Cruising with the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally (Published Fall)
Our family of four has been living and cruising aboard Zia, our Switch 51 catamaran, for over four years now. After exploring the U.S. East coast, Caribbean and Bahamas we were ready for some more adventuresome destinations. So we headed for the Mediterranean via Bermuda and the Azores (see “The Big One” BWS Nov. 2007). Once in the Med we explored France and Spain and then holed up for our first winter in Barcelona. Our daughters, age seven and nine at the time, went to local public school and learned in Catalan as well as Spanish. While docked in Barcelona, planning next season’s cruise, we ran across the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally (www.emyr.org) website. Whoa, now we are talking adventure cruising. Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Egypt. The list read like a state department bulletin on places to wear body armor. The more we looked at it the more we liked the idea.
There were no onerous health or vaccination requirements and the rally had been run annually for almost 20 years. In 2008 the rally had 80 boats, about one half American and British, and one half a mix of more than a dozen other countries. The Rally maintains a torrid pace with 24 stops in six countries covering three continents. It amounts to 1,675 miles of sailing in about two and a half months. The big question was how would we be received as a family flying an American flag in that part of the world?
Our trusty catamaran Zia was up to the challenge. She’s a strong and fast cruising cat laid out for comfort and independence. We have a large solar array over our davits that handles pretty much all of our power needs. Our watermaker, fridge and freezer gives us the capability to be self sufficient for months at a time. Zia carries three furled headsails, a stormsail, genoa and screecher, which allow us to quickly switch gears according to the breeze. Our twin 40-horsepower Yanmars and 220 gallons of fuel give us plenty of range under power. Ironically, the Med is notoriously unfriendly to catamarans even though Europe is perhaps the world’s major multihull producer. Most Med marinas are small and crowded (they have had a couple of thousand years to fill up) and they don’t seem to know what to do with these beamy new boats. No problem there, we have a 66-pound spade anchor and 300 feet of chain, and we had plenty of chances to use it.
For the price of 250 euro per person (children under 12 are free), the EMYR is an incredible value. You get lots of good swag: hats, backpacks, coffee mugs and polo shirts. Not to mention free (mostly) dockage, water, lots of meals and parties throughout the event. It is mainly funded by the hosting countries who are interested in promoting their local yachting industry. We were joined on board by two family friends on holiday from University. Larson and Gav (known as the Young Americans) proved to be great crew and popular at all of the social events as well.
The Rally officially starts in the fabled city of Istanbul, Turkey. Only a few hardy souls fought the cold northerlies and made it up to the start. As the group heads south, more and more boats join at each port. We were already in Marmaris, Turkey, so it was a short 100-mile hop to join the rally about halfway down the Turkish coast in the town of Cesme. We were provided with the “bible”: a very detailed rally itinerary with information on the regulations, tours and navigation for every leg of the journey. Gentlemen are required to have a coat and tie for some of the formal occasions in the various ports. I was a little worried about that requirement but it turned out to be a refreshing change. When was the last time you partied with a bunch of cruisers in a coat and tie and all of the children and ladies dressed in their Sunday best?
At each stop, there would be a committee of local luminaries to greet the rally, usually with a welcome cocktail party. There we would learn about the various tours and events that are scheduled for the area. The land tours are all optional and the costs were very reasonable.
The rally’s arrival to a new port was an exercise in controlled chaos. Imagine 80 cruising boats arriving in a small port and all trying to get tied up at once. This problem was solved by dividing the fleet into six groups based on size. The larger faster boats usually got in first and were waiting to handle the lines of the next arrivals. In many ports we had to raft up three and four deep to make room for everyone. It went surprisingly smoothly for all 24 stops. There were six catamarans in the rally and we usually ended up in a shallow draft area where most of the monohulls could not berth. On arrival and departure, all of the boats would be flying their colorful dress flags and we made quite a sight in the local harbor.
