Wednesday 4 February 2015

Sailing on the Argo - Katherine Langrish

Argo's sail against the light

It doesn't affect the magic of legends to suppose that there may be a core of truth in some of them.  In fact, it'd be odd if there wasn't, and reams of paper and pints of ink have been expended in attempts to trace the actual course of Ulysses or the Argo from port to port across the ancient Mediterranean world.  And why not?  Not only are Ithaka and Sandy Pylos and Troy, Cape Malea and Colchis real places: but there are intriguingly detailed descriptions which sound like sailing instructions: like this:

There is a rocky island there in the middle channel
halfway between Ithaka and towering Samos
called Asteris, not large, but it has a double anchorage... 

White-capped waves mean dangerous sailing

Sometimes, though, better than paper and ink is to get out there and do it yourself.  So thought the explorer Tim Severin when, in May 1976, he set out from the west coast of Ireland in a boat named Brendan, stitched together from forty-nine ox hides, heading for the Faroes.  Rowing and sailing, he and his crew got there in June and carried on, arriving in Iceland in July.  The following summer, Severin and his crew set out again, sailing from Iceland to Newfoundland, which they reached less than two months later, thus proving - not the unprovable, that Saint Brendan had really sailed to the coast of North America - but that an early medieval Irish coracle was at least capable of making the voyage.

Perhaps when you've done one voyage like this, you ache to do it again: at any rate, like Thor Heyerdahl before him, Tim Severin famously continued to recreate archaic voyages.  His second expedition, in 1984, was in  'Argo', a reconstruction of a Mycenean galley, following as nearly as possible the course of Jason and the Argonauts across the Mediterranean and up the Bosphorus and on to Georgia, land of the Golden Fleece.

Argo's beaked prow

And here it gets personal, because in summer 1984 as the expedition was returning from Georgia via Istanbul, a sunburnt young man called David, who happened to be my boyfriend and who had decided that the way to relax after three years of studying physics at London's Imperial College would be to back-pack solo around Turkey, had a certain encounter in an Istanbul post-office.   I'll let him take up the tale:


David doing the dishes, Argo fashion

Three men with arms like legs approached me.  "Are you English?" They'd observed me apparently cracking the code of the Turkish phone system - 5 minutes puzzling over a huge, flabby directory in a dingy Istanbul post office, 1984 - and getting as far as making a call (to the British Embassy, unsuccessful).  I clued them in on how the phones worked. "But what's that?" said I, peering intently at their T-shirts, from which protruded their Olympic scale arms:


At anchor

Now any self respecting physicist, but more especially a graduate of Patrick Moore's 'Observer's Book of Astronomy', c.1969 (alpha-this, gamma-that is conspicuous in the winter sky, etc), should be able to read alphabetical greek... "Argonautica... is that the Tim Severin expedition?" - the one I'd read about in my father's Telegraph supplement? I'd just sailed back from Trebizond on the regular ferry after back-packing around Turkey. They'd just rowed a thousand miles in the opposite direction from Volos (Iolcos) to Georgia; their tremendous callouses bore witness to that fact, and to pretty useless winds. But they'd reached Jason's destination and found that people still "pan for gold" using sheep fleeces there, in the mountain streams.

Rowing hard...

I enthused, madly, and was told Tim was planning to sail Αργο next year, this time following the homeward trek of Ulysses from Troy. Versus the geographically exact Apollonius who wrote down 'Jason', Homer gives few recognisable locations for the Odyssey (and so providing Tim with the rationale for another clue searching expedition) but all the book-men agreed that the land of the Lotus Eaters simply must have been Libya. That sounded exciting! so I managed to persuade Tim to take me on for that (middle) leg of the voyage.  Unfortunately, Colonel Gaddafi wasn't in the mood even for a bunch of adventurers in a Mycenaean galley and Tim spent days away on a fruitless trip to various Libyan consulates in search of promised visas (and that was before the Reagan / Thatcher raid on Tripoli).

Old and new

But we did find plenty of traces of the legend around and along the Cretan coast, from the island whose earlier name was "Leather Bag", situated at the crossroads of the Aegean, to a very good candidate (with local backing) for the Cyclops cave, complete with British wartime ration tins in the back, dropped for the Resistance. One could imagine Patrick Leigh Fermor having been another visitor, once.

Viewed from the cliffs

And we did find out what a very difficult job it is sailing a square rigger with no keel and simple rig in a season with way too much wind: and it's pointless rowing with 30 degree roll - so our callouses were nothing much to show. No wonder it took him 9 years to get back. Our particular Argo is no more (a sad story) but I did hold one of her great, heavy oars again in a ship museum in Eyemouth of all places. And identifed the black ring where the lead counterweight was jammed on, perfectly positioned to thwack into the spine of the rower in front if you got your stroke wrong. A thousand miles of that? They must have been heroes.

Argo under full sail

Stuck at home like Penelope, I was extremely envious, of course.  But there were no women on the voyage and in any case I obviously didn't have the Olympic-style muscles required for the job.  So I whiled away some of the time by thinking up adventurous things I could do on my own, such as going up in a glider - I know - feeble by comparison - and some of the time composing and illustrating my own spoof , 'Jason and the AgonyAunts: a silly tale in eight fits', which I gave David when he got back. (For the benefit of American readers, an 'Agony Aunt' is the cheery British term for an advice columnist in a magazine or newspaper.)  It was just a bit of fun, but I enjoyed making it.  And I finally got the envy out of my system a few years ago learning to sail a reconstructed Viking age ship on a Danish fjord.

And David?  Well, what do you think?  Reader, I married him.

Picture credits:  All photos by David Gahan, except for 'Argo under Full Sail' by Rick Williams: all photos copyright Tim Severin and used by kind permission of Tim Severin

Further reading: The Jason Voyage and The Ulysses Voyage by Tim Severin


Carol Drinkwater said...

I wish I could have been on that boat, Katherine. Such posts make me want to get up and go travelling again. When I circled the Mediterranean to write 'The Olive Route' (eastern Med) and 'The Olive Tree' (western basin), I obviously bumped shoulders on several occasions with Homer and Odysseus. I think today it is generally accepted that the Tunisian island of Djerba was the land of the Lotus Eaters.Libya sits right next door. I also would have encountered great difficulties getting into the Colonel's Libya if I hadn't met up with a gentleman working in the Libyan oil industry. He had driven to Djerba to play some golf!. For a very handsome sum paid out of my paltry travel budget, he secured me a visa and into Libya I went. Its Greek and Roman history is phenomenal and the sites were almost deserted. I dream of these trips over and over again even though I was travelling by road more than than by water. You have set me longing again… thank you.

Becca McCallum said...

Wow, what an amazing story (and some lovely pics too). I've just finished reading my new Folio society edition of 'The Voyage of Argo' so this was particularly interesting.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hey, I'M longing and I haven't been to any of these places! What an adventure! The only mytholopgical thing I can claim to have seen is Andromeda's Rock and that's because you can see it from the beach in Jaffa. ;-)

I don't suppose anyone wrote a book about that voyage?

Ann Swinfen said...

Lovely post and great pictures! What a pity the Argo is no more. I was reminded of my student days at Somerville. Toward the end of my first year someone I knew who was about to graduate decided that she would do her postgraduate research into Homeric trade routes. This, of course, necessitated spending her summers sailing a yacht along those routes. Why didn't I think of that?

Katherine Langrish said...

Sue, yes indeed they did - Tim Severin's 'The Ulysses Voyage'. With lots of great photos!