A BRAVE CONCEPT
MY SIXTEENTH TRANSATLANTIC crossing under full sail was fairly uneventful, with the exception of glancing off a basking whale about six hundred miles to the east of Bermuda. I was in Arthur Cohen's yawl Barbara, a sturdy thirty-eight-footer, well found, Alden designed and steady as a tramcar. Her only snag was that having no dependable self-steering gear I had to take on a crew for the crossing, which meant a vastly increased food bill and more care on the water consumption. My crew were good sailors and excellent company, however, which more than made up for the drawbacks.
Anton Elbers was a fifty-year-old Dutchman, an ex-Netherlands naval officer, while Dan Milton had been a first officer in the United States Merchant Marine. Both were members of the Corinthian Yacht Club, an organization which supplies amateur crews for sailing craft.
Anton, Dan, and I left Westport, Connecticut, with no fanfares or other bullshit on 25 June 1969. Barbara was ostensibly bound for a cruise of the Mediterranean; actually her real destinations were much more exciting--the Dead Sea and Lake Titicaca; for I was out to attempt nothing less than the vertical sailing record of the world. These two bodies of water, both remote, lie at an altitude difference of almost 15,000 feet--the Dead Sea at 1,250 feet below sea level, Lake Titicaca at 12,580 feet above sea level, almost three miles up in the high Andes mountains of South America. The distance as the crow flies between the two bodies of water is about nine thousand miles. The distance as a small craft sails is much, much greater.
Neither the Dead Sea nor Lake Titicaca had as yet ever been sailed in a seagoing vessel; neither had ever been reached by an ocean voyager and neither was properly charted. No one to whom I broached the subject had any idea how the voyage should be tackled, or which destination to make for first.
After studying the problem for almost two years I decided to tackle the Dead Sea first. This was by far the easier of the two destinations, for the only natural obstacle to overcome, once Israel was reached, was the Negev Desert, over which by now excellent roads had been constructed. The political obstacles, however, were much more difficult; for there was the ever-present risk of war breaking out between Israel and her Arab neighbors. I decided that I would hover around in the Mediterranean, awaiting the opportune moment to tackle the haul across land.
On passage to the Azores, Barbara had good winds from astern or on the starboard quarter and rolled along merrily, the only accidents being the breaking of the running poles twice and the loss of the taffrail log spinner, which was bitten off, probably by a shark or some other large fish. Apart from sighting three steamers en route, there was little else of note in the thirty-one-day passage from Westport to Setúbal, a small fishing port about thirty miles to the south of Lisbon, which has the finest seafood in Portugal.
Here, Anton and Dan left Barbara, while I continued on south to Gibraltar with Arthur and a friend, calling at Sagres and Cádiz. It was a fairly rough passage, a total of six days.
As it was rather late in the season and the Mediterranean is rather boisterous in the winter months, it was determined to spend those months outside the Strait of Gibraltar and make a slow, steady cruise down the coast of Morocco as far as Agadir, calling at some very interesting small ports. I then hove across to the Canary Islands with Arthur for two months, mainly to poke around the smaller, lesser-known islands of Gomera and Hierro.
In March of 1970, with a very lucky and unusual southerly wind, I made the passage from Gran Canaria to Funchal, in Madeira, in two days, met with Arthur, visited my friends on the ocean liner QE2 and then set off for Gibraltar once more. On this passage I spent six days under spinnaker. So far Barbara had covered a total of 8,240 miles; 4,000 of these I had completed alone and the voyage had hardly begun! Now I decided to head eastward through the Mediterranean in the direction of Israel and my first destination--the Dead Sea.
All that summer and fall Barbara meandered through the Med--Ibiza, Corsica, Malta, Venice, Yugoslavia, the Greek Islands, the haunting, cholera-ravaged south coast of Turkey, one of the most beautiful coasts in the world, finally to Cyprus, where the authorities refused me entry on the grounds that I might be harboring cholera on board. The real reason, of course, was that I had visited Turkey, the ancient enemy of Greece.
Passing through Malta I encountered a young Englishman, Conrad Jelinek, who was looking for a lift to the Middle East, vaguely on his way to Nepal or God-knows-where. Although his appearance did not strike me as being very seamanlike--he had a sort of wild gypsy look--something in his manner did, and especially his sense of humor, so I took him on as general dogsbody and deck-hand. Conrad turned out to be the ideal companion in a small sailing craft, quickwitted yet quiet, physically quite strong yet gentle, polite yet firm. He started his voyage a raw amateur; two years later he was able to navigate precisely by sextant, repair a broken main halyard sheave atop a buckling mast in a roaring gale, and make the most intricate splices. Often we would go for days in the ocean passage without saying one word, for none were necessary; we tuned into each other like two laser beams. He had an affinity for the stars; he was, I later found, as locked into nature as the wind itself.
