Monday, September 15, 2008

Searching for Odysseus

Searching for epic hero Odysseus in the winds of history
Special to the Herald

Retracing the route of Odysseus, that cunning and capable mariner immortalized in Homer's epic poems, seemed like a noble quest back at the Flocafe in Piraeus, Athens' port. With one bottle of ouzo behind us and another just arriving, our band of six made the decision to head for Troy on the northwest coast of Turkey. From there we would follow the wake of Odysseus to Ithaca, his home island on the other side of Greece. We would visit lands where historians believe he called and look for evidence of his visit carved in rock.

As sailors, we were also searching for something else, something more elusive: the scent of his unbreakable spirit. That, we knew, we'd find only on the protean surface of the sea.

Chasing history is fraught with risk, especially in the moody Aegean where the sailor's saw, ''there's either no wind or a gale'' is distressingly accurate. Just days into the trip, my 47-foot sailboat, Quetzal, was pinned to a decrepit, pock-marked concrete quay on the island of Andros. Aeolus, the Greek God of Wind and Odysseus' old nemesis, was whooping it up, hurling 50 and 60 knot gusts down the steep slopes rimming the harbor and mocking our tight schedule with each fearful blast.

A few slime-covered inflatable fenders and a spider's web of chafed mooring lines secured to wobbly lampposts were keeping Quetzal from being dashed against the rocks. Feeling kinship with poor Odysseus and lamenting another lost day, I retreated to a nearby taverna to ride out the storm.

You may recall Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, as one of the heros in the Iliad, Homer's poem describing Greece's 10-year siege of Troy around the year 1200 BC. The war began when Helen, wife of the King of Sparta and said to be the most beautiful woman of her time, ran off with the Trojan prince Paris. There is nothing like a jealous husband with good connections for starting a war. During the long fight Odysseus proved brave and crafty, coming up with the idea of the gift horse that eventually led to the fall of Troy.

Unfortunately for our hero, his troubles were just beginning when his small fleet of 12 ships, loaded down with the spoils of victory, turned homeward. The Odyssey, describing his 10-year voyage home, is the best sea story of all time. Wiley Odysseus survives encounters with Polyphemus the Cyclops; Scylla the six-headed sea monster; those tricky Sirens, Circe and Calypso; vengeful Aeolus and a host other mortals and immortals before eventually return home to his devoted wife Penelope.

Scholars debate whether Odysseus was an actual person or a product of the poet's imagination. Most likely, he was both, which makes following his circuitous route from Troy to Ithaca open to interpretation.

Most classicists have Odysseus careening all over the Mediterranean Sea, from Troy to the Pillars of Hercules, to the coast of Tunisia, and onto Sicily. And while I love this fanciful idea of him visiting far-flung lands, it's not practical. Historian and sailor Tim Severin believes that Odysseus' wanderings were modest in miles but no less adventuresome. He built a replica Greek galley and pieced together a logical route that places Odysseus primarily in Greek waters. This was the route we hoped to follow.


My crew assembled at Marina Zea in Piraeus and soon the skyline of Athens retreated into its own smog. Gliding along under spinnaker, I laid out our course. The plan was to sail across the Aegean to Troy, on the Turkish coast just south of the Dardanelles Straits. Then we hoped to sail south to Crete, stopping at several islands along the way before finally turning north into the Ionian Sea and finishing up in Ithaca. We had three weeks to complete this 800 mile ``odyssey.''

As daylight faded, we sighted the Temple of Poseidon standing sentinel over a dramatic headland, Cape Sounion. We anchored in the shadow of the temple and scrambled up the hill. Climbing among ancient columns, we watched the sun melt into the sea and communed with the spirit of Odysseus.

The next morning we ambled east under power, setting a course for the narrow pass between Andros and Evia. Beyond lay the open Aegean. A three-day nonstop passage should bring us to Troy.

Suddenly, the engine overheat alarm sang out. Frantically we shut down the diesel. By the time I replaced the broken belt, we no longer needed the engine. The north wind had begun to howl, and within minutes it had piped up to a full gale.

We set our storm sails, and Quetzal put her shoulder into the building seas like Ricky Williams pounding into a helpless defensive back. Though it was vigorous sailing, the thought of an overnight passage was not appealing, and we headed for Andros instead. We never expected to be there five days.

The storm reached it's peak on Good Friday; the church bells could barely be heard above the shrieking winds. Despite the miserable conditions, hearty locals gathered in the streets. The perifora epitafiou, when a shroud of Christ is carried through the town, is the highlight of the Good Friday celebration, and soon we heard singing as the procession neared. Not hurricane force winds nor icy rains slowed the advance. Candles had given way to flashlights but the men carrying Christ's funeral bier were dressed only in robes.

The next morning we finally muscled ourselves away from the wall. Once we cleared the harbor we realized that the winds were still blowing at gale force from the north; there was no way to head for Troy. We sailed southeast instead, toward the tourist haven of Mykonos, an island Odysseus and his crew would have no doubt sacked.

We limped into the marina just before dark. Normally pulsing, Mykonos was silent, not a disco stirring on Easter Saturday. We were away before daylight.

