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Turkey’s Cilician Coast

The ruins of Side give little indication of its unsavory past   

The ruins of Side give little indication of its unsavory past   

It was a father’s dream: my recently wed daughter, Lena, and her “mate,” Fred, wanted to crew for me in the Mediterranean. An experienced sailor, back in 2011 Lena survived seven days close-hauled from the Azores to Gibraltar—the toughest passage I’ve ever made. Now the Med, with its warm seas, short distances and exotic ports, presented an undeniable reward. Lena’s ulterior motive was to also try to infect Fred with the sailing bug, thus finessing future choices between Dad and hubby—something she wanted to be sure and do before the inevitable baby arrived to further complicate future passages.

In this, Fred was a willing accomplice. An outdoorsman with a penchant for camping, he was born to a German father and a Mexican mother. He thrives on foreign food, languages and culture. His strong ego allowed him to sign on as second mate, and I promised him a week to learn to hand, reef and steer, and thus become an able seaman.


Beyond family time, I had two other objectives. First, I needed to get Panope, my Pacific Seacraft 34, from Latsi, Cyprus, to Finike. The orange-growing capital of Turkey, Finike is off the tourist track and virtually unspoiled by the commercialism running rampant elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It also boasts Setur Marina, one of the two best boatyards I have found in my six years of cruising the Med.

Second, I had been reading the history of Turkey’s Cilician coast. In the age of Caesar, those waters had been the center for a piracy that reached across the Med. The great natural fortress of Coracesium was its base, and the ancient town of Side its slave emporium. I wanted to have a look.

At Villa Yasmin, our home in Cyprus, we planned our passage: first an overnight from Latsi to Finike for haulout and repairs, then around Cape Gelidonya and down to ancient Phaselis. After that it would be across the Gulf of Antalya to Side and down the coast to Coracesium (modern Alanya) before returning home. We’d have a week, assuming we set out from Latsi on a Monday in mid-July.

As the day of our cruise approached, PredictWind, my favorite weather app, encouraged us to take our time in leaving Latsi so as to benefit from some westerlies the following afternoon as we closed on Finike. As Lena and Fred stowed provisions and filled the water tanks, I was therefore in no hurry as I began the process of clearing out with Latsi’s port police. Computers assist, but it was also apparently essential to find somewhere in a wall of files a dusty dossier marked “S/V Panope,” documenting her goings and comings. After an hour or so, my impatient wife, Amal, appeared and announced that the “farewelling” party was ready for lunch and would the skipper care to join? With a last click of the mouse, the port policeman announced: “He would.”

           Fred puts in some time at the helm   

           Fred puts in some time at the helm   

A short while later, following a light lunch of octopus, squid and red mullet, Amal and her sister wished us well as Fred cast off our bow lines and Lena dropped the laid lines from our stern. We were underway!

Once at sea, I spent some time making sure my crew was up to speed with respect to engine operations and man-overboard drills. These were old hat to Lena, and Fred caught on quickly as well. To challenge Lena, I presented her with a handheld GPS and asked her to work out our course. Soon she felt the power of knowing not only our heading, but our speed, distance and ETA as well. We now had redundant navigators.

Earlier, I had told Fred that my Cypriot mentor, Costas, and I had hauled in two yellowfin tuna the previous week. Therefore, as far as Fred was concerned, at least, the challenge was on. Although time precluded a pure fishing excursion, I had told Fred he could trawl a hand line from Panope once underway. He therefore retrieved the fishing gear, last used on that same Atlantic passage in 2011, and assessed and deployed the line, lures and hooks.

As he worked on the gear, we also discussed what we would do in the event of a strike: eventually deciding that I would handle the boat, Fred would pull in the line hand-over-hand, and Lena would manage the gaff. Once aboard, Fred would then dispatch our catch with an ice pick, after which we’d loop another line around its tail and briefly return it to the sea to allow it to bleed out before butchering.

Sure enough, a tuna soon struck, and each went to their task, although not so smoothly. First, the plastic sheath protecting the gaff would not come off, although Lena still managed to maneuver the gaff through the gills, and Fred lifted a beautiful 20lb yellowfin tuna into the cockpit. After that, Lena produced the ice pick, and Fred prepared to dispatch our catch. Unfortunately, blood now was spraying everywhere, and as I fumbled for a line to secure the tail, Fred, concerned about the mess, lifted our beautiful fish back over the side, and with a powerful swish of its tail, he was off the gaff and back in the water. Visions of sashimi, tuna tartar and tuna steaks evaporated. Each of us had learned a lesson: better-prepared gaff, sure kill, and no return to the sea without a secure line!

