As the saying goes, don't you just love it when a great plan comes together?
That was my midnight sentiment as I reclined on an open deck, cushioned by the cradle of a wooden Turkish sailing gulet carrying 12 passengers. We were anchored along what is known as the “blue route” of small inlets and harbor villages extending from the Aegean Sea into the eastern Mediterranean.
The Big Dipper, visible earlier, had retreated behind a cliff face, but the constellation Orion was as starry bright as a Las Vegas marquee. Orion seemed to be standing almost on top of me with his famous belt hanging like a garland from the tip of the mainmast.
We were a conglomerate of family and friends ranging in age from 5-to-70 from points as far-fetched as Arizona, Paris and Amman, Jordan. Tonight's close encounter with the heavens would be a highlight along with almost any of our interludes in Turkey's transparent bays. Usually there were a few patches of sand to pass as a beach and 25 feet of visibility under our keel. When dawn erased the Milky Way, I became aware of bells indicating herds of goats somewhere across the mirrored water.
The deck of the Ali Aga, our boat, rode six feet above the water. From a sleeping pallet on deck you could hear intermittent splashes as my shipmates simply jumped overboard to wake up. The September sea temperatures along the southern edge of Turkey match that of Honolulu.
At the breakfast call, Captain Ozbaylan outlined the day's possibilities: swimming, kayaking, wind-sailing, snorkeling, hiking, visiting a village, a walk amid the ruins of a Roman coastal settlement or a stop at a deep-water harbor dating to the Peloponnesian war. The passengers set the Ali Aga’s agenda, an agenda that could be sent in many directions by opposing desires. There is no better way of mixing history with holiday than to approach ancient sites under sail.
We enjoyed the run of the 60-foot two-masted gulet designed with a frumpy 18-foot-wide midsection seemingly for passenger convenience. Although most of us preferred to sleep on pads spread on the superstructure, the gulet also offered six double cabins, each with a toilet that included a shower. Kids loved the midship cabins with a crossover bunk.
Because the September weather was so mild, we usually ate in the open air on the rear deck beneath a canvas shelter. This also doubled as the reading room, discussion corner, late-night bar and backgammon-tournament headquarters. The best place to hang out, however, was on the midship pallet. This area, too, could be shaded by canvas.
And feast we did! We were given our choice of groceries, and could even go shopping in the various ports with the captain. Our group placed an emphasis on fresh vegetables and fresh fish prepared in the Turkish manner. The first night brought a vast spread of miniature red mullet prized along the cuisine-minded French and Italian rivieras. Delivered to us from a fishing boat, these mullet had slept in the Aegean the night before.
Other meals from the galley of chef Takin—who on occasion laid aside his pans to help weigh anchor—included chicken lemon soup, roasted chicken with tomato, cooked red pepper and wilted romaine, red cabbage salad, kabob grilled on deck, rice and vermicelli with peas, carrots with yogurt and heavenly assemblages of smoked eggplant caviar and excellent baklava.
Excitement? The most arresting incident while under sail came as we rounded a headland known since ancient times for tricky winds. With a look of distress on her face, Stephanie Whitaker, 12, flung some incoherent phrases into the teeth of the gale, but the operative word was "Overboard!" A sudden change in the winds had scattered Stephanie's homework across a school of trumpet fish skimming the blue Aegean. Four school-agers aboard were all deeply mortgaged to the homework devils in order to miss classes and make this trip. Now Stephanie must return to the American School in Amman, Jordan, with the unlikely prospect of convincing her teacher that it was the fish, not the dog, that ate her homework.
But the best example of gut-wrenching excitement came on a shore trip in a shallow-draft lugger designed to navigate the sandbar-choked Iztuzu beach, most famous for loggerhead turtles. In order to visit the ruins of the ancient port of Caunos, the boatman must locate a meandering river channel through a swamp of reeds. (Even the word meander comes from the name of a Turkish river to the north, near Ephesus, which we visited before setting sail on the Ali Aga.)
The excitement of that day, however, came when we overstayed our visit into the estuary. Our boatman was faced with a falling tide combined with a gaggle of stranded boats filled with other tourists, irate fishers and a few pleasure craft. The route to deep-water sailing was nearly blocked.
Not relishing the thought of missing his supper waiting for the midnight tidal change, our blockade-busting captain sounded a klaxon that could have awakened the ancient kings in their carved tombs along the cliff face. At the same instant, the captain indicated to his passengers—now drafted as working crew—that we must scramble to his hand signals. Racing from port to starboard and from fore to aft in order to balance the boat on a teacup of water that he found here and there, I compared our escape to one of those nature epics on TV that depict mud-walking catfish invading Florida.
The other captains apparently knew our skipper's reputation, for they scurried to pull in their lines and make way. Doomed to remain here until the wee hours, passengers on the other boats cheered our tractor-slow progress, and they raised a resounding "Hoorah!" when our propeller finally ceased to spew a peacock tail of sand and bit into blue swells of the Aegean. We sailed into the sunset with the gridlock of a 5,000-year-old port receding in our wake.
Bidding adieu to an interesting visit to Caunos we remembered the Lycean tombs carved into the cliff as a mini-copy of the vastly more famous Petra in Jordan and the crowds in nearby mud baths and thermal springs of antiquity. Painted with mud, the tourists resembled a chocolate sundae while seeking the beauty secrets of the ancients.
Other than those few occasions, however, our vacation activities grew satisfyingly routine. We discovered café life among the other boaters while anchored in seaside villages. We snorkeled through unconcerned schools of trumpet fish. We plunged into the depths to pluck a red starfish off the bottom (and, of course, return it). We sat in the empty solitude of an amphitheater amid ghosts of the Roman and Greek worlds. We hiked the ramparts of a ruined Crusader castle overlooking a harbor that had sheltered an entire oar-driven fighting fleet during the Peloponnesian War. Later in a relatively modern conflict, this deep bay bristled with the masts and cannon of British men-o’-war as Horatio Nelson's squadron converged on Napoleon’s ships for the Battle of the Nile.
Turkish wines compare with moderate-to-good vintages in the United States. In September the gulet charter price drops with the departure of European tourists while sea and weather remain mild.
Our trip also included visits to Istanbul and Ephesus. The castle in Bodrum contains an outstanding display of underwater archaeology, including a replica of an amphora-laden wine ship.
A unique scene occurred as our ship departed from Bodrum. One member of our party had missed his flight from New York and we had to sail without him. But our captain—whose navigation equipment consisted mainly of a cellphone—learned that our missing member had landed in Istanbul. Working the keys on his phone, the captain arranged a flight to Bodrum for him. Meanwhile, we cruised idly around Bodrum Bay for a couple of hours until we spotted a two-person Zodiac slicing the waves in our direction. The Zodiac and the Ali Aga matched speed and our last passenger threw his suitcase over the rail—James Bond style—grabbed the railing tand hauled himself aboard.