An Ottoman Odyssey: A sailboat and the Turkish coast make a magical combination

A couple of years ago I sailed with a group of friends from Naples to Menorca by way of Sardinia and Corsica.  Although it was a wonderful trip, we kept hearing, throughout our journey, a haunting refrain:  “It’s better in Turkey.”  Turkey, we were told, is a sailor’s paradise having more consistent wind, less pollution, more interesting things to see, better food, and lower prices

Unable to resist, four members of the original crew recently embarked on a two-week cruise along the western portion of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.  The foursome consisted of two Britons—Simon, a BBC news editor, and Stewart, a construction contractor—and two Americans:  Harry, a New York investment banker, and me, a writer who generally focuses on international business and economics.  We were joined by Ben, another American, who had, thanks to a Fulbright grant, had spent the previous year living in Istanbul.

In spite of our diversity, we share the conviction that no vacation is better than a sailing vacation.  Our faith grows out of the premise that holidays should have so many dimensions and satisfactions that the routines of normal life are relegated to the subconscious.  We like sailing because it combines the kind of tourism that usually comes about with the help of the car, the water-based recreation of a beach house, the Big-Chill social interaction of a rustic cabin, and, of course, sailing itself.

The Turkish yachting seasons extends all the way from April to October, but we decided on late August, a time that is sometimes uncomfortably warm but offers the most substantial winds.  Several months before we planned to go, we scanned sailing magazines for advertisements from Turkey-based charter operators.  After we requested and received several brochures, we selected the company and the boat we wanted, and submitted a “sailing resume” to demonstrate that we were competent mariners.  We agreed to pay $4,500 for the use of Top Girl, a forty-foot sloop.

Harry and I began our trip by visiting Ben in Istanbul.  Straddling the European and Asian continents, Istanbul is one of the world’s most remarkable cities, and Ben, who speaks Turkish with a fluency that startles many natives, was a first-rate guide both in Istanbul and as we traveled, by ferry, along the Bosporus as far north as the Black Sea, visiting as many of the great historic sites we could.  After four days of explorations, Harry, Ben and I took an hour-long flight to Alaman, a city in the southwest, and hired a taxi for the short ride to Gocek, the village where we joined up with Top Girl and the rest of the crew.

As fast as we could, we received the obligatory briefing from the charter company’s representatives, filled out forms, bought provisions, and hoisted our sails.  From the very start, the attributes we had heard so much about were very much in evidence.  Carried by a steady breeze, we began to trace a coastline formed out of enormous piles of chalky gray-brown rocks.  The sheer walls supported varying quantities of pine trees but not a single house.  Indeed, the land rose so quickly from the crystalline water that development was probably impossible.  Turkey, it seemed, was ours, and our spirits soared.

Just after dusk we joined four other yachts in Cleopatra’s Bay, so named because the ruins there are said to include the baths where the legendary beauty immersed herself in moisturizing goat’s milk.  Within minutes of our arrival a man appeared from a small outdoor restaurant near the shore, calling out to see if we wanted to order dinner.  Ben told him what we’d like, and then we took a quick swim and went ashore for the kind of simple, well-prepared male that would become our staple:  a first course of yogurt-based salads, followed by grilled lamb and fish.  The air was warm, and we lingered into the evening.

Sailing through a narrow channel in the Gulf of Fethiye the next morning, we entered an expansive but sheltered body of water that has been a favorite sailing ground for thousands of years.  Empowered by a forceful breeze, we began to get a sense of Top Girl’s capabilities.  In choosing a boat to charter, one is always called upon to make a tradeoff between comfort and speed:  at one extreme are the sleek racing boats that tend to be as uncomfortable as they are fast and good-looking; at the other are “cruisers,” which have every imaginable comfort and convenience but are consequently heavier, slower and frequently unattractive.  Top Girl struck the right balance:  even with three sleeping cabins; two heads (bathrooms); a galley equipped with two refrigerators, a stove, and two sinks; and a saloon with two additional bunks as well as a table for dining and another one for navigating, it managed to have enviable lines.  As we headed toward Gemiler, and island Ben had visited before and that he said was covered with Byzantine ruins, were traveling at a respectable five knots.

Turkey has been ruled by some of the most powerful empires in history, and the coast we chose to cruise contains ruins from several cultures, including the Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman.  And although the shortcomings of modern Turkey’s infrastructure make it a struggle to get to many archaeological sites by land, most of them are easily reached from the water.  Indeed, when we dropped anchor in the strait that separates Gemiler from the mainland, we were only a few feet from what had probably been several small houses in the late Byzantine period, some 900 years ago.  After we used our rubber dinghy to ferry ourselves to the island, we began exploring what had been a densely developed community.  In addition to the houses and at least two churches, we found a colonnaded archway that was so well preserved that large sections of its curving roof remained in place.  We were the only people there.

As we sailed away from Gemiler, I was sure that Turkey was going to meet our lofty expectations, and, equally important, I was confident that we were a compatible crew.  Thank goodness.  Spending time on a sailboat, obviously a small and confined space, and lead either to lasting friendships or to disastrous frictions.  For us, the constant interaction was nearly always positive, and involved a lot of joking.