We meandered down the coast of Turkey making eight or nine stops—each in a new city with new attractions for touring. Churches, religious shrines, ancient cities and natural wonders were on the tour agenda. There were nine children in the rally (from seven to 13 years old) and they instantly formed a little tribe of their own. At each port they would get together to romp around and explore.
It was during one of these romping explorations, in the remote city of Göcek, that we discovered one big benefit of being on the rally. We had made fast friends with another catamaran named Gone Native from California. Dave and Desire Harris were both physicians and had twin boys, Ryan and Wesley who were running with the pack. While relaxing on Zia with Dave, enjoying a cold beer, a bunch of kids came racing up the dock saying that we had better hurry, our daughter Juliana had a serious gash on her leg. We discovered that she had fallen through a grate and had a six-inch gash almost an inch deep in her thigh.
Dave immediately went into “doctor” mode and we carried our screaming, bleeding child down the dock to Gone Native. In minutes their saloon table had been transformed into a (mostly) sterile operating room where Dave and Desi skillfully stitched up our daughter. Thirty-one stitches later, she was walking down the dock back to Zia. Throughout the next weeks Dave and Desi would help us change dressings and keep an eye on possible complications. There were about half a dozen physicians on the rally and it was comfort for all of us to have them.
The rally legs were all reasonable in length, well planned out and generally pleasant sailing. There were quite a few boats who enjoyed racing—and we cheerfully hauled up more sail at every opportunity, squeezing extra knots out of Zia to mix it up with the competitors. After seeing plenty of Zia’s stern, there are a few monohull sailors planning to take a closer look at those speedy multihulls for their next cruising boat.
After Turkey, we were off for an overnighter to the divided island of Cyprus. As we toured the island, you could see the big guns of the Turks and the Greeks trained on each other across the borders.
Next stop was Lattakia, Syria. A former Soviet enclave, Syria still shows the remnants from the Soviet era. From the red starred uniforms of the police to the huge billboards of their president looming over the towns, it was a sobering reminder of the Middle East’s political situation. Here we toured the ancient cities of Palmyra and Damascus and drove past a Palestinian refugee camp. The refugee camp ignited a slew of questions from our children. Try explaining the Middle East situation to a 10 year old. Perhaps you have to be a 10 year old to understand it.
A short 100 miles to the south and we sailed into downtown Beirut, Lebanon. This beautiful but troubled city has been known as the Paris of the Middle East. We tied up within 500 yards of where Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 by a car bomb. There were three or four collapsed hotels in the area to attest to the power of the blast. But overall, the city of Beirut was a beautiful and fascinating place. Populated by Muslims, Christians and Druze it has been manipulated mercilessly by neighboring powers. Despite this long history of strife, the people are upbeat and outgoing and were very happy to see us.
The security for our next stop, Israel, was intense. We were met by military speedboats bristling with guns. Although at first blush they seemed menacing, we saw a lot of wide smiles from the young soldiers manning the weapons. Our passports were checked and rechecked long before we got into port. Israel is a tourist Mecca and Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada were all on the tour list. Some of the cruisers witnessed the vapor trails of missiles fired from the Gaza strip a few miles to the south. Young soldiers on leave are required to carry their weapons at all times. It was a surreal sight to see a group of young men and women in flip flops and t-shirts sporting M16s slung casually over their tanned shoulders.
The longest leg of the rally (135 miles) brought us to Port Said, Egypt. With a bus ride into Cairo, we toured the pyramids and museums of this incredible city. The number one industry in Egypt is tourism, and for a good reason. The museums and ancient sites are incomparable to anything we had seen to date. The rally ended with a night sail back to Israel. The formal ending ceremony was bittersweet, but we had made many fast friends and already had planned lots of rendezvous with our new cruising friends. As Americans, we had never once feared for our safety and found that we were received cordially, even enthusiastically, at all of the stops. Zia’s website is www.zialater.com.