It was rugged going, but if we weren't headed for Troy, at least we were headed toward Turkey. That night we sought refuge on the impossibly sheer-sided island of Ikaria, which had mysteriously loomed in and out of the mist all day.

The gale persisted as we continued to slog our way east. There was no possibility of reaching Troy, we realized, if we hoped to make it to Ithaca in our allotted time. But we were determined to make landfall in Turkey, and after a brief stop on the handsome island of Samos, we sailed into Kusadasi, a bustling port south of Izmir.

The Aegean coast of Turkey is booming. Aside from the call to prayer five times a day, you wouldn't know you were in an Islamic country. The region is a massive construction site and sadly looks and feels like the Costa del Sol in Spain, with more bikinis than hijabs on display.

We toyed with renting a car and driving 12 hours to Troy but instead were easily talked into visiting the nearby ruins of Ephesus, where muraled terrace houses trickle down the hillside to a city that was once the most elaborate in the Roman world. ''Troy,'' exclaimed our enterprising guide with contempt. ``There is nothing there but a pathetic wooden horse for tourists, nothing. Trust me my friends, Odysseus would never have left Turkey if he had seen Ephesus.''

Feeling guilty, we tarried just two days in Turkey and then put back out to sea.

According to Homer, Odysseus and his crew left Troy and sailed to the land of the Cicones, where they greedily sacked the coastal village. Where was the land the Cicones? Severin, the historian-sailor, believes it was near the present site of Maronia, on the mainland coast of Thrace.

Wherever it lay, Odysseus and his men made a hasty exit as the Cicones called in reinforcements and attacked them as they were dividing their loot. Odysseus lost half his crew. After this incident, Homer says that a terrible gale blew from the north, something we understood perfectly, and sent the fleet scurrying south helplessly pushed before the wind.

When the fierce north wind finally eased after nine days, team Odysseus had fetched up in the land of the Lotus Eaters. And where was that? The lotus plant is a native of north Africa and most historians assume Odysseus was blown south of Crete to Libya. Although conditions are rapidly improving in Libya and it's opening up to Western tourists, I could not secure a visa for entering by boat. Instead, we set our sites on western Crete, one of the suggested homes of the dreaded Cyclops.


The wind was light as we left Kusadasi -- and stayed that way for two days. Then a light southwest breeze emerged, and soon it was blowing 25 to 35 knots, a near gale, and coming from directly where we wanted to go. We needed to seek shelter immediately. The nearest safe harbor was on the bottom of the Peloponnese Peninsula. This would take us around Cape Malea, a windswept headland known as the Cape Horn of the Mediterranean.

We sped west. It was exhilarating sailing but disappointing because it meant that we wouldn't be able to make landfall on Crete. Tracking Odysseus was proving to be far more challenging than I had expected, and I was beginning to think it was I who had loosened the bag of winds igniting the wrath of Aeolus.

The next morning found us in a protected bay near Methoni. We carefully sounded our way into the shallow harbor and dropped anchor; again, we were the only sailboat in sight. Perched at the bottom of the Peloponnese Peninsula, Methoni is a perky seaside resort with a stunning Venetian fort built on a promontory that protects the harbor. It features a massive fortification -- originally, a save haven for merchants and pilgrims heading to the Holy Land.

From here we sailed north with a fair breeze. We were in the Ionian Sea, bound for Ithaca, 200 miles up the coast. Aeolus had finally relented, leaving us with the legacy of Odysseus's adventures with Circe and Calypso, devious lovers who distracted our hero for eight years. Unfortunately -- or not -- we were not delayed by the Sirens, and two days later we spied Ithaca.

Severin believes Odysseus was blown right past his home island to Lefkas where he encountered Scylla, the six-headed monster. Lefkas, or possibly Corfu may have been the island where a shipwrecked Odysseus washed ashore and was taken in by the Phaeacians before his eventual return to Ithaca. We were luckier than our hero; no evil wind arose and we sailed into the wide natural harbor of Vathy on Ithaca, fronted by handsome Venetian mansions and outdoor cafes.

Of course, this sweet bay wasn't Odysseus's home. No, that lay on the other, barren and rocky side of the island.

We piled into a rent a car for a spectacular drive over the spine of Ithaca and descended into the small village of Stavros. From there we hiked down to a pebbly beach and then followed an overgrown path to the Cave of the Nymphs, where Odysseus hid when he first returned to Ithaca. Then, Penelope was under a siege of her own, from a cast of suitors, trying to convince her that Odysseus was dead and that she should marry one them. Steadfastly Penelope refused them all, hopeful even after 20 years that her husband would return.

Ever crafty, Odysseus passed himself off as a beggar before slaying the suitors and reclaiming his wife and kingdom.

Staring out at the sparkling blue Ionian, I thought about sailing on to Lefkas and Corfu to further track the course of Odysseus. But I was already a week overdue, and I still had to find a secure place to leave my boat for the summer. Although our voyage had taken less than a month, I wasn't sure that my wife would be as understanding as Penelope.

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