Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
Into the Mediterranean
Tokomaru2 moored in El Gouna Kite boarding
At the end of April, we set off up the Gulf of Suez (the left-hand finger at the top of the Red Sea). Progress was frustratingly slow, Tokomaru’s bottom by now thoroughly coated in weed, coral, barnacles etc. On the second night the wind got up, so the last few hours were a bit anxious, slowly bashing into choppy waves and peering into the dark to identify buoys and watch out for ships. It was midnight when we found our way in to the harbour at Suez, tied to a mooring buoy, poured a whisky and sat watching ship after ship passing south down the canal a few 100 metres away.
Mosque Port Said
The Nile delta extends this far east so we woke next morning to trees and flowers all around, in place of the usual desert landscape. Suez is a busy, normal Egyptian town with no tourism and it was a pleasure to walk about without being hassled into souvenir shops. We did, however, anticipate hassle regarding our canal transit. Yachts must have an agent and are charged somewhat arbitrarily in terms of weight, length, draft etc. A pilot is obligatory and the whole business can be fraught with corruption and demands for baqsheesh. So we were relieved not to be overcharged, and delighted with our pilot, who was quietly efficient, polite and never even asked for his ‘present’. It’s a long-standing convention to give extra dollars to the pilots (who earn very little for what, in our case, was a ten hour day), but too often people are pestered all day long by pilots asking for things and demanding large sums.
Fisher men Great Bitter Lake Suez Canal
The canal transit (90 miles) must be done in two goes, stopping at Ismailiya, half way up. Ismailiya was built for the European employees of the Suez Canal Company in the mid 19th century; the canal opened in 1869. It remains a fine city with leafy boulevards, French villas in lush gardens, a Coptic cathedral, and an imposing mosque. De Lessops himself built a magnificent house here, still standing but looking somewhat faded. The culture, though, is pure Egyptian, so while there are no tourists, there’s no relaxing in pavement cafes either. The best thing is enjoying the scene at night when everyone is out and about shopping and strolling, women looking stylish and glamorous, albeit completely covered up.
Orange stall Port Said
The second stage of our transit, from Ismailiya to Port Said, was delayed owing to ‘warships in the canal’. We never knew if or when a pilot might show up. Finally, on 14 May, having been up and ready since 6.00am, a pilot came on board at midday and off we went again, motoring into the wind and arriving once more in the dark. The canal is fairly monotonous, desert beige on one side and fertile green on the other, with bored-looking soldiers camped at intervals. Fishermen in small open boats seem undaunted by the massive ships passing meters away. Once more, our pilot was pleasant and helpful, steering the whole way except when we persuaded him to eat, and not asking for things. We were more than happy to give him a ‘present’. (Some pilots have perhaps worked out the western psychology, -the less you ask, the more you get!)
Port Said has lots of character, a lingering atmosphere of its history of smuggling and dark dealings in the old quarter. Weathered buildings line the narrow streets with rickety balconies and faded shutters. In the bazaar we were soon accosted by a swarthy fellow keen to ‘show us around’, assuming we were looking for alcohol (which we were!). The smarter streets have wide colonnaded pavements and fancy shops, all black marble and gold lettering. And, more cosmopolitan than Suez or Ismailiya, there are plenty of pavement cafes. But we lingered here only for one day
Concert on the quay - Paphos
On 16 May we sailed away from Egypt. A gentle passage, two nights at sea, brought us to the quaint harbour of Paphos, in Cyprus, where we tucked in between a fishing boat and ‘Alderbaran’, an Irish yacht we had first met in Madeira in 1999. Suddenly, we were in a very British culture. Hundreds of people on holiday and plenty of expats who’ve settled here were strolling along the quay or dining on fish and chips in the many harbour restaurants. At least there was no need to cover up any more, -modesty clearly not an issue here! We hired a car with Pat and Olivia of ‘Aldebaran’ and embarked on a long, hot and fruitless search in the chandleries of Limassol. We had hoped to be able to replace gear and find spare parts here in the EU but were disappointed. So we drove up into the Troodhos mountain range, a Mediterranean landscape, high and wild away from the towns. All kinds of pine trees cover the slopes along with juniper, gorse and broom. Vineyards, olive groves and citrus trees dot the hillsides lower down. Built up areas blaze with bougainvillea, hibiscus and oleander. There’s development on a massive scale, (dozens of estate agents), but in the midst of it all you may come upon the charm and simplicity of a small, perfectly formed Byzantine church. And right next to Paphos harbour are several splendid mosaic floors of Roman villas and more being excavated.
It was too complicated to visit the Turkish part of Cyprus, not permitted in our hire car, and a long bus ride to Nicosia. The Cypriot flag was in evidence in the south, but we also saw the Greek flag waving defiantly from some monastery or village associated with the EOKA movement for union with Greece, ‘enosis’. Up the hill in Paphos there’s an area with a mosque (closed) and the street names are in Turkish; but only Greek people live here now. Of all our ‘Rough Guides’ to many, many countries, the section on ‘history’ in the Cyprus guide is by far the longest and most complex.
The weekend we left was the Festival of the Flood, unique to Cyprus, combining Pentecost and an ancient pagan rite connected with Aphrodite. It involves running into the sea and sprinkling water on people. At night there was a concert on the quay with authentic-looking musicians and a group of men performing Greek dances with great precision and panache. Strangely, it was a private affair with an entirely Cypriot audience. The quay was fenced off, but as we were moored to it, we were able to quietly gate-crash and get a good view. The crew of the fishing boat next to us had also sneaked along to watch. To our surprise we found they were Egyptian, and so we trotted out our bits of Arabic one more time. This pleased them greatly, and later, under cover of night, they helped us top up our water tank from the fishermen’s tap.
Illegally anchored Kastelorizou Correctly moored to a Taverna
Now it’s mid June and we’re sailing amongst the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, tying up in picturesque harbours a few yards from the nearest taverna. It feels like a ‘holiday’! Our last overnight sail was from Cyprus to Kastellorizou, (a tiny eastern outpost of Greece) and from there we sailed to Symi and Nisyros, quiet islands with deserted beaches, scenic walks to remote villages, hilltop churches. Egypt seems very far away, though we still find drifts of desert sand on the decks. Sometimes it feels a bit flat knowing that the more challenging and exotic parts of ‘the voyage’ are behind us. Then again, it’s very nice indeed to be under the clean, blue, familiar skies of southern Europe with the scent of wild thyme on a stony hillside etc.
Cat - Nsiros Partidge
In Rhodes harbour we moored beneath massive 14th century walls built by the Knights of St John, and have now come to rest under similarly impressive fortifications in Kos harbour. There’s a marina here where Tokomaru can be hauled out and we can at last clean the hull. Then we’ll leave the boat in Kos and spend July and August in England, returning in the autumn to continue the circumnavigation. Less than 3000 miles to go now, but still lots to see, and no particular hurry …. Best wishes from Liz and Nick
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