Luckily, besides fishing, everything went smoothly as our autopilot easily managed the calm waters, and we arrived at Finike early in the afternoon with the help of our predicted favoring wind. Once there, Setur’s office manager, Pinar, told us to proceed directly to the lift pool, where her colleague Barbarossa greeted us, snapping a Facebook pic to post announcing our arrival to Amal.

           The author and his daughter, Lena, contemplate the history of Arycanda   

           The author and his daughter, Lena, contemplate the history of Arycanda   

With little time to spare, Ozturk Bey, our agent, undertook to clear us through police and customs, and get the travel log required for cruising in Turkish waters. Electronic visas, previously obtained online, simplified this task for which he charged $110. Meanwhile, Celal, the director of Setur’s boatyard, and I drew up a list of Panope’s needs: cleaning, antifouling, topside waxing, teak stripping and repainting, engine tune-up and a new battery selector. In Turkey, labor is reasonable, but imported parts and materials expensive, so I generally supply the latter and Celal the former. Setur’s cleaners, painters, mechanics and electricians were dispatched, while I myself lubed my trusty Variprop and changed the anodes on the prop and rudder. Panope’s annual refitting bill totaled about $2,500.

Meanwhile, Lena and Fred spent some time exploring Finike after which Lena made a somewhat sensitive request. She and Fred had apparently found a modest hotel across from the marina. Would Dad mind if the young couple opted for comfort and privacy? Once upon a time, I would have decried this luxury, but I have since come to disassociate sailing with overnights aboard. I blessed the arrangement and dubbed it “Lena’s option,” mindful that it might be the way I eventually recruit my wife, Amal, for future passages.

Lena also took the lead in arranging the day’s excursion to Arycanda, an exquisite Lycian ruin about a 40-minute drive up a mountain road from Finike. From 600 B.C to 200 A.D. this town, perched under towering cliffs with a magnificent valley view, provided a rewarding life to its inhabitants. Mountain springs supplied abundant freshwater, the land ample vegetables, fruits and meats and the sea fish.

To this day, terraces climb the mountain. At the top, a half-scale stadium is carved into the cliff, while below there is a theater with a breathtaking backdrop. On the lower levels are a series of agorae for business and politics, as well as temples and a necropolis, and finally a level of gyms and baths with running hot and cold water. While touring the site for several hours, we saw only one other couple. A ticket taker appeared only as we departed. We gladly paid the $2 admission fee.

On our drive back to Finike, we stopped at a family restaurant perched above the valley. So abundant is water there that its owner has it dripping from an overhanging roof as natural air conditioning. Unsure of the menu, we ordered salads and grilled meat. In addition, the owner brought what we should have asked for: fresh-baked bread, small plates of spicy dips and pitchers of cold spring water. We were no longer asking prices—$30 covered everything.

Upon returning to the boatyard, a quick check found all work on track, so we announced our departure for the following noon. Later, our second night in Finike allowed me to take Fred for a haircut. Turkish barbers are the best. For me, a younger barber sufficed, but for Fred’s many cowlicks and abundant hair, they sent for a senior. The customer makes only one choice: “gillette” or “machina.” I opted for gillette and then realized I was about to have my head shaved for the first time in my life.

Fred took the less drastic machina approach, which employed a set of clippers. The treatment started with the head, then our beards, eyebrows, noses and ears. After that came shampoos and lotions, and finally a scalp, arm and hand massage. The cost of our “makeover”—$10 apiece.

The next morning found Panope equally well groomed, and by noon the travel lift had moved her back to her natural element, after which I took care to burp her dripless stuffing box. As I was doing so, Mustafa, the mechanic, cleared up some minor fuel line issues, and we were off.

This time, our destination was Phaselis, a small peninsula along the Lycian coast known in antiquity for its sharp merchants. First, though, we needed to round Cape Gelidonya and its “swallow islands,” where a strong westerly current once aided the ancient Phoenicians as they built a commercial empire that eventually spread across the Mediterranean Sea.

Unfortunately, aboard a galley Cape Gelidonya could also prove treacherous, and the ancients dubbed it a graveyard for ships. Accordingly, these waters proved to be the birthplace of marine archeology, when in 1960 some local fishermen alerted George Bass from Texas A&M and his Turkish colleagues to the location of a Bronze Age wreck. Archeologists subsequently adopted Jacques Cousteau’s then cutting-edge scuba techniques to recover a treasure trove of Bronze Age artifacts, which currently form a stunning display at Bodrum’s Museum of Underwater Archeology.

