My goal, I thought, was modest: two weeks from Cyprus to Mykonos and then two more weeks for the return via Santorini and Rhodes. Not too much to ask of a boat, skipper and crew that had crossed the Atlantic. I had even envisioned the article I would write: Five Best Isles of the Aegean. Unfortunately, Mother Nature and Father Time both thought otherwise and combined forces to not only sorely test the skipper and crew, but also prompt the question: when does an aging skipper with an aging boat forego the sea?
The first challenge was getting from my home port of Latsi in northwest Cyprus to Finike on Turkey’s Lycian coast: a trip that usually takes about 24 hours, with either favorable winds (from the west or southwest) or a reliable engine. My crew for the passage, Mike Niemi, had also sailed with me many times. Like me, Mike owned a Pacific Seacraft 34 and shared my confidence in this bluewater cruiser.
Unfortunately, Panope’s engine, at 30 years and nearly 3,000 engine hours, was far from reliable. A recent anchoring mishap, for example, (see SAIL November 2018) had led to overheating, and the flow from its exhaust was anemic. The long August holiday in Cyprus also meant mechanics and parts were scarce, and local repairs would require a lengthy delay. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Finike’s Setur Marina promised one of the best boatyards in the Med. So, with favorable winds predicted, I decided we should sail and rely as little as possible on my Yanmar 3HMF.
That decision was initially rewarded. Close-hauled, we could sail a rhumb line to Finike at a stately 3 to 4 knots. The first 24 hours passed pleasantly. Going into our second night, we approached Cape Geldonya, which the ancient historian Pliny had styled the “graveyard of the Mediterranean.” We were very close to weathering its outer isles and avoiding a long, slow tack back out to sea. With visions of a morning arrival in Finike tempting us, we fired up the Yanmar and managed to clear the cape before gray smoke signaled the engine had had enough. Becalmed, we saw far off to the north the lights of Finike.
Mike took his watch at 0300. At 0600 I poked my head into the cockpit and was delighted to see that in spite of the feeble wind Mike had halved the distance to Finike. By about 0900 we could see the marina, but our wind was gone. With fingers crossed, we started the engine and oh so gently motored the last few miles into the harbor, past the fuel dock and into the lift pool of Setur’s boatyard. Our problems, I believed, were over.
Panope’s lift onto the hard proved embarrassing, with a flutter of plastic visible in the raw-water through-hull. The anemic exhaust had a painfully obvious cause. Red-faced, I nevertheless asked Mustafa, the mechanic, to inspect and service the engine fully. Fortunately, I carried aboard not only filters, belts and O-rings, but manifold gaskets, engine paint and many exotic parts. The spares redeemed my reputation.
I also had aboard not only a full set of pre-made standing rigging to replace the 30-year-old originals but new chainplates, a nifty LED masthead light and new VHF antenna. Five days of intensive labor instilled confidence that the boat was ready for any challenge.
Unfortunately, it was also now becoming clearer what exactly that challenge entailed. We were headed west then northwest into the meltemi, the Aegean’s hyperbaric wind. My research said these winds “abated” in September, but Predictwind, my smartphone app, showed otherwise. We had about 72 hours of relative calm to skirt the Turkish coast westward to Kos and then make the 70-mile hop to Rhodes. Thereafter, the charts ran orange/red—30 knots of wind, on the nose.
Spurred on by this forecast, we left Kos late that Sunday afternoon, anticipating arrival in Rhodes the following morning. We motored easily at first, then into increasing winds and seas, making steady progress until around 0200 when the engine gave a mighty clunk and stopped dead about 20 miles from our destination.
Checking the bilge I found it nearly full of black, oily water. After pumping out, I went forward to raise the main while Mike steered as best he could. I raised the boom with the topping lift, then attempted to raise the sail, but the halyard would not budge. Dodging the swinging boom and peering up into the darkness, I guessed the line had probably come off the masthead sheave in the process of re-rigging.
We were now drifting southward with nothing between us and Libya, and Mike suggested we return to Kos, which had a competent boatyard. The wind was also fair, so we deployed the jib and I used a spare halyard to hoist the storm trysail. Soon after, the morning light allowing for an examination of the engine, our problem was obvious: the riser pipe from the exhaust elbow had sheared, flooding the bilge with exhaust water. As Mike sailed, I tried to remove threads from the elbow so I might re-attach the pipe. No joy. I then resolved to remove the entire exhaust unit and replace it with a spare. Unfortunately, the corroded bolts would not budge. We were once more a pure sailing craft. The tail of the meltemi took us as far as the inlet leading to Kos marina, which sent out a boat to ease us into the boatyard.
