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The 15th Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally on JJ Moon

One hundred boats had gathered for the grand start at Park Kemer marina, near Antalya, southern Turkey, (some joining from as far away as Istanbul), introductions had been made, a formal dinner eaten, the Kemer "Olympics" played out on the lawn and all were keyed up for a 0400 start. Time for last minute checks. In the late afternoon we made one more test of the windlass. There was a horrible graunching noise, little bits of metal popped out and - total lock up. By 5.15 on the Friday evening I was stumped and, more in hope than expectation, I hurried round to the technical service manager's office. Oktay Yurtsever is a most amiable and resourceful man but he is busy. There is a joke around the marina that when trouble strikes, rather like Macavity the Mystery Cat, Oktay's never there. He was this time. "Are you going on the rally?" I said I was. "My mechanic man will be with you in five minutes. The electric man will come to the boat as soon as he returns from the town". The unit was stripped down, the motor removed and checked, a badly corroded ball race replaced, the main shaft machined and the windlass refitted by 7.45pm. I was only a little late for the farewell cocktails. All this carried out efficiently and with much good humour. Excellent service.

Boats in Kemer at the start of the rally

At the start of the rally in Kemer

Before daylight the following morning 100 boats were cast out on to the ocean by the efficient marina staff. There was quite a chop and the breeze was stiff; too stiff for the crews of one or two of the smallest boats who turned back towards shelter and a nice cup of coffee. The rest of us tore east to Alanya, generally reefed down but with the 25 to 30 knot wind over the quarter. It was an exhilarating start but an illustration of how the EMYR can be quite tough going unless crews are fairly strong and boats well suited to this type of cruising. Disappointingly, we had generally light airs for the rest of this year's rally. For some who turned back things worked out well; they were taken on later by larger boats and had an excellent time as highly valued crew.

From Kemer the rally visited ten ports and seven countries and by the finish we had over a thousand miles on our log. Harbour masters and immigration authorities required entry in daylight and there were therefore nine night passages of one hundred miles or so. These had to be accomplished within reasonable time limits so some smaller boats had to press hard under sail or power.

Alanya has an incomplete marina with few facilities but the mayor entertained us generously and promised significant progress by next year. We clapped enthusiastically.

Two days later we sailed for Girne (Kyrenia in Greek) in Northern Cyprus. This is a delightfully relaxed part of the world where we bumped into several loquacious ex-pats and noticed remaining British influence - the cars drive on the left and have number plates like ours. The fleet was too large for the beautiful little harbour so two of the eight groups, our Group 6 included, had to go to the commercial harbour nearby.

Girne Harbour

Beautiful Girne (Kyrenia)

The rally is divided into groups by overall length. Before each leg weather reports and passage briefings are passed to skippers at group meetings. On passage each yacht reports its position every four hours. This is essentially a safety measure but the regular radio contacts are comforting diversions during the night watches.

We stayed two days on northern Cyprus during which some explored the hinterland. One evening President Rauf Denktas held a cocktail party in the old castle and gave us, at some length, his views on the current political situation on the island, the iniquities of the world community in general and the Greek Cypriots in particular. We were impeccably behaved, as well we might be; we were drinking his cocktails, eating his nibbles and had been entertained by excellent musicians and dancers.

The rally was founded fifteen years ago by Hasan Kaçmaz who was the marina manager at Kemer until May and has had a major influence on the development of boating in Turkey. The objects are to help develop yachting in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and, in a modest way, promote peace and goodwill in the region. This year there were over two hundred and fifty sailors from seventeen nations taking part. After fifteen years the EMYR is still the only event of its kind which is welcome in all the countries visited. Nobody thought we could solve the problems of the Middle East but in our small way we did demonstrate plenty of international goodwill and tolerance.

After Girne it was back to Turkey and the important industrial port of Mersin. Here the municipality and chamber of shipping were our hosts and they gave us a good meal at the Mersin Hilton. (Nice dresses and jackets and ties for all formal dinners - quite a struggle for laid back yachties.) Some visited the excellent museum of mosaics nearby. Our friends Uli and Petra joined us here. It was great to be sailing with them again and to share some of the night watches for a couple of weeks. They were to fly home from Lebanon.

Next to Iskenderun close to the Syrian border where we were particularly grateful to the local fishermen who had all had to vacate their usual berths to accommodate us. We were wined and dined by the local authority but before leaving were invited to an unscheduled lunch by the mayor. Not wishing to show ingratitude we smartened up once again, got our acts together and boarded the coaches. He turned out to be another mayor, running a small holiday village some kilometres to the south; a charming man and the only Christian mayor in Turkey. He gave us a very well judged lunch and showed us over his little Orthodox church. All traffic in the village was stopped as we processed to the church and on driving off everybody who was anybody was on hand to wave us away.

