideas, trade and affairs continued to intermingle. For a time, organization, energy, inventiveness and prosperity favoured those who kneeled to Mecca rather than those who communed with Christ.
In the twenty-first century….well – read the book.
A book about sailing 7,000 miles over nine summers and from the south coast of Britain to the north coast of Egypt. Atlantic coast: leak!/ a Moody yacht/ paying out and fitting out/ night over Ushant/ a one-night stand/ Bay of Biscay/ Santander’s sweet smell of land/ Costa del Morte and the end of land/ which Ria?/ Vigo and the U-96/ banana boats in the night/ sardine central/ fog!/ hove-to off Cadiz/ Phoenician tin run/ glimpse of Africa and the Rock. Spain: Sea Gypsies of Marina Bay/ apartments, beaches and tarmac/ Laurie Lee at Almuñécar/ concrete Costa/ warning of gales/ riding off a rave/ white slavery/ grim Ebro/ deluge of Sitges/ fiscal check, please!/ pigeons/ Tarragona winter/ mutiny off the Baleares. France: Cap d’Agde – nudist sailors handled/ Marseilles Vieux Port/ industrial scale sunbathing/ Toulon and its slaves/sharing a Treasure Island/ rope in the Rade/ Ambroas to the rescue?/ a winter Mistral/ Ambroas again?/ a summer Mistral/ no room in St Trop./ the Riviera/ another summer Mistral!/ the Dog Star/ Dog Days in Corsica/ a third summer Mistral !?/ ‘we will sue’/ ‘take any berth’. Italy: Punta Ala – Il Comandante – ‘for this you must pay’/ public chaos and private kindnesses/ Rome’s seaside/ bread and circus’s/ Formia is full!/ today Vesuvious erupted/ Antonio’s beloved/ the fluted columns of Paestum/ Barbary pirates?/ a grumble from Stromboli/ Messina Strait – the ‘sea gate’/ swordfish boats/ Etna rising/ Scabbard fish in Catania/ an almighty crash/ Sicilian Channel/ the Black Pearl. Malta: Valletta waterfront and Droopy Drawers…44/ a horse’s head/ Sammy’s Bar/ some back-up/ Sicilian mafia/ Plan B/ ‘half-built, half-funded, half-stolen’. Greece: Lepanto/ an insistent flapping!/ a bad night’s day/ Bavaria to Sydney/ Atlantis and a huge sea-filled hole/ Reef!/ Trophy assemblages/ Salamis Sound/ Posiedon on the marbled steep/ stark and barren islands/ blue Aegean/ the ‘great voice’/ Guns of Navarone/ rummaging in Rhodes. Turkey: Turkey – ‘wooded hills and smooth waters’/ Valhalla/ a rat in the night?/ a luxury Marie Celeste/ ‘Prayer is better than sleep’/ in the lee of Tenemos/ the Narrows/ Port Marmara/ Lights of Atakoy!/ Russians and Bulgarians/ the Bosphorus/ Black Sea and the hamsi/ Vongole dredging/ an important man in Sile/ summer lost!/ the Throat Cutter/ EMYR/ dolphins/ ancient Knidos/ a soft laugh at Fethiye/ the Sea Gypsies again/ ’bugger’s selling it!’. Egypt: flickering seas/ speck of humanity/ the doctor’s pistol/ presents for the Port Launch/ the Gents’ End/ leviathans of the Suez Canal/ ancient pyramids/ ‘Mafia boat’/ a poignant silence/ chewed-up recording tape/ back in the Bronze Age/ smoke!/ a call in the night from the Israeli Navy. Cyprus: no room in Limassol/ comfort zone/ Afterword/ Sea Hours and Sea Miles/ Bibliography.