AUGUST 2011 IN SIRACUSA, SICILY

Francesca sailing

It’s been an epic year so far, the eighth year I’ve been living on the boat. I did a huge mileage in 2005 but this year will probably exceed even that one. I started the year in Preveza in western Greece, not far from Corfu and where Octavian and Agrippa defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium, a battle which arguably changed the course of world history.

I actually finished that far west last year as I’d decided to start back towards Gibraltar, either with a view to returning to England and giving up this lifestyle or, if overtaken by a new burst of enthusiasm to sail across the Atlantic and maybe the Pacific too. I’d previously wanted to visit the Middle East but I wasn’t entirely keen to sail into countries like Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt on my own and face dealing with the bureaucracy. One way to get help with all that nonsense is to participate in the EMYR, the East Med Yacht Rally. However, they won’t take solo sailors, so I’d given up on that idea and was on my way west when gill announced she was leaving her job and was available to do the rally.

Accordingly I gave Francesca a quick coat of paint and did some other jobs and rapidly headed east again via Corinth and the famous canal, where Gill flew out and joined me, across the Aegean and on to the south coast of Turkey where we joined the rally. The rally took us along the south coast of Turkey to areas I’d not explored previously and then on to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Politicians, bureaucrats and even the UN and the EEC get my goat sometimes, the situation in Northern Cyprus is almost farcical. I believe it’s a breach of a UN resolution to sail in there at all, but yachts do it all the time. It is not allowed to sail from Northern Cyprus to Southern Cyprus or vice versa without getting arrested but ‘Cyprus’ which really, in effect means Southern Cyprus is now part of the EU so I can sail into the north and take my passport and walk across the border checkpoint, take my boat and I’m a criminal. How crazy are these people?

Further, since the EU does not recognise the TRNC but has admitted Cyprus as a whole to the club then Turkish Cypriots living in the north can apply for and will receive EU membership and they can then easily cross the border and enter any EU country with all the rights of an EU citizen. I imagine they still can’t sail around the island if they happen to own a boat!

I started to feel some sympathy for the people of the north, it feels like they are under siege, and we were made very welcome, however their bureaucrats then went and ruined the feeling of goodwill the visit had engendered. There is a brand new marina in the north at a place called Karpas Gate, this harbour is not a port of entry, but arrangements had been made that the 53 yachts on the rally could check out of the country there. (We’d checked in at Girne). I was told this promise came from the President himself.

However, the owners of Karpas Gate marina were in dispute with the Coastguard who want to station a boat there. I’m told that the marina people don’t want visible authorities there in case it puts off big spending gamblers from Islamic countries where they can’t be seen gambling. This is second hand information but sounds so true of the hypocrisy in the world. Anyway, the authorities decided to take it out on us, presumably as a way of annoying the Karpas Gate people, and we all had to cut short our stay at Karpas Gate and sail all the way round to Famagusta in a great rush in order to be able to check out and still meet our arrival time in Lebanon. Take a look at a map of Cyprus!

Sadly Syria had to be dropped from the itinerary this year due to the political strife. It was sad for us but people were and still are losing their lives there, which is so appalling. It’s not the only appalling thing in the Middle east however and despite the whistle stop nature of the rally we did get to meet ordinary people and we learned so much about the history and politics that we’d never have learned from the media.

In Lebanon I was berthed opposite a motor boat owned by a doctor from a hospital in Beirut. I learned about the various occupations, primarily Syrian and Israeli and how the political system now decrees that the three most senior posts must in one case be held by a Christian, another by a Sunni and another by a Shia. I’m not convinced that the majority of politicians in any country are either deeply religious or even moral, but in any case they must symbolically or nominally represent the intended community.

Although one sees soldiers and guns everywhere (much as I did in Northern Ireland not so very long ago) Lebanon is effectively at peace and seems to be prospering. Long may it continue I had a very moving conversation with a lady whose childhood was spent under the shadow of war, bombings and missiles, friends getting shot, what a way to grow up. It’s no wonder so many Lebanese live for the day.

Should you visit Lebanon I’m compelled to tell you that the food is fabulous, the best of any country I visited between leaving and returning to Italy. Baalbeck is an historic site not to be missed, though in ruins the temples there must have rivalled Rome herself in grandeur. Byblos is less impressive but still an important historical place that gave us the words bible and bibliography and was the birth place effectively of a modern alphabet.

Israel was an incredible education, another country that feels under siege with air raid rehearsals taking place in one of our stopping places and given the history of the 1948 war of independence, the six day war and the Yom Kippor war it’s understandable. I have nothing against the people of Israel but I have entertained doubts about many of the political decisions emanating from that state and especially with regard to the Palestinians.

I learned much that was sad, much which explained how things had come to pass the way they did and it’s oh so complicated. That there are still people living as refugees, probably third, fourth or whatever generation refugees from the 1948 war is a scandal and a blot on the record of the UN, can you imagine if families were still living as refugees from the 1939/45 World War?