A minor crisis met our arrival at the brand new marina at Lattakia, Syria. An advance party found that the marina was not quite ready for such a large fleet. This was not altogether surprising as we were told that there were currently only three private yachts registered in Syria. Additional mooring rings were fixed and electrical connections run in the two hours before the body of the rally arrived.

The EMYR is run by and for amateurs. No charter boats are allowed, not even paying guests. Each year a new committee is set up to run the show and this year it was led by Frank McCabe. On JJ Moon he was known as Big Frank, rather for the force of his personality than physical stature. In earlier years Big Frank was a colonel in the US Marine Corps, and it showed. He has a stentorian voice, is decisive on the radio and completely unflappable in a crisis. It was he who sorted out the berthing problems in Lattakia. He is also generous in response to requests for help, remarkably tolerant of folly among his fellow yachtsmen and blessed with a huge sense of humour. He is also blessed with a formidably talented wife, Tari, who among other things played a large part in organising the sight-seeing trips. This year there were opportunities to visit twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Together with Hasan Kaçmaz, Frank and Tari made an effective leadership team.

Hassan, Tari and Frank in Girne

Hasan, Tari and Frank with a local dignitary at Girne

We loved Syria. After travelling for hours across the desert we stopped for lunch at a Bedouin tent outside the astonishing ruined city of Palmyra. Climbing stiffly from the coach I felt a vibration in my pocket. It was the letting agents on the phone from Devon. "I'm sorry Barry I can't hear you very well." "My apologies, we have just arrived at an oasis in the Syrian desert and I am standing between a coach engine and a noisy camel."

Palmyra was stunning and to my shame I previously knew nothing about it. Following the demise of Petra Palmyra grew and flourished as a watering hole on the Silk Road. At its height there was a population of 250,000 souls. Eventually the citizens and their queen got ideas above their station, had coinage struck bearing the queen's image and great Caesar lost patience. There is still plenty to see preserved in the desert sand and an impromptu rendering by Tari McCabe of "Summertime" in the middle of the ancient theatre sent shivers down the spine. We also visited the Krak des Chevaliers, the Great Mosque of the Ommayads in Damascus and the citadel and souk in Aleppo. The country is not wealthy but the people were wonderfully friendly.

Krak des Chevaliers

Krak des Chevaliers

Inside the Mosque of the Omayyads

Inside the great mosque of the Omayyads

The marina at Jounieh in Lebanon is part of a very smart and sophisticated sports club and some of the berth holders are rich and powerful people. Nevertheless, each one has to sign a contract providing for the vacation of their berth for one week a year to allow room for the rally. We were given another warm welcome, generous food and entertainment and were able to visit Byblos, the Jeita Grotto, the great temple to Baal at Baalbek and Anjar in the Bekaa valley.

A wet welcome

A special welcome at Jounieh

At each port of call there is an unspoken deal between the rally and its hosts. The hosts provide a warm welcome and excellent food and entertainment while the sailors undertake to promote the rally's objects in any way they can. There is a price to be paid in speeches, presentations and fulsome greetings to local dignitaries but this is well worth it. The deal is weighted heavily in favour of us yachtsmen. The entry fee to the rally is €150 per crew member which, considering the administration, free berthing for five weeks, generous goodies and entertainment is remarkable value. There are other financial considerations of course. Some countries demand entry payments and there are the usual tourist expenses. To go on all the sightseeing trips arranged by the committee would have cost about $1000 per person.

We were now ready to face ordeal by Israeli Navy. Anybody who has cruised around the eastern Mediterranean will be familiar with the formidable instructions on the Navtex and never-ending traffic between the Israeli Navy radio operators and ships within fifty miles of their coastline. Most will have heard frightening tales of gunboats appearing alongside without radar warning, blinding lights shining on innocent boats at night and guns manned and trained on poor sailors. These are all quite true; it can be a bit un-nerving. But the thing to remember is that all the Israelis want to know is who you are and where you are at all times. Trouble occurs only if you make a mistake in the information asked for, lose your rag or try to get too smart. We were fortunate in receiving nothing but courteous, reasonable questions, instructions to proceed and a welcome to Israel.

The Carmel Yacht Club at Haifa did their level best to make up for rather basic facilities. We were able to visit Acre and Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

Ashkalon has a full service marina towards the southern end of Israel's Mediterranean coast. It was very comfortable and provided an opportunity to be astonished at the reclamation of part of the Negev Desert, visit Masada and float on the surface of the Dead Sea - not one of my favourite experiences. We shared the totemic fortress of Masada with a party of school-children accompanied by three fathers, fearsomely armed. Following a recent atrocity the government has decided that, rather than forbid all school trips, each should provide its own armed guard. Later, lying comfortably in the marina we watched the military helicopters off to visit the Gaza Strip each night and we remembered that while lying in Jounieh we had heard the crump of bombs from an Israeli air-strike in the Bekaa, south of Beirut. Israel is a fascinating country offering wonderful cultural experiences, and much food for thought. Many of our friends and families back in Europe and the USA wondered what on earth we were doing in that part of the world but I do not think any of us felt seriously threatened.