Later that same afternoon we arrived at the little bay just south of the Phaselis peninsula. In antiquity, the now ruined city of Phaselis boasted three harbors: a big one to the north, a small manmade one at the foot of the main street and a large natural one to the south where we dropped anchor. Tired from our long, very hot sail, we opted to rig the swim ladder and cool off in the water where we soon spied a local: an elegant turtle maybe a foot long feeding on the bottom. As we looked around, we saw he was not alone. Several little heads broke the surface, and occasionally a quiet swimmer swam by to inspect Panope. This anchorage, for us, would forever be dubbed “Turtle Bay.”

The next morning we brewed coffee and devoured pittas with honey, a delight from Cyprus. We then launched Panope’s tender to explore ashore. In the annals of commerce, Phaselis has a special place. Within the Greek trading system, which dominated the pre-Christian Med, maritime law was highly developed, and merchants employed lawyers in Athens to safeguard their interests. Two scheming merchants in Phaselis once employed the great Athenian orator Demosthenes, a lawyer by profession, around 350 B.C. to insure a cargo of grain from Pontus (the Black Sea). They then surreptitiously landed the cargo on the Attic peninsula and falsely declared it lost at sea and claimed its value. History records their deceit, as well as Phaselis’s role in classical maritime commerce.

As we rowed the short distance to the ruins, we traced the wake of countless Bronze Age galleys. Through pines, we walked only a few steps to the ruin’s main street. Off to the right there was a fine theater, now filling with tourists from buses. They struck poses, like the actors of antiquity, and took selfies. Farther up the street and to the left were small temples and an agora with shops. Finally, the main street reached a landing off the small semi-circular harbor where copper, tin, wine, grain and pottery had once been off-loaded. The original Luwian inhabitants relied on nearby springs for freshwater. But the Romans, who took control in the first century A.D., built an aqueduct (still standing) to bring the necessary water from the hills.

An hour later we retreated before the onset of more tourists, and Lena rowed us back to Panope where we swam briefly before stowing the tender on the foredeck. As we raised the anchor, we saw a fleet of “pirate” ships flying the Jolly Roger. With music blaring, they dropped anchor and scores of holiday makers took the plunge. Our idyllic “Turtle Bay” was no more. We therefore pointed Panope eastward toward Side.

Shortly thereafter the wind rose. This time I took the tiller while Lena showed Fred how to raise the main, after which an 8-knot breeze out of the southeast allowed us to continue on close-hauled. Fred then took the tiller, and we let him experience a very different point of sail from the previous day’s run. Later, when the wind died, the heat became so oppressive I challenged Lena and Fred to devise shade while I went below seeking relief. I returned after a short nap to find that they had rigged our bimini to the pushpit, thereby creating a screen to defeat the afternoon sun.

Our destination, Side, played an infamous role in antiquity, as both the Greek and Roman civilizations depended upon slavery, and Side was the center of the Mediterranean slave trade. Captives from wars and raids poured in and were sold for service in households (if you were lucky) or miserable labor in mines or galleys. What, I wondered, would remain of this infamy? Time would tell.

As it was, we arrived early that evening to find the only other boat in the anchorage just to the south of the harbor was a huge motoryacht, straight out of a James Bond movie, that departed soon after we dropped anchor. After a swim, my now-experienced crew launched the tender, and Fred rowed the short distance to the nearest dock. As before, Lena and Fred planned to spend the night in a small hotel. Upon landing, Lena wondered about the two big iron gates now open, with some gendarmerie vehicles parked alongside, and whether I’d have a problem getting back to the boat. However, I saw no problem, and Lena also noted a nearby restaurant that provided dock access.

Walking toward the main drag, which was filled with bright shops and restaurants, we had an excellent Turkish meal—lamb in the oven—fork tender and well spiced. Satisfied, but tired, I walked them to their pension and then proceeded through the twilight to the dock, where those same iron gates we’d noticed earlier were now locked. Remembering Lena’s observation, however, I walked around to the seaside restaurant, across a small beach and was able to scale a 5ft fence. It did occur to me that I was now possibly breaking into a gendarmerie compound, but I figured I could plead ignorance if caught.

As I rowed back to Panope, I realized I had left my flashlight in Lena’s pack: a potentially serious problem, as the combination lock on the companionway might be impossible to work in the darkness. Fortunately, I had only spun the last cylinder when I closed it, and it opened through trial and error. Home free? Not quite. It was now 2300 and time for the Karma disco on shore to fire up its loudspeakers and pounding music. In Turkey, holidaymakers dance until 0400, which is when I finally fell asleep. It was a groggy skipper who plied the oars at 0700 that same morning to make a breakfast rendezvous.

