A Sail Among Isles And Ruins Along Turkey's Coast

Charting a sloop brings adventure and taste of local culture on the eastern Mediterranean

A recent flurry of sailing stories about the "Turquoise coast" stirred a longstanding interest in checking out this history-laden shore.

Having survived an endless New England winter, I reasoned, warranted a Mediterranean cruise. This devious conclusion was shared by another seafaring couple - companions on previous sailings in Maine and the Caribbean. Here was our opportunity to convert winter armchair cruising into reality.

Travel agents offered the heralded "Blue Voyage'' - a luxury cruise on 50- to 90-foot motor-sailor Gulets, featuring private staterooms, crew, skipper, and all amenities. This offer got short shrift from us. We elected to charter our own "bare boat" - a 32-foot Beneteau sloop - and declined the offer to employ a local skipper.

Although Turkey is struggling for economic stability and contending with vexatious political problems, the scene at the marina was one of bubbling prosperity. Marmaris Harbor, with more than a thousand slips, was bustling with crews cleaning up and preparing for new charterers.

Until 1957, when it was leveled by an earthquake, Marmaris was a small fishing village on Turkey's Lycean coast. Known in ancient times as Physkos, Marmaris Bay was a vital stop on the Anatolia-Rhodes-Egypt trade route.

Today, from Instanbul, Marmaris is a short flight and two-hour drive from Dalaman Airport. The town is now the most popular yachting center on the Mediterranean coast. Along the harbor are the usual boutiques, upscale cafes, and rug shops catering to the yachting crowd. Still, the Turkish flavor prevails due to the presence of the 16th-century Ottoman citadel built by Sultan Sleyman the Magnificent.

It was encouraging to discover that our charter, Yuksel XXV, was a sturdy vessel. Vessels here are tied to the dock stern-to, separated by bumpers from boats next to them, unlike in the United States where boats come alongside to dock. Putting a small sailboat in reverse is as tricky as backing an 18-wheel semi into a parking space. In fact, it's trickier - a truck needn't deal with winds and currents.

On a clear morning, we stocked up at the Marmaris supermarket, untied the stern lines, slipped the bow line mooring, and headed out toward the breakwater. The dock master had furnished us with an itinerary for the next seven days, given us a chart, and, most important, the pilot book, a collection of small-scale drawings and personal hints - assembled by previous skippers - detailing the rock-festooned harbors along the coast.

An armada of yachts

Motor-sailing out of the harbor toward the light on Yildiz Adasi, we were part of an armada of hundreds of sailboats 30- to 60-feet long, most flying German ensigns, some British, and ours the only American flag we could see. Past the headland, with the promontory on Ada Burna astern, we became part of a group of about 20 yachts quickly separating from one another and going toward their specific overnight destinations. Hundreds of harbors beckoned.

Gemiler Island, just beyond the Gulf of Fethiye, was our objective. On rounding Karacoraen Island, heading for the anchorage on the north side of Gemiler, we were greeted by an enterprising lad offering a variety of comestibles from his dinghy. He also offered to guide us to a dock where we could tie up for lunch. We declined the invitation, but he persistently followed us to our anchorage spot. We purchased some freshly baked pita and olives and agreed to have him pick us up later that evening for dinner and "entertainment" at his restaurant.

Gemiler Island, typical of this coastal area, is dotted with ruins of Persian, Greek, and Byzantine settlements. During an early morning hike we came across toppled pediments, fragments of arches, and floors of mosaic waiting to be uncovered.

Sayin, now our Gemiler guide, picked us up in the afternoon and motored us to shore. Dinner was lamb and fish prepared by Sayin himself. As the sun was setting, he built a fire on the beach. Later, his father came by with four companions. Sayin's father played native songs on his violin while his friends sang and performed a local dance - the entertainment Sayin had promised.

Olu Deniz - or dead sea - is a body of water a few miles north of Gemiler, and was the next stop on our itinerary. Sayin's brother, Nuri, motored us across the bay. As soon as we passed the headland, we collided with a growing wind and rising seas. It suddenly became too dangerous to return to our anchorage. We continued on to Olu Deniz with four-foot seas on our stern. It took skillful handling to keep the small boat from being swamped.

On the beach at Olu Deniz, it was apparent that we could not return to Yuksel XXV in Nuri's rowboat. We asked help from some fishermen, who said it was too risky for them in the growing seas. I was increasingly concerned about our boat because I had not removed the bimini (a canvas awning draped over the boom).

Once we arrived back at Gemiler, all the local boats had been beached and the wind was raging. We helped Sayin get his boat into the bay, and motored to our yacht. One person was on board about to start our engine, another was holding the boat off a big rock near shore. Our bimini, as feared, served as a sail and our anchor was dragging. Just in time we untwisted the stern lines now tangled with the dinghy painter, removed the bimini, and re-anchored across the bay. Our rescuer was the captain of a huge Gulet anchored alongside Yuksle XXV. The entire spectacle was witnessed by the Gulet's passengers sitting on deck. Hmmm.

Cleopatra's baths

An early morning departure led us to Gcek, with its tranquil bays and invitation to swim in what is purported to be Cleopatra's baths. En route, we were pelted with a severe rainstorm. The sun emerged as we entered the harbor and found an uncrowded port, a lovely town with a strand of restaurants and shops.

Gcek could be a Marmaris or Bodrum in the making. Now it is populated by only 2,500 - with a summer increase to 5,000.

Coker Tuncay, an ex-merchant marine officer from Istanbul, manages Gcek's largest marina. He laughs at the notion of a five-star hotel around his harbor. "The local government," he declares, "just won't have it." Well, maybe. Like most settlements along the sea, fishing and farming are the staples of the economy. When yachts and services enter the economy, the area flourishes - and so do environmental problems; a growing concern here.

We spent two days of cruising around Skopea Limani's, crystal clear waters poking into quiet harbors and, at last, we were off for our return to Marmaris.

As we joined the returning armada beating toward Marmaris harbor it wasn't too much of a stretch to envision Homer's Pelasgians - those "tribes of the sea" - who sailed these waters centuries ago.

Augmenting the pilot's book, the Blue Voyage sailor would do well to dip into Herodotus, or, at least the Durants, for this Med sail is indeed an expedition through the landmarks and ruins of 3,500 years of Western history.

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