Thence to Port Said and one of the highlights of the trip. The rally boats had a trying night, latterly dodging in among the huge fleet fishing the shallow waters off the Nile delta. Each fishing boat had at least one powerful deck light which tended to obscure any navigation lights. It was desperately difficult to work out their speed and heading. The rally gathered and anchored just after dawn at the rendezvous one mile east of the Suez Canal's eastern breakwater. We dozed and drank coffee. There was discussion over the VHF on whether to require dressing over all. The decision was taken; flags were to be hoisted. We groaned. Not again! Dutifully we raised our international code flags for the umpteenth time, got into line ahead and motored into the mouth of the canal. But what a reception! Hooting harbour tugs bearing large "Welcome to the EMYR" notices, whistling pilot boats, waving fishermen and the Suez Canal Authority building covered with bunting. On tying up in the historic Arsenal basin each boat was presented with a rose by pretty ladies in traditional costume. Even the bureaucracy was better. We had been used to queues, rule worry, form filling, and courteous but harassed young officials struggling with unusually large numbers and unfamiliar paperwork. Here we had two fierce looking middle-aged gents rapping out their instructions. "Fill in here please. Captain's signature here. Your passports." Bang! Bang, went the visa stamps. "Next!" These boys really knew about admin! For us Brits the whole experience twanged historical chords and made us feel pleased in ways which the locals would probably have thought very strange.

Triumphal entry

Entry up the Suez canal to Port Said dressed overall

Suez Canal Authority building bedecked

The Canal Authority building with bunting flying

We took two days off to visit the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, were easily inveigled into buying papyrus and were moved by the extreme contrasts evident in this huge city.

Us and the sphinx

Visiting the pyramids and the sphinx

His Excellency the governor of Port Said entertained us to cocktails and some wonderful whirling dancing on the steamer quay and, together with the admiral in charge of the Suez Canal Authority, gave us a first class meal in the city's leading hotel. Altogether a few days' experience that we shall remember for years.

Finally we enjoyed a great sail back to Israel for the end of the rally, many boats sporting their light weather canvas. Herzliya is a first class full service marina near Tel Aviv. We were presented with plaques, ate our final dinner and said our emotional good-byes. Most of us then went off for two days to tour Jerusalem, travel through the West Bank to visit Petra in Jordan. Another trip to tell our long-suffering grandchildren about.

Many of us were not really the rallying kind. We joined mainly for the opportunity to sail to places we might not have got round to visiting on our own. It turned out there was more to it than that. There was a fascinating variety of craft in the fleet, all of them lived aboard and sailed by people who knew what they were doing (notwithstanding certain minor but embarrassing little incidents along the way. Ahem!)

A big rally like the EMYR engenders a powerful community spirit and it was pleasing to be part of it. At one harbour three boats collected rope round their props within twenty metres of the dock. A man with shallow water diving gear spent half a day in filthy water, without being asked, checking the under-bodies of every boat in the rally. Our own autopilot control unit failed. Two rally members, overhearing snatches of conversation on the pontoon, insisted on helping. One new friend immediately removed an identical unit from his navigation station and, ignoring our feeble protests, insisted on putting it on board saying that he had a repeater in the cockpit and could do very well without the master unit for a few weeks.

Eastern Mediterranean hospitality is no myth; ordinary people were astonishingly generous and friendly. A young man accosted me in the souk at Aleppo. I thought he would try to sell me something but it turned out he wanted only to welcome me to his country and practise his English. He asked whether he had a British accent or an American one, explaining that a British accent would be better for his future job prospects. We laughed about that and I was able to reassure him but then he wanted to know who we were and where we had come from. I pointed out groups of French people from our party strolling past, Germans, Dutch, Americans. All were equally welcome. All he wanted was that we should have good memories of Syria and take home the message that everybody was seeking peace and harmony in the region. Naïve, no doubt, but heart-warming; it was typical of nearly everyone we spoke to.


A friendly farewell from the Port Police

We sailed the exotic seas, enjoyed the opportunities to go serious sightseeing, became familiar with many interesting boats, and made friends with some lovely people. A great time!

Trip Details

Kemer, Turkey
15 May
15 May
Girne (Kyrenia), N Cyprus
17 May
18 May
Girne (Kyrenia)
Mersin, Turkey
20 May
21 May
23 May
24 May
Lattakia, Syria
26 May
27 May
Jounieh, Lebanon
31 May
1 June
Haifa, Israel
5 June
6 June
7 June
8 June
Port Said, Egypt
10 June
11 June
Port Said
Herzliya, Israel
14 June
15 June