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Row, row, row your boat across the Aegean Sea

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / May 18, 1984



THE news from Greece this month is that a 15-man crew of rowers has set forth in a 54-foot boat named the Argo to retrace the voyage Jason and his Argonauts took, oh, maybe 3,300 years ago, in quest of the Golden Fleece.

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A mere myth, you scoff. But at a time when the summer Olympics are wobbling like a cracked vaulting pole, this celebration of Jason's sporting achievement offers a bit of compensation.

Starting in Pagasae, less than 75 miles from Mt. Olympus, an international team under the leadership of a Briton, Tim Severin, is dipping oars, even as we write, into the waters of the Aegean - described by Homer as the ''wine-dark sea.'' Passing through the Hellespont into the Black Sea, and then on to a site in Soviet Georgia identified as the ancient Colchis, the modern Argonauts, if all goes well, will reach their destination in August - then row the 3,000 miles back.

Severin worked out the route from clues in the account by Apollonius, written in the 3rd century BC. What good is a myth if you don't pretend to treat it as fact? As for the boat, Severin studied the Odyssey and archaeological finds to construct his replica of a Bronze Age craft, carrying 10 oars and a square linen sail. The hull, made of pine, is painted blue, white, and terra cotta. Like Jason's vessel, the new Argo (the Greek word means ''swift'') will hug close to shore, with the crew beaching at night.

Life jackets and a radio are about the only anachronisms on board, and the radio may be thought of as the 20th-century equivalent of the talking figurehead on the prow of the original Argo - an artifact that not only spoke but offered invariably sound advice.

There is a mythical quality to sea voyages. The solid world turns into vaulted sky, boundless water, and the far horizon where the two meet. But of all sea voyages, the most enchanted must be ones propelled by oars.

A single rower finds a rhythm within himself, synchronizing one oar with the other. But this is nothing to the rhythm a rower falls into with other rowers. The oars click like castanets in the oarlocks. Each perfectly timed hesitation-dip-then-thrust of the oar lifts the prow in the water, turning the boat into a swimmer - a living thing. The sea, the boat, the oars, the rowers - all become one.

When the day ends and the rowing stops, how delicious the olives and cheese and bread must taste to Severin and his men! How soft the sand must feel beneath their drowsy heads, with the sound of water lapping in the dark!

No voyage is an uninterrupted idyll - not even a mythical voyage. Jason had his problems. Hercules, the pace-setting stroke of the Argonauts, broke at least one of his oars. Then one morning the strong man of all strong men missed the boat, and had to walk to the next night's rendezvous.

May Severin's crew be less destructive and more dependable!

Further grief. When Jason collected the Golden Fleece, he had to take Medea with it, as if the treasure were her dowry. In the long run Medea may have cost Jason more than the throne was worth which the acquisition of the Golden Fleece won him. We're determined to make this a happy rower's story, so we'll spare you the details. See Euripides, under tragedy.

On the other hand, Orpheus was one of the Argonauts, too, and what sweet songs he must have sent up into the starry summer nights! If we were Severin and company, we'd forget being purists and smuggle a couple of Leontyne Price tapes on board.

But with that sun, that sky, that ocean, who needs a Sony Walkman? In his verse on Argonauts, pulling their oars against the Aegean, the Greek poet George Seferis said it all: ''The water left on their hands the memory of great happiness.''