If we had happened to bump into Phoenicia while she was on the high seas then I would probably have put it down to too much red wine. Not that we drink a lot of that sort of thing on passage, but the only other explanation must surely be that we had travelled through a time warp.
As it is, however, we were safely tucked up in the harbour of Lajes, in the Azores, when Phoenicia rocked up. And since her pyjama-striped sail was lowered to the deck when we first set eyes on her we initially mistook the battered boat, with her motley crew, for a refugee vessel.
“Maybe it got lost on its way from Cuba to the States…”
Phoenicia is the brain-child and the pride of Philip Beale, a one-time investment broker who fled the City to follow his own dreams. Many are the men and women who have charted a similar course for themselves – stepping off the tread-mill as soon as their finances will permit, and setting off on a blue-water adventure – but unlike most would-be ocean wanderers, Philip’s dreams were not of sipping sundowners in the cockpit of a well-found ketch, or of skimming across the wave tops on a sleek catamaran. On the contrary: his dreams were altogether far more ambitious; and much more wacky.
For his début on the cruising scene Philip jetted off to Indonesia and organised the construction of an 8th century sailing ship known only from stone carvings. Then he gathered up a crew of locals and sailed the weird-looking pile of logs all the way across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up to Ghana. Flushed with that success, the man then set out to recreate another, very much older and more famous journey: the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa.
Who were they?
The Phoenicians made their abode at the far end of the Mediterranean, in the region now known to us as the Holy Land. Back in the BC days this place was known as Canaan, and the Phoenicians are better known to us as the Canaanites. Yes, they’re the bad guys of Bible lore. It was their land that God promised to Abraham’s descendants – and never mind the inconvenient fact of its being already occupied, hey?
It was the Phoenicians, or their kin, that the Hebrews set about bashing at Jericho, but although they had Yahweh on their side they were unable to completely obliterate their enemy; they just pushed them westwards. When they reached the edge of the land some of the Canaanites found a new way of life. No longer able to operate as pastoralists, they took up trading and they took up seafaring.
Did they do it or didn’t they?
Not content with a territory which had now been reduced to a series of enclaves within the realm of the Israelites, the Phoenicians ventured overseas. They set up camp all throughout the Mediterranean, establishing colonies on the North African coast, on the islands, and around the edge of Spain. In the course of their explorations they found the silver and lead in the Spanish hills, and they carried it off by the ship-load. They found the tin and copper in Cornwall, and they paid for it with wine.
In 600BC the Phoenicians sailed right around Africa, starting from the Red Sea and returning to the Med by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. Or did they?
Many historians consider that the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa is just a myth. How, they ask, would the sailors have managed to survive in the notorious seas which are to be found off both the east and the west coasts of South Africa? How would they have weathered the cape which we now call Good Hope but which its discoverer named The Cape of Storms? Yachtsmen circumnavigating the globe often find this part of their journey to be the toughest – with the strongest winds and the biggest seas – and anyone who has travelled this way will know that it is not a suitable playground for an unseaworthy boat. For generations the argument has been batted to and fro. Did they do it, or didn’t they? Well, so far as Philip Beale was concerned, the only way to find out whether the Phoenicians could have made the journey around Africa was to make it – in a genuine Phoenician ship.
So it was that Phoenicia came to be. Measuring roughly 65 feet long, with her pointed stern raised even higher than her prow, the vessel was built in an entirely traditional manner – without the use of any glues or metal fastenings – in a Syrian boatyard. Her lines and her rig were derived from carvings found on Egyptian tombs and from paintings on Greek vases. Her massive frames and planks are all of local woods; her twin rudders are two massive oars; her saloon is a hut perched atop the deck; and the only labour-saving device to be found aboard is the ancient system of knight and knight-head which is used to raise the single square sail. The earliest evidence for the use of this “gadget”, with its lower sheaves secured to the deck and the upper ones hanging from the masthead, dates from Arab times, but Philip likes to think that the Phoenicians had already got there first… In any event, without the use of a tackle of some kind he and his crew – numbering far fewer than the usual Phoenician complement – would be unable to make sail.
The Phoenicians are said to have sailed anti-clockwise around Africa, starting out from the Red Sea, passing around the bottom of Africa “with the sun to the right of them” (as the old Greek account of the voyage states – in a tone of disbelief), and returning home via the Straits of Gibraltar. Having built his boat in their old homeland, Philip took her through the Suez Canal. His subsequent journey through the Red Sea was fraught, but he survived. His passage down the east coast of the continent was straightforward; he simply hopped from port to port. Thus far he had done nothing particularly spectacular. But when he set sail from Cape Town he broke with conventional thinking and went his own way.
Secure in the knowledge provided by those who have journeyed before us, modern sailors wanting to travel north from Cape Town head out to sea. First we hitch a free ride on the south-easterly tradewind; then, having limped through the doldrums, we catch the north-east trades and circle back over the top of the Azores high. But the Phoenicians, making mankind’s first journey through the South Atlantic, would not have known about the prevailing winds and currents. Thus – conventional wisdom insists – they would have hugged the coast. The idea that the Phoenicians might have dived out into the wide blue yonder is almost unthinkable; and yet this is the route which Philip Beale chose to follow as he sailed “in their wake”.
To understand why Philip chose to break with traditional thinking we need to take a look at that inshore route. A vessel sailing from Cape Town has no problem travelling up the desert coast of Namibia. The sea here is often very rough and the winds are frequently above gale force, but they almost always blow from the south. Moreover, a strong current flows up from Antarctica, following the coast northwards. So far so good; a vessel carrying only a simple square sail might easily journey as far as the equator. Thereafter, however, she would begin to find herself bucking the system.
