In the Wake of the Phoenicians
20-28 August 2006
Peter Hopps' s open invitation to cruise in the south-central Med from Hammamet, Tunisia to Malta, with destinations en route open to crew members' inclination, was a fantasy come true for me, especially as that spring I had completed a degree in Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology with a special interest in the Phoenicians, those first great sailors: the first to sail out of sight of land and at night and past the Pillars of Hercules; first true navigators - the first to use the pole star; and first capitalists - tho' more adventure than venture. Luckily four other crew members, Francesca Fearon, Ann Fraser and the honeymooning David and Karin Barclay-Miller, were as taken by the idea of sailing those waters and to the occasional archaeological adventure. In addition to good sun, winds and companionship, I wanted, insofar as possible, to sail the routes the Phoenicians did to their ports and to compare how their boats might have sailed the same course.
Who were the Phoenicians? What were their boats like and how do we know?
The Phoenicians, who referred to themselves as Kena'ani or Canaanite or more specifically Tyrrians or Sidonians, were a Semitic people in merchant city-states in the Levant. The Greeks referred to them at Phoinikes or 'red' people because of their red-purple murex dye trade; later the Romans, 'Punics'. Although not empire-builders, they were the major maritime force in the Med for nearly a thousand years: c.1200 B.C. - 146 BC when Romans razed Carthage, although from about 600 BC the colony of Carthage predominated as the E. Med homeland waned. Apart from their warships, copied by both Greeks and Romans, the mainstay of the Phoenician fleet were the merchant vessels or galoi (Greek round for the shape of their cargo holds and perhaps the source of galley) which plied the coasts from the Levant to the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco. Knowledge of Phoenician vessels' structure comes largely through two sources: Egyptian tomb illustrations/Assyrian carvings of Canaanite vessels 200yrs prior to the Phoenicians, and to the proto-Phoenician Ulu Burun ship excavated off the coast of Turkey in 1984, in addition to a few, very incomplete, degraded Phoenician remains. They were sometimes as long as our 56 ft. Nisida, had one bank of oars and one sail, and although the jury is out on precisely how it was rigged. They plied the Med from April - October maximising the prevailing NW wind as we were to do. It took them only 24 hours to sail from Carthage to Sicily!
Hammamet to Pantelleria
We slipped anchor at 7.45 am on 20 August from Hammamet and moored in the very shallow Porto di Pantelleria on island of same name ('Pants', as we came to know it) 73 NM 10rs 45 min away at 18.30 pm, having begun under power - as we often did before the wind pickup up mid-morning - and sailed a NW course, using engine again when wind dropped. Our Phoenician counterparts would have rowed then! As the coastline of the island - and much of the Med we sailed - is very steep, this port was probably their first landing-stage. Excavations have disclosed small pottery and other finds which indicate their presence as early as 8thC. BC and modest settlement above the current town 7th C. We decided to tie up next night in middle of a nearby, swimming-friendly cove, appropriately named Cala di Levanti. The wind howled thru a gap in the island's central mountains and our lines slammed against the buoy throughout the night.
Pantelleria to Mazara Del Vallo
We slipped mooring at 7.40am on northeast course with one reef and staysail. We moored in Mazara Del Vallo, Sicily at 15.15pm, (65.3 NM, 7hrs 35min). Our goal for this stop was the nearby tiny island of Motya (or Mozia, modern San Pantaleo) at the western tip of Sicily, to which we taxied and ferried. Comprising about forty-five hectares, it lies in a very shallow, silted up lagoon. In its heyday, however, it was one of the most important trading entrepots and settlements in Sicily, as evidenced by its considerable remains. It is the finest Phoenician site extant, complete with a characteristic topheth (sacred places for child sacrifice and burial) and a cothon a dry (and wet?) dock for ship repairs and possible cargo off-loading, in addition to a brilliant museum and house of the site's re-discoverer - vintner and archaeologist Joseph Whittaker (1850-1936), whose British family founded the lucrative Marsala wine trade. The city was destroyed in 398BC by Dionysus of Syracuse with the debut of his new weapon, the catapult, during the prolonged struggle over Sicily and its islands between the (by now Punic) Carthaginians and Greeks. Crewmembers who did not want scour the museum and frantically photograph every site on the island, found time to linger in the shaded bodega and sample the local wines.
Mazara Del Vallo to Porto Empedocle
Our next destination was the famed Greek Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, another city hotly contested by the above. We slipped moorings at 7.53 am. David, a very keen fisherman, whose gear was tragically still in the Barclay-Miller honeymoon luggage in some airport, somewhere, rigged up a line. A large fish struck and in our efforts to follow the float, gibing energetically, the line got caught. Finally disentangled, a mid-sea (and tide-propelled!) swim was called for before we reached Porto Empedocle (9 hrs and 52.5NM). Empedocles was a philosopher who threw himself into the volcanic Mt Aetna, following perhaps a vision of his home port in 2006 - dirty, greedy and mob-ridden! "This is more expensive than Cowes during race week!" Peter exclaimed. And no shower facilities or loo; instead a 'Dolce Vita' moment as Madame Barclay-Miller (beautiful, blonde, Swedish) hose showered on the deck and brought the port's skippers and dockhands to a chin-dropping halt.
Porto Empedocle to Syracusa
The Valley of Temples next day was exquisitely beautiful, even if sun-strokingly hot, but we also had a cooling overnight sail to Syracusa ahead of us. We slipped moorings at 15.20pm and hoisted a full main and yankee genoa. A steady wind (5-6 knots without genoa) throughout a night full of stars gave us an opportunity to test our course by the stars as the Phoenicians did. Does life get any better? Syracusa mooring at 12.20pm (21 hrs and 118.4NM) next day. Stunning port in one of the Greek empire's favourite cities and surely seen to best advantage arriving by sail. Hot showers were followed by good food and an opportunity to explore a city where Aristotle taught and its theatre where Aeschylus premiered his plays.
Syracusa to Porto Pallo to Malta
Two days later we slipped mooring and, for the first time during our voyage, we were not running and reaching as the Phoenicians easily could, albeit slower; we were sailing southeast into a SE wind which increased to 20 knots over two hours. It not clear how they would sailed, as we don't know how close to wind they could come: however, The Kyrenia-2, a replica of a 4th Century B.C.
Greek ship - and probably the nearest thus far to a Phoenician ship - could
sail close hauled with windspeed of 13 knots and wave height .8cm and both steering oars in operation, 78 degrees to true wind at a speek of 5-7 knots. Next day we weighed anchor from Porto Pallo at 6.30am and with the mainsail and Yankee genoa hoisted and the sun shining - as it did unfailingly throughout the trip - we sailed into the Manoel Island Marina in Malta (Phoenician Melita) a mere 6.5 hrs and 53.2 NM later. Malta was a Phoenician base in the 8th C BC and it is probable, given their preference for near off-shore islands, Manoel Island was their initial post. Hopefully, with all the new construction there, archaeological surveys will reveal much of interest and funds found to explore. Certainly Joe Cross (perhaps a Phoenician descendant?) and Annette, who joined us the Royal Yacht Club for dinner following, would agree.
What impressed me finally was this: how near the lands around the Med are to each other once you get in a good boat. With the galoi those intrepid sailors and canny traders joined up the previously separate dots around the entire Med, bringing new goods, new ideas and crafts, while creating a vast, lucrative network of mutually beneficial trading partnerships. Small wonder then the Greeks and Romans, empire-builders both, schemed at hostile take-overs!