Pursuing a southeasterly heading, we sailed toward Kalkan, and late in the afternoon we joined several yachts and fishing boats in its compact marina.  Like many towns in that part of Turkey, Kalkan was long populated by Greeks, and their influence is readily apparent; the mosque we could see from our berth obviously had been a Greek Orthodox Church until a minaret was added.  The Greeks left back in the 1920s, after Turkey and Greece negotiated a treaty that encouraged Turks and Greeks to return to their native countries.  This fueled the age-old animosity between the countries, which continues today to such an extent that most Turkey-based charter companies forbid their customers to land in Greece.  Top Girl’s owners, however, had told us that Kastellorizon, a large Greek island just a few miles from Turkey, was generally free of officials and therefore an acceptable risk.

Making it our next destination, we entered the island’s only harbor to see a picture-perfect line of whitewashed houses with multicolored doors and shutters.  We soon discovered that the image is as thin as a movie set.  The owner of the quayside restaurant where we had dinner told us the village had been an Italian-ruled fishing community with more than 15,000 inhabitants at the start of the Second World War, but that the Allied forces considered it important enough that they occupied and destroyed most of it.  The island has never recovered; today it has only about 200 residents.  When Simon and I made an early-morning climb to the highest point overlooking the harbor, we saw scores of modern-day ruins, and we came across the large shell of an unexploded bomb.

From Kastellorizon we sailed to the nearby Turkish city of Kas.  Resting on a slope situated between a large bay and a line of cliffs, some of them containing Lycian rock tombs that have the facades of temples, the town is known for its Hellenistic theater and also for its nightlife.  Going to the theater, we took photographs as the sun set behind the cliffs; after a seafood dinner, which, like dinners everywhere we went, cost less than $10 per person, we drifted into an outdoor café where two Turkish folk singers were performing.  We met a group of Turkish women at the next table, and Simon and I went with them to a rock club where the blaring music showed no signs of abating even as we left, sometime after 3:00 a.m

I generally woke up soon after dawn to make journal entries and to take long swims.  By the time I returned to the boat, Stewart had made the coffee—no one else ever did—and Simon had begun to prod us into deciding on the day’s overall plan.  Because the midday heat could be uncomfortable, we tried to do most of our sightseeing at the start of the day, leaving the middle, when the winds were better anyway, for sailing.  By midafternoon we generally found a place to spend the night; our arrivals were uniformly followed by swimming and snorkeling, freshwater showers, cocktails and pistachios, and, ultimately, dinner and stargazing.

After Kas we continued onto Kekova Island, the farthest we got from Gocek.  During two days there we circumnavigated the five-mile-long island and visited Kalekoy, a hamlet notable for its well-preserved medieval castle and a sprawling hilltop necropolis of large sarcophagi.  We also hired a small fishing boat that took us directly over what had been the ancient city of Simena.  Built in the fifth century b.c., the city subsequently sank below the water level as a result of one of the calamitous earthquakes that have punctuated Turkey’s long history.  Peering through the water with the help of a glass-bottomed bucket, we spotted walls, mosaics, and even ceramic jugs.

When we left Kekova Sound to return to the Mediterranean, we discovered a heavy wind of close to thirty knots.  For me, there is an elemental thrill in adjusting the angle and shape of the sails to achieve maximum speed.  But although I was eager to use the sails to capitalize on the powerful force, the rest of the crew overruled me, deciding that we’d get where we wanted to go faster by using the engine to head closer to the source of the wind.  They were probably right.  It was the kind of day that reminds nautical interlopers that open waters, even those that are warm and emerald green, can suddenly turn dangerous.  Even though the sky remained a cloudless blue, as it had ever since we left Gocek, the waves that were crashing over the deck made us so cold that we were forced to fashion protective garments out of garbage bags.  When Stewart took the helm, he went so far as to use a diving mask to protect his eyes from the onslaught.  For the rest of us, shivering in spite of our plastic gowns, the sight of him wrapped up in his large baby-blue plastic sack, gulping down air through his mouth, provided welcome comic relief.

Most sailors have nothing but scorn for powerboats—Americans call them “stinkpots”; Britons call them “gin palaces.”  Since this snobbery becomes particularly acute in the midst of difficult conditions, it was ironic that when we escaped the rough seas by entering a sheltered cove, we spotted a large powerboat that was carrying several American friends.  It was a Turkish “gullet,” a kind of boat that was designed specifically for charter holidays and that has become increasingly popular in recent years.  Boarding the sixty-foot wooden-hulled craft—which had masts although it never used any sail—we could readily see just how different their experience was from ours.  While we charted courses and hoisted sails and sometimes braved challenging seas, our friends spent their days lounging around a vast deck, waiting for a four-man professional crew to serve meals and move their motel-like craft from place to place.  Although there is something to be said for their approach (they were, after all, seeing many of the same places we were, and the magic of sailing, is unaccountably, invisible to some), we were happy not to be a part of it.

Three days later, suddenly the last day of our voyage, we had returned to the Gulf of Fethiye and were enjoying what was probably our single best day of sailing.  When I took my last turn at the helm, the wind was constant, at fifteen to twenty knots, the seas were relatively calm, and we were surrounded by the dramatic terrain that continued to astound us.  As we hurtled along at an invigorating speed, my faith in the perfection of sailing vacations had never been stronger.

G. Bruce Knecht is currently a Reuter fellow at Oxford University.