The Mollymawks once spent eleven months in West Africa, travelling between Senegal and Ghana and out to the island of Sao Tome. During the rainy season we experienced fierce squalls and lightning storms, but throughout the rest of the year the wind was light – never above force four – and it blew consistently from the north. The current also flows down from the north; and it can trot along at two knots or more. I have vivid recollections of being almost ferried past the entrance to one particular Cote d’Ivorean port when the wind was too light to enable us to close the entrance. In the end we had to fire up the engine. Certainly, we would not have wanted to have to make our way back up this coast under sail.
If the journey north around the bulge of Africa would be tedious in a modern yacht, how much harder it would have been for the Phoenicians. Brave and adventurous they may have been, and with boats capable of riding out a gale, but one thing that they were not too clever at is sail design. Their sails consisted of one square of cloth held up like a blanket, and as a result their vessels only went downwind. Needless to say, these ancient mariners didn’t have recourse to an engine to help them mount the current; however, they did have auxiliary power, in the form of slaves. Examination of Phoenician vessels wrecked in the Med shows that their traders were fitted with tholes. A boat of Phoenicia‘s size might be expected to carry 20 oars.
Could 20 men manage to row a 30 ton boat, day in and day out, against a strong current and a light head wind? Yes, one imagines that they might; however, this passage from the Bight of Benin around to Cap Vert would not be the most demanding part of a journey up to the Mediterranean. Further north, off the coast of Mauritania and Morocco, conditions are not so mild. As anyone who has sailed from Europe down to the Canaries will know, in this latitude the weather is a lot less predictable and a seafarer might easily meet with a north-westerly force six, or even a gale.
Could 20 men, chained to their benches, be whipped into driving the ship along along for thousands of miles? Could they keep her off a lee-shore if the swells were four metres high – as they often are off the Atlantic coast of Morocco?
Philip is the sort of chap who can charm back-packers into paying for a ride in a leaky old tub… but finding 20 men who wanted to spend the summer rowing a 30 ton boat into four metre swells was probably beyond even his abilities. In any event, he felt no inclination to try, because so far as he is concerned the Phoenicians were ocean sailors, not longshore men. He does not hold with the idea of a coast crawling circumnavigation; he chose to send Phoenicia out into the wide blue yonder.
Boldly going where no man had gone before
Bearing in mind that his vessel travels with all the alacrity of a jellyfish, setting off into the heart of the ocean was a bold move on Philip’s part. However, it was not quite so brave as the first voyage made over these trackless wastes. Whoever first headed this way did so without knowing what lay ahead; without knowing whether the winds would ever ferry him and his crew back home again. Philip, on the other hand, knew that he was bound first for St Helena and then for the Azores. He knew the position of the islands, and he knew that in order to get to the Azores he could make use of the winds travelling around the Azores high. Most historians would probably dispute whether the Phoenicians even knew of the existence of that archipelago, still less of the weather system which hangs about in this vicinity.
Besides, one has to ask oneself why the Phoenicians were bent on circumnavigating Africa. When Magellan set out to sail around the globe, two thousand years later, he was not doing so just to enter the record books or to prove a point; he was searching for a route which led to the wealth of the East Indies. Likewise, the Phoenicians were not just pulling a stunt; they were exploring. The costs of the voyage must have been phenomenal and whoever underwrote them will have been hoping for a return on his investment. Ever with an eye for a commercial opportunity the Phoenicians will have spent their time looking for sources of mineral wealth – or so one imagines. This being the case, they are hardly likely to have headed out to sea and left half of the Dark Continent unseen.
Has Phoenicia’s journey proved the point?
In October 2010, two years after they set out, Philip Beale and Phoenicia arrived back in the Holy Land, so completing their circumnavigation of Africa. So far as the project’s co-ordinators are concerned they have proved that the Phoenician’s vessels were capable of sailing around the continent – but in order to achieve their objective the voyagers have done something which their ancient counter-part were not able to do: they have watched the weather forecasts.
Phoenicia’s passage north from the island of St Helena to the Azores took more than 80 days – but if the vessel had not been equipped with satellite communication systems, enabling her skipper to pin-point the position of the high, it would surely have taken much longer. On leaving Horta, bound for the Mediterranean, the vessel sailed far to the north, once again making use of internet weather forecasts to aid in her journey around the top of the high
Hats off to the Phoenicians
Some would argue that the use of mod-cons in the recreation of an historic voyage is cheating. However, setting aside these quibbles, the journey of the good ship Phoenicia has certainly shown that a vessel of this antique design is sufficiently seaworthy and manoeuvrable to travel around Africa. More especially, a consideration of the difficulties involved in voyaging with a boat which can only go directly downwind has given us yotties a far greater appreciation of the seamanship that our ancestors, 2,500 years ago, possessed. After all, whatever else they did or didn’t do, these ancient Phoenicians in their wooden tubs certainly did cross Biscay and visit the often-times hairy-scary coast of Cornwall. And how many people nowadays would pull that kind of stunt in a boat which can only go down wind?
Well, there’s Philip Beale…
With his circumnavigation of Africa complete Philip now plans to turn right around and journey back through the Mediterranean and up to Cornwall, thereby recreating another Phoenician voyage. Anyone who has ever been aboard the ship and chatted to the man will have no doubt that he can pull off this latest trick; but this time, one feels, there should be no corner-cutting. This time, Philip, we would like to you to leave behind the satellite system, giving you access to Wind-Guru’s words of wonder, and we’d like you to leave behind the GPS and even your sextant. This time we want to see you do it properly, with the pole star and the winds and currents as your only aid. Oh, yes – and we want to see 20 rugby players propelling the boat along through the calms.