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Med rally promotes peace through sailing

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor:

The Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally (EMYR), which starts in Turkey, is a major event that is unique in the sailing world, but it is virtually unknown in the U.S. It is unique in that nowhere else do more than 100 sailboats make an annual cruise that is even remotely comparable in terms of the number of nationalities represented among the participating sailors, as well as the number of different nations visited in the course of the event. Since its inception one of the major objectives of the Rally has been the encouraging of free movement for recreational boats through the waters of the various nations of the Eastern Mediterranean. In this respect, conditions have somewhat improved since the start of the Rally in 1989, but national and international politics still has a major effect in this area. By demonstrating that a need exists, the EMYR has greatly encouraged the development of marinas and support facilities for recreational vessels voyaging in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the years since the start of the EMYR many of the facilities along its route have been vastly improved, and new ones have been added.

The original idea for this event came early in 1989 to a small multinational group of sailors sitting in a bar at the Kemer Marina in the small town of Kemer on the south coast of Turkey. The group consisted of a Britisher named Bill Berry; Roland Boedt, a Belgian; Hilmar, a German; and Hasan Kacmaz, a Turk who was the manager of the Kemer Marina. They were doing what sailors generally do in a bar. At that time the port city of Antalya, about 15 miles east of Kemer, was as far east as yachtsmen could go since in the ports farther east there were only limited facilities for fishing and small cargo vessels and none for recreational boats. This group of four decided, perversely, that they wanted to go beyond Antalya anyway! Looking over possible destinations they settled on Girne-Kyrenia, the principal port on the north coast of Cyprus. Since this is in the Republic of Northern Cyprus they needed permission from the government there to enter Girne. By the time the necessary permission was arranged, word of the prospective trip had circulated in the local boating community, and several others had joined them. When they finally sailed, the group consisted of 17 boats with a variety of crews representing eight nationalities.

This first voyage was so successful the group decided to repeat it. During the period from 1990 to 1994 it became an annual event, and both the number of boats and the number of nationalities participating increased. So did the number of ports and countries they visited. The cruise became known as The Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally. The route was gradually extended well beyond Cyprus to include stops in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Egypt. A major change occurred in 1996. Another annual cruise called the Inter-Continental Yacht Rally had been starting from Istanbul. It sailed westward across the Sea of Marmara, through the Dardanelles, and then southward, stopping in ports along the Aegean coast of Turkey before turning eastward to follow the Mediterranean coast to end in Antalya. It was in 1996 that the Inter-Continental Yacht Rally joined with the EMYR to continue on to Girne, Cyprus. From there they cruised back to Mersin and Cevlik in southeastern Turkey before going on to Lattakia in Syria; Beirut, Lebanon; Haifa, Herzalia and Ashkelon in Israel; and finally to Port Said and Ismalia, Egypt. By this time close to 200 boats participated. Obviously the route taken by the Rally has been vastly extended beyond the modest 1989 excursion from Antalya to Cyprus.

The EMYR now starts in April every year at the Atakoy Marina in Istanbul. This is the largest and best-equipped yacht marina in Turkey and compares favorably with the best marinas anywhere else. It can provide dockage for 700 boats with water, electric, phone service, and TV connections at each slip. In addition, it offers its tenants and transients alike a full-service boatyard. The Rally now sails from Istanbul to 14 ports along the Turkish west and south coasts before finally leaving Turkey for Syria.

A majority of the yacht marinas in Turkey were originally built by the government in an effort to promote both yachting and tourism. In recent years nearly all of these have been sold to private operators. Like Atakoy, a number of these marinas, such as Karada at Bodrum and Park Kemer at Kemer, for example, operate full-service boatyards as well as providing dockage, with electric, water, phone and TV connections. The 10th Anniversary Rally held in 1999 went to 23 ports in six countries, sailing a total distance of 1,760 nautical miles over a period of 49 days. There were 116 boats registered, flying the flags of 19 different nations. The six countries to which the Rally goes, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, are not known for having particularly cordial relations with each other. However, the host nations all along the route greet the Rally with the utmost cordiality. Wherever they dock, Rally participants are given a ceremonial reception by the local authorities, and often national dignitaries are present as well. The Rally has become firmly established in the area as an annual international goodwill event.

The running of the Rally is entirely in the hands of a group of volunteer organizers. There is no paid staff. Having been invited to sail a part of the 1999 cruise, I had an excellent opportunity to see how extremely well they are organized and how smoothly the event proceeds. Six participants from five different countries made up the Rally Committee in 1999. This committee enlists sponsors, prepares the Rally brochure, registers the participants, and determines the route the Rally will follow. They work out the schedule for sailing the selected route and enlist local Rally Representatives at each port who will arrange for docking, electrical connections, and water supply for the boats when they arrive. Since the start of the Rally the boats have never been charged for dockage, electricity, or water in any of the ports it has visited.

The primary sponsors are a group of Turkish marina operators: Atakoy Marina in Istanbul, Karada Marina in Bodrum, Park Kemer Marina in Kemer, and the Setur Marina Group, which operates seven marinas along the Turkish coast. They provide the financing for the very impressive full-color Rally brochure, the Rally caps and shirts, and the many memorial plaques distributed to port officials along the way, as well as to each yacht that participates.