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are subjects to vast to dissect here, even if I had all the information, which I don’t. However, I suspect from what I did learn that the Arab world shares some responsibility for the plight of people here. I know this emphatically that solutions will not be found without all parties in the region talking and continuing to talk in a spirit of genuine co-operation and with a determination of will and spirit to find a permanent solution. Violence only be-gets more violence.

One of the overwhelming problems with Israeli politics, as I see it, as an outsider looking in is the large number of political parties sharing power, this leads to minorities wielding disproportionate power and influence. the impression I have is that modern Israel is in effect a secular state, not so very different from western Europe and the USA in many ways. However, there are religious fundamentalists, many of whom take money from the state to live and support large families and yet if they could they would bring down this secular state which they hate. Some have, I’m told even held talks with Islamic terrorists to bring this very thing about. There are of course different levels of so called fundamentalism and extremism, what I consider extreme you may not. However, when basically inflexible religious groups hold the balance of power and exert undue influence political decisions will continue to be bizarre or at least lacking in what most people would consider to be common sense. One day moderate, secular, peace loving, well intentioned Israelis will have to wrest power from their dogmatic brethren or risk being brought low by them. This is the opinion I formed travelling around and in and out of Israel. I accept I have much more to learn and that solutions to Middle East problems are fraught with difficulty, but I hope to visit again.

The commercialisation of religious places in Israel was disappointing, one is tempted to dub it the Unholy Land. Caesarea was very interesting Massada lived up to all the expectations I had, it is incredible, unmissable, you can feel the events that took place there. A visit to Caesarea and Massada may change your perception of Herod the Great, particularly if you were raised in the Christian tradition.

Egypt is of course one of the most amazing historical places on the planet. To see Tutankhamen in Cairo rather than London was thrilling, the pyramids, the camel rides, sailing the Nile on a Falucca I really want to spend more time in that country. When I was there this year President Mubarrak had recently been overthrown. It has been suggested that the amount of money he has salted away exceeds the national debt!

By pure coincidence I was interviewed on the harbour wharf by Egyptian TV, if only I’d known that would happen, tattiest work clothes and a bad hair day – oh well! There was a feeling of optimism in that country that was palpable. I complimented the military on the restraint they had shown, assured people that I felt safe in Egypt, which I did, although we did have armed guards as we travelled around and there are still many soldiers and armoured cars and tanks in evidence. Egypt NEEDS tourists and whilst we had armed guards when travelling the country in coaches I felt perfectly comfortable strolling the streets of Port Said independently.

The people of Egypt need tourist pounds and dollars and Euros to keep coming. The souvenir sellers at the tourist sites are unbelievably pushy, but I guess with fewer tourists it’s desperately hard for them. I hope the people will get their money back from their deposed President and that military restraint will be followed by proper power for the people who deserve to be sovereign. I wished the country well and told the camera that they have an amazing past and I wish them a tremendous future. I fear that their optimism may be misplaced that another dictator may come along but I hope for the best.

On the subject of where to spend your tourist money, the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia probably deserve your support more than Greece for example. I would have regarded the gang attack and robbery that happened to me in Athens as a lightening strike were it not for the vast area the police drove me around that was full of dangerous looking people, gangs, druggies, drunks, pimps, prostitutes. Even the police station was guarded with machine guns and this is a major European capital city!

Further the Greek economy is in meltdown, well, having spent a lot of time there the last few years it has come to my notice that dodging tax is a national obsession. Greece has little in the way of natural resources or industry, it does have tourism, so the taxi drivers are on strike, making it difficult for visitors to get to and from airports, how daft are these people? They reap what they sow and maybe they should not be bailed out indefinitely, time for them to pay those taxes.

Many (not all) of the port police I have met in Greece have been rude, unhelpful and only take harbour dues from the honest sailors who check in, being too lazy in many places to get off their backsides and go check! Greek regulations for yachtties also seem to me to go against European principles of free movement of people, that’s another subject but if I drive around Greece I don’t have to keep telling people where I’ve been and where I’m going, on a boat I do!

After Egypt we went back to Israel and made a land excursion to Jordan. Wadi Rum was spectacular, I could fall in love with the Jordanian desert, Petra was even more than I expected and Little Petra, another smaller Nabatean town was so charming, with few tourists and a calm, beautiful atmosphere about the place. The Roman town of Jerash was on the scale of Ephesus in Turkey and again not to be missed. Unfortunately I witnessed some animal cruelty there. They staged a chariot races and one of the horses did not want to run so the charioteer jumped down and started kicking it. I have asked our travel agent in Jordan to make a formal protest. aside from this I would commend Jordan as a place to visit. The King of Jordan has written a book about the prospect for peace in the Middle East which I hope to get hold of and read.

From the Middle East we sailed back to Crete from where Gill went home and I sailed to Sicily. Next destination Tunisia……

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About sailorsnook

I live on a boat and travel most of the time. I used to be a skydiving instructor, car and motorcycle racer. I ran my own advertising agency for many years. I'm interested in ski-ing and snowboarding, writing, music and dancing, particularly swing dancing. I have plans for a world peace campaign.
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