Dreams of Greek isles faded in the following days as the meltemi gathered force in Rhodes and the Dodecanese. Mike departed, and two more crew, Rick and David, arrived as the Turkish mechanics fitted the new exhaust system. Riggers explained the halyard problem: in the previous re-rigging in Finike, Suleiman had switched the main halyard, normally starboard, to port and the identical jib furler halyard, normally port, to starboard. In the dark, I had simply been pulling the wrong halyard.
Studying the winds, I concluded there would be many days waiting for a window to Rhodes and more Meltemi problems sailing from Rhodes to Mykonos. With the lovely town of Kos, reputedly the most popular tourist destination for Turks in the entire country, and an inviting marina, I re-oriented the cruise to the Turkish coast.
Now the brisk winds from the northwest were welcome as David, Rick and I took Panope out for a sea trial. All appeared well, so we agreed upon the following day’s sail to the barrier Island of Kekova, exploration of its ruins, both ashore and sunken, and an overnight at anchor. We, therefore, cast off lines the following morning and sailed past the islets off Kos and the Greek island of Castelorrizo, arriving at the entrance of Kekova by early afternoon. To maneuver through the narrow entrance, though, we needed the engine, and it refused to even turn over. A new gremlin had appeared.
Quickly I abandoned our plan to enter the restricted waters of Kekova, and since the wind prevented us from returning to Kos I again decided it would be best to continue downwind: this time back to Finike, some 30 miles to the southeast. My crew rose to the challenge, and we enjoyed a comfortable reach until sunset when the winds shifted into the southeast, and our process gradually slowed, then stopped. With night approaching, I placed a Satphone call to the marina to provide our location and request help. Several hours passed before the Turkish coast guard arrived to ascertain our safety and called a fishing boat to tow us in. Exhausted but relieved, we arrived at the Finike boatyard around 2300.
The following day brought solutions. Finike’s electrician quickly diagnosed our mechanical problem as a failed power cable and replaced it. My longtime agent in Finike, Ozturk, also negotiated a relatively modest fine to resolve the transit log issue, and the crew had a day to rest and enjoy Finike’s excellent fish restaurant.
The day after that we set out under engine for our failed visit to Kekova. Our progress was smooth, and by mid-morning, we approached the Castle overlooking the Kekova Roads. Traditionally dressed Turkish women waved us into the docks from where we could ascend the castle and have lunch. Finally, it felt as if the cruise was following “the brochure.” Views from the castle height were striking, and our hostess provided fresh seafood for lunch. We were set. I imagined a short trip to a nearby anchorage, gin and tonics at sundown, and spaghetti bolognese.
Alas, the gremlins were back! The engine would not start. Although lights showed power to the switch, the starter button provoked no cranking, just wisps of smoke from the control panel. We took out the panel and inspected the switch and starter button, which we rewired, to no avail.
Our hostess was concerned for us, but also for her dock space, which she needed for the afternoon tour boats. Her English matched my Turkish, but I understood that Ali “with the big brain” was her remedy. Shortly thereafter Ali appeared with his fishing boat, and Rick and David improvised a bridle to distribute the load between the bow cleats and a long, robust tow line. We then proceeded to nearby Ucagiz, where Ali came aboard. He normally captains a traditional tourist boat—a gulet—for the famous Blue Cruise. Inspecting the wiring, switches, button and starter motor, he quickly concluded the latter was our problem. Better still, he claimed a friend in a nearby town could fix it.
Wishing us a pleasant dinner, Ali took off, starter motor in hand, but dinner was far from relaxed. Ali’s promised hour of work stretched into three. Finally, I called on my Turkish phone. “No problem,” Ali replied. The motor was fixed, he was finishing his dinner and would be back at the boat shortly. He arrived about 2200 and re-mounted the starter motor by flashlight. The moment of truth came. We switched the engine on and experienced an unexpected sense of relief as it started promptly. In payment for the tow and repair, Ali asked only about $100.