Avoiding the gendarme’s dock, I tied up instead at the nearby restaurant. However, as I was securing the bow line, the tender slipped out from under my feet, and I went for an unwanted swim. Fifteen minutes later I appeared dripping wet at the pension where Lena and Fred were staying and roused the owner, who took a dim view of this sopping intruder. Asserting paternal rights, however, I eventually convinced him to disclose the whereabouts of my crew. Lena answered my knock, and immediately told me to take a hot shower, dry off and bed down for a while.

An hour later we were in a cafe enjoying a rich Italian cappuccino, an omelet and a medley of Turkish savories, all of which did wonders for the captain’s attitude. Paying the modest bill we then headed for the ruins, which proved to be spectacular: a well-preserved Roman temple intruded into the sea next to an ancient harbor now sheltering some more of those same “pirate ships” we had seen the previous day.

Side was a perfect hybrid—ancient ruins, including a vast theater, side-by-side with a pleasant, modern town catering to tourists. However, something was missing. No slave market, no auction blocks, no holding areas. In short, Side’s actual historic significance has been completely erased. For today’s mass tourism, it is a sanitized ruin of benign deities. Ironically, the descendants of those same “Slavs” who suffered so in the past were now back in the form of hordes of Russian tourists to be wined and dined and treated to sand, sea and sun!

           A “pirate” armada prepares to set sail from Alanya   

           A “pirate” armada prepares to set sail from Alanya   

Eventually, after procuring some water-pipe tobacco for a friend in Cyprus, we headed back to Panope. By now, Fred and Lena were old pros at handling the tender and anchor, and we were soon underway. Accompanying us were more of those same pirate ships, whose captains apparently decided that a sailing yacht was sufficiently picturesque to warrant a close pass. From their upper decks, young girls in bikinis waved. A fair exchange of views, I thought.

Our final destination was Alanya, ancient Coracesium, the “Gibraltar” of the Eastern Med, an impregnable fortress that looms above the sea. The ancient Cilician pirates once operated from its security, gradually establishing strongholds across the Mediterranean. In 75 B.C. a young Julius Caesar, on his way to study rhetoric in Rhodes, was taken hostage by these rogues. When told his intended ransom, he berated his captors for asking too little. He then ordered his captors to accord him better service during his captivity. Eventually the young man was ransomed, and—in a prelude to his stunning military career—organized a punitive expedition that seized and crucified his captors.

Alas, the piratical problem only grew greater, as Caesar left the pirates’ stronghold intact. Eventually, when the pirates began to threaten Rome’s lifeline of grain from Alexandria in Egypt, the Roman Senate got serious and voted Pompey the Great sweeping powers and resources to take care of the problem. The great strategist subsequently divided the Med into 13 sections, and designated fleets and captains for each as part of an effort to drive the pirates eastward back to Coracesium.

Finally, in 67 B.C. Pompey defeated their consolidated fleet in a great naval battle in the waters through which we were sailing. Realizing, however, that military action alone would not solve the problem, Pompey relocated the survivors away from the sea to fertile lands in Anatolia where they could develop alternate livelihoods. Security of the sea was underpinned by development on the land.

Alanya now occupies the pirates’ stronghold, and as its dramatic headland came into view, we headed for a nearby yacht marina about five miles down the coast. Sunday morning we spent touring Alanya’s fortress in mounting heat. From its pinnacle, we could survey our marina to the north and Alanya’s large harbor just to the south. A score of pirate ships were there as well, ready to take the predominantly Russian tourists for a day’s adventure on the water.

Our own exploration completed, we returned to the marina with the challenge of clearing out on a Sunday afternoon. As in Finike, we hired an agent who earned his fee by tracking down port authorities, police and customs officials all over the city. With us as his passengers, we made the rounds, which included the homes of some key officials. I knew from experience that clearing out properly was important. On a previous visit, I had simply left and upon my return the following year encountered the wrath of the Turkish police. For a little extra fee and a couple of hours, this time I managed it by the book.

In good order, we departed Alanya with an anticipated 20-hour passage to Latsi ahead. Winds and currents, however, proved favorable, and dawn found us approaching the coast of Cyprus. By now, my experienced crew knew the docking drill almost by rote. Even an errant boat occupying our slip was dealt with quickly as we docked smoothly with minimal commands and were greeted by Amal. The passage concluded with a kiss from my wife, a hug from my nautical daughter and a firm handshake for my son-in-law, now an “able seaman” ready for another adventure. 

A career diplomat, Edmund J. Hull served in Jerusalem, Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a, Yemen (as U.S. Ambassador). In 2011, he sailed across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, where he now cruises out of Cyprus

March 2018

Photos by Edmund Hull



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