Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Mon 12 Jul 2010 09:45

We drove from Damascus to Beirut in a shared taxi which is a popular way of travel in a region where there is very little public transport.  Our driver was a confident youth who knew the exact procedure for passing through two Syrian and one Lebanese check point.  Our fellow passengers were an ebullient and friendly Syrian journalist called Mohammed Ali and a silent Jordanian man who was very thin, which was fortunate as he shared the back seat with us.


After three hours we were back in the traffic gridlock of Beirut, and one hour after that we had covered the twelve miles to the ACTL Marina.   The Marina felt like home and we stayed for 48 hours.  It did not take long to prepare Vasco for the 90 mile journey to Israel and on departure day we left at 3 pm and stayed on deck most of the night.


Conditions were very good, the sea was calm, although the wind was against us, (typically, not as forecast) and absolutely nothing on the sea as there is a night curfew on all sailing around Lebanon, and we had to get permission from Oscar Charlie - radio-speak Lebanese Navy Operational Control. We had to tell them our destination was Port Said, Egypt.  The captain in ACTL Marina reminded us as we left "Lebanon is at war with Israel".  No-one is given permission to sail from Lebanon to Israel.  So we both stayed awake in case anything happened, but nothing did, and I cooked a pan of tarka dahl for dinner and we lay on deck looking at the amazing stars.  When the moon appeared it was red and shaped like a scimitar.  At 3.30 am I was getting sleepy, so went into the cabin to doze, and fell asleep until 5.30, by which time it was light, and Ian said all kinds of excitement had happened as we left Lebanese waters for International Waters, and a large UN warship sailed over to take a look at us, then a Lebanese warship, and then the Israeli navy got in touch over the radio and gave Ian a grilling about our last two ports, where we were going, why we were going there, if we were carrying any weapons,etc.  The radio operators were mostly very young-sounding women (‘teenagers’, Ian called them), tracking us on their radar, who kept insisting that we stayed 15 miles off the coast, but earlier, from Beirut, Ian had sent emails to various Israeli security departments, following all the necessary procedures for getting into Israel and we had also called the Haifa harbour master who gave us permission to enter the port.  Ian chose to ignore the teenagers on the radio and sail into Haifa anyway.  I had a few nervous minutes as various warships circled us and two of them steamed towards us.


Fortunately, a few weeks ago, while we were in Mersin in Turkey, Ian had met four sailors on a boat from Israel, one of whom was from Haifa, and he volunteered to help us find a berth at his yacht club and to contact the Israeli authorities on our behalf.  His name is Yonah ben-Tal and he was very helpful and influential.  The Israelis liked to hear that we had a local contact. The warships came to look at us, we answered questions over the radio and they were friendly, although LOADED with extraordinary weapons, missiles, rocket launches, etc.  Coming into the harbour we sailed past Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior, an incongruous site in the middle of the military hardware.  Haifa is a huge natural harbour, overlooked by Mount Carmel.  The town is built in neat rows on the side of the mountain.  In the harbour were container ships from all over the world and a cruise liner, but most of the traffic was military.


So, after a sleepless night, but not unenjoyable as it was calm, warm and we eventually arrived safely, we were met by a police boat, manned by three handsome young men, and taken ashore to be examined by Israeli Immigration and Customs.  These were three attractive and serious young women.  (So many people in authority seem young in Israel – or it could simply mean that we are getting old!)  One of the policeman and the security officer searched the boat - we thought they were looking for stowaways, but apparently they were looking for bombs. On the pier of the yacht club Yonah was waiting for us.  (The Israeli navy had called him at 5 am to check that he knew us.)  He helped us tie up and we went through the ritual of getting water and electricity hooked up and Ian went with Yonah to check in.  The yacht harbour is in a pleasant landscaped bit of the port, surrounded by palm trees, although there is no yacht club or any facilities other than a shower block. Yonah insisted that we return with him to his house, and he drove us to what he calls a village, outside Haifa.  It's more like a California suburb, neat new houses in small plots with lots of trees. It was all very clean, modern and well ordered (originally begun as a settlement by the French Rothschild family 150 years ago) - couldn't be more different from Syria, Lebanon or Turkey.  Yonah's wife Ruth welcomed us.  They are both retired academics, and their house is on two stories, painted white, with white tiled floors and lots of plants, full of books in Hebrew, German and English with a small garden overlooking a national park, where we saw a gazelle grazing in a scrubby landscape.  We had dinner outside - Ruth's homemade cold courgette soup with dill and sour cream, salad of tomatoes, lettuce and capers, chicken in a curry sauce, cake, fruit and ice cream.  The dinner and the house were very Middle European, although Ruth was born in Israel, in Jerusalem, and Yonah arrived when he was a year old. 


Our impression of Israel so far is that the majority of the population are people like us - could be European or American - transported to an exotic, middle eastern land.  People in the marina, who are mostly day sailors (men, very few women sail) stop to ask lots of questions about the distinctive design and rigging of Vasco da Gama. I suspect a boat from England is a rare site in these parts.


We spent the night at Yonah and Ruth’s house and the next day, after breakfast, Yonah insisted on driving us around to find a book we had mentioned, to look for a dongle so we could get an internet connection (unsuccessful), a mobile phone (unsuccessful) and a hire car.


So we will soon continue our tour of the Holy Land in the footsteps of Mark Twain, although in a rented Kia Rio, rather than on a mule!