Morning found the starter still working, and Predictwind promised a rare calm until mid-afternoon, so we set off early. By noon, we were back in our friendly Kos marina, this time without help. Not understanding or fully trusting the repair, I asked the marina to find me a new starter motor, after which Rick, David and I celebrated with gins and tonics and the skipper’s spaghetti bolognese. The next day they were on their way by taxi to Fethiye and a fast ferry to Rhodes.
The downtime that came after Rick and David’s departure occasioned some hard questioning on my part. Even before the passage, I had debated my fitness at 69 years for offshore cruising. Ironically, I now realized that my boat, or at least its engine, might be even more problematic than my body. Had I experienced a run of bad luck or had the Yanmar worn out? Mike had replaced his engine and estimated that I would spend about $20,000 to replace mine. I resolved to consult with a Yanmar professional for advice.
The following week brought Nick, my final crew, to the nearby island of Castellorizo by ferry. We relaxed at a cafe on its spacious waterfront, then hired a speedy boat to take us to its “blue cavern,” which locals claim surpasses Capri. We were not disappointed. After a swim there, we boarded the ferry to return to Turkey. Apparently very few make a one-way passage into Turkey, and the ferry crew found it difficult to add Nick to the passenger list. An incomprehensible discussion took place between the Greek and Turkish authorities. Finally, the ferry set sail with Nick, now deemed my “son,” aboard.
Nick, who studied management at Yale with my son-in-law, proved excellent crew. He had been practicing by sailing a dinghy on the Charles River in Boston and quickly transitioned to the keelboat. The following day, we headed southwest for some stops in Kekova and Finike en route to Latsi. I had been unable to get a new starter motor and so crossed my fingers each time we resorted to the Yanmar. However, Ali’s repair held up admirably, and we dropped anchor in the Kekova Roads. The next morning I dutifully checked the engine and discovered the alternator drive belt hanging by a thread. We must have just made it to the anchorage. Fortunately, this problem was a fairly straightforward one, I had ample spares, and with Nick’s help, I detached the worn belt and mounted a replacement. We then rewarded ourselves with a visit to the castle and an early lunch. As we ate, a German boat arrived with its own problem: the skipper had severely injured his ankle and was being medevaced overland to Finike. It was a reminder that, for all our problems, we had avoided serious injuries—a blessing.
Our journey from there to Finike was directly downwind, so Nick got to practice sailing wing-and-wing. Upon reaching the marina, the Yanmar started immediately, and we took our Med mooring easily. I blessed Ali. We used the following day to visit the ancient site of Arycanda and then set out on Sunday morning for Latsi. Predictwind promised wind from the west-southwest until evening but then calm for nearly 48 hours. Once again we would need the Yanmar or spend a long, long time getting home.
All proceeded handsomely, and we sailed on a broad reach until sunset. Then, as the wind faded, we again tried the engine. It started smartly. Around 2200, as we settled into our night watches, I checked the engine to find the engine pan accumulating liquid A close examination showed moisture on the primary fuel filter and diesel dripping from it. Another gremlin. As with the shredded drive belt, we had a problem, but also a potential solution. With Nick’s help, I replaced the filter element and bled the fuel line. The engine started but soon sputtered to a stop. I repeated the bleeding. This time the engine ran smoothly. With no prospect of wind for a couple of days, we set the autopilot and ran southeast. The Yanmar ran and smoothly, and at noon, only a couple hours overdue, we arrived in Latsi and gratefully eased into our old slip.
I felt like a nautical Houdini—escaping time after time from adverse winds and breakdowns. Something, I resolved, must change. But what? Two weeks later, I was back in the United States, and my first call was to “Scooter” at Pacific Seacraft. I explained my three options: overhaul, re-engining and restricting myself to coastal sailing. Ignoring the third (an undignified fate for a bluewater boat), Scooter recommended the overhaul. My current Yanmar engine, he argued, was a classic and, with proper servicing, more reliable than a modern, more sophisticated version. “That’s what I’d do,” he insisted. A second consultation with a boatbuilding friend concurred. A total overhaul was my best bet.
I considered: on the one hand, the summer had raised questions about my engine, questions good mechanics could address. On the other, it had also challenged my fitness. With helpful crew and clever Turks, though, I had met those challenges. So neither my engine nor I (I choose to believe) have reached their expiration date.