The Rally sails under the command of a Rally Commodore, who has the authority to decide exactly when the fleet will sail from each port. If in his opinion wind or sea conditions are unfavorable at any of the scheduled departure times, he may postpone departure until conditions improve. His instructions are issued to the fleet by radio in English. Therefore, on each boat there must be at least one person who understands English. The fleet is divided by size and speed into groups of 10 to 15 boats. When underway the boats in each group report by radio to a Group Leader, appointed by the Rally Committee, at such intervals as he or she requests. This system allows the Group Leader to keep track of the progress of the boats in the group and be made aware of any difficulties being experienced by any of them. In case of a disabling breakdown at sea, one of the other boats in the fleet nearby will go to the aid of the affected boat and tow it into port if necessary. In addition, the Turkish Coast Guard assigns two of its cutters to the rally.

When the Rally fleet arrives in port, the standard docking procedure is what we call the Med moor. With this method only the stern is tied to the dock with a bow anchor out forward. Boarding is done over a gangplank off the stern. In many harbors, due to limited dock space, the fleet is Med moored two and three deep.

The charts I saw in use by participants came from a variety of sources, none of which inspired great confidence in me. There were Turkish charts based on Turkish Army surveys and others based on British surveys. There were British charts, U.S. charts, and even charts based on British surveys published in Italy. Distances were uniformly given in nautical miles. Depths and heights are metric. The datum used on the charts I saw is uniformly WGS 84. In general British surveys were the dominant source for the charts I saw. What bothered me was that the latest survey date I saw was 1983, and there did not appear to be any agency responsible for providing corrections to maintain chart accuracy.

The tide range here is in inches, so tidal currents are not a consideration. There is a large-scale counterclockwise current that circles the entire Mediterranean Sea, but it is by no means a strong current. There are also scattered localized currents, but none of these are particularly strong either. All in all, currents do not appear to be a major consideration in the Med. The Mediterranean Sea is a relatively small and totally enclosed body of water; hence long, oceanic-type swells do not develop here. What does develop rather quickly when a strong breeze picks up is a very short-period, steep chop. Aboard the relatively small vessels that make up the Rally, this makes for a very uncomfortable passage, as I discovered on two occasions.

On a trip this long boats may suffer a variety of breakdowns ranging from minor rigging, electrical, or communications problems up to major engine or hull failures. The local port representatives' job also includes arranging to get necessary repairs completed promptly so that the affected vessel can continue with the Rally if at all possible. Since the Rally makes a number of two-day port stops, a boat that is delayed and unable to sail from a port with the fleet can often sail a day later and still catch up.

As mentioned earlier, from time to time due to adverse winds or lack of wind, it is necessary for the fleet to motor in order to maintain its schedule. During the 1999 Rally on the way from Girne, North Cyprus, to Mersin, Turkey, the engine of one of the boats blew its head gasket and cracked the head while motoring. It was taken in tow by another boat. The Commodore, informed of the problem, in turn called the local Rally Representative in Mersin. When the boat docked, mechanics were waiting. Within an hour they had the head off and I saw them wrestling it onto a pickup truck. By the time the Rally departed Mersin very early in the morning two days later the necessary parts had been obtained, the engine reassembled and tested, and the boat departed with the fleet.

In another instance during the same Rally, at about 1900 roughly five miles off Lattakia the boat I was on was motoring toward the harbor when the engine simply stopped. Efforts to restart it failed. Several radio calls were made, and within 15 minutes we were under tow behind another Rally boat. When in the harbor the local representative had arranged for a harbor tug to met us and take us to our assigned berth. The cause of the shutdown turned out to be in the fuel supply. After the owner of the boat was unable to clear it the local Rally representative located a really ancient diesel mechanic who, contrary to appearances, was a true ace. In half an hour he had the fuel blockage cleared and the engine running. Clearly the Rally representatives are well prepared to deal with emergencies.

The distances between the various harbors on the Rally route vary considerably. On the 1999 course the shortest sail was only 15 miles from Kemer to Antalya. The longest single run was the one from Ashkelon in southern Israel 260 miles to Alexandria, Egypt. However, most runs vary between 35 and 70 miles, making it possible to easily complete them in a single day. The 1999 schedule showed only three runs of more than 100 miles requiring overnight sails. The close spacing of harbors clearly demonstrates that the Rally organizers are not out to make participants prove what tough, hardy old salts they are. Rather the purpose is to make this cruise into a series of pleasant, comfortable sails on the beautiful, blue Mediterranean interspersed with many interesting social, intercultural, and educational events. In each port the local Rally Representatives arrange various side trips from their ports to nearby sites of historical interest, museums, and other cultural events. At nearly every port the Rally representative also arranges for a Rally Dinner for the participants on the evening before the Rally is to depart his port. The Rally Dinner, a sumptuous Middle Eastern feast, will be attended by local dignitaries and often representatives of the national government as well.

Since the Rally sails 1,700 miles and takes 49 days to complete, many participants cannot stay for the entire voyage. At various ports all along the way some boats drop out while others may join the Rally. There is no requirement that any boat sail the entire course. A participating boat may join wherever its captain chooses and leave whenever he has gone as far as he wants to go. When a participating boat leaves the Rally its captain is presented at the Rally Dinner with a very handsome plaque as a memento showing where his boat entered and where it left the Rally. For the host cities and countries, the Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally is an excellent opportunity to present themselves to a large group of people from a vide variety of countries in the expectation that this will promote improved international relations and tourism.