I had searched the usual sailors' haunts on the waterfront of Valletta and Sliema, but had found no takers for voyaging to the Middle East and Red Sea. Why should the average yacht-swabbie bother to go on a trip like that when he could get on a vessel going to more "romantic" places such as the south of France or Yugoslavia, where he or she could show off his or her muscles or what-have-you to other likewise empty-minded morons, and maybe find some rich person to keep him/her/it over the coming winter? Eventually I was reduced to hanging a sign on the boat as she was tied up stern to in Sliema creek, refitting. "Crew wanted; usual number of limbs and senses; unusual trip; apply within."
Eventually Conrad turned up, breathless, having run halfway across the island upon hearing from another hippie friend of the vacancy.
"Ahoy there, anyone aboard?" he shouted. I was working in the cockpit within full view of him.
"No, of course there's no one on board except me. I'm an automatically inflatable rubber deckhand that the skipper winds up every morning before he goes over to spend the day in Tony's bar!"
He laughed. "Are you Tristan?"
"Yes, who are you?"
"Conrad Jelinek and I heard you were looking for a crew." His voice was well modulated with a good English Home Counties accent, not too affected. To the average ear the braying so-called Oxford accent is plain maddening after several days cooped up in a small craft (or anywhere else, come to that).
"Can you long-splice?" I asked, eyeing him closely.
"Can you tie a Blackwall hitch or a sheepshank."
"How about sewing, like for sail repairs?"
"No. I'm afraid not." His voice was by now downcast.
"Cook? Only has to be dead simple."
"No." His eyes squinted against the early morning sun behind me.
"Well, hell, man, what in the name of Christ can you do? Can you play the piano?"
"No," he grinned, "but I can sing and dance."
"Right, you're on, nip back wherever you kip, and get your gear on board this afternoon; I'm sailing tonight for Cyprus! How much gear you got? I don't want to see more than the same volume as you are yourself; bad for the morale."
He grinned again, let out a whoop, and was running off.
Being at the time rather "hippie" minded, Conrad had some vague idea about man's position in nature, but as yet he had no inkling of the awful struggle which must be maintained when man pits himself against the natural forces of wind and water; nor did he yet know of the great rewards, the sense of achievement, the beauty and the joy, the pure hymn of the oceans. And yet his love for the sea and nature was soon very obvious; his respect for me showed very quickly by the way he made efforts to ignore my idiosyncrasies. His courage and tenacity developed like a fine tune played by a master on a Stradivarius violin. In the event, it turned out that Conrad was a rare combination: a born sailor and one of nature's gentlemen. These natural attributes were mixed with the results of a Quaker education--sobriety in the main and diligence in any effort. In other words, he was worth his weight in gold. He was never very talkative, yet when he did say something it was almost always pertinent, and that, in the close confines of a small craft, is a God-sent gift in anyone. He would sit on the foredeck repairing sails or carrying out some other chore for hours, with never a peep out of him, while I would be down below knocking out an article for the yachting press on my old beat-up typewriter.
We approached Haifa on the night of 12 November 1970, under the light of a full moon. All was calm and peaceful and we chugged on under the thirty-six-horsepower Perkins diesel engine, Lebanon under our gentle lee, a good fifteen miles to the east of Barbara. A soft swell eased our beguiled apprehension when suddenly--zoom! Out of the dark nothingness on the moonless side, a blinding light from an Israeli patrol craft lit us up.
"Heave to!" an electronic voice sang out. "Everyone on deck!" I felt like I had been caught cracking a bank safe. How difficult it is to feel innocent when you are! The gunboat drifted around our stern, with her radar-controlled guns pointed straight at us, the searchlights obscenely probing every pore. "Identify yourself!" the voice said.
It's not easy to remember who you are in these kinds of circumstances. "Barbara, out of Westport, U.S.A., British crew, sir, bound for Haifa from Kyrenia," my voice crashed through the blinding light.
"Right, Barbara, you pass, you'll be met outside the port." My eyes followed her after-gun, which in turn seemed to follow my eyes. "Bon voyage!" shouted the electronic voice. The gunboat roared away at high speed in the direction of Lebanon. In Barbara, tension collapsed like a rubber dinghy when you need it badly.
We plodded on through the beauty of the Levantine night towards Haifa. At the harbor entrance we were met and escorted in by the harbor police under the ever-watchful eye of the Israeli navy. As we slid in through the harbor entrance we could see sentries at every lamppost, while all the naval vessels seemed to be fully manned, in a state of active preparedness for anything.
By 1970 Israel had extended her enclave over Palestine and the Sinai. During the Six Day War she had shocked her Arab neighbors into a state of self-paralysis. She now commanded the Jordan west bank and the Sinai Peninsula. She had overcome, for the time being at any rate, the Arab attempts to cut her only line of communication with the East--the Strait of Tiran, at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's outlet to the Red Sea. She was always vulnerable to the Arab guerrilla raids across her borders, especially from Jordan, but apart from the explosive pinpricks, often bloody and murderous, the situation, when Barbara. arrived, was quieter than had been the case for some years, or was likely to be again, once the Arabs recovered from their Six Day War trauma. Now was the time for me to get to the Dead Sea, cross over the Negev Desert and slide down the Gulf of Aqaba into the Red Sea and so out into the comparatively safe Indian Ocean.