Full article from edition 5

Circumnavigating Africa – could the Phoenicians have outstripped the Portuguese by a millennium? Philip Beale was determined to find out…

Review by Janet Gleeson

Images: Philip Beale odyssey

Sailing Close to the Wind

Imagine yourself hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia, skippering an unwieldy ship through pirate-infested waters. You have no weapons on board – your only defence against attack is an LRAD sonic device that emits an ear-splittingly painful sound, your engine is not strong enough to power the ship at speed and you can sail in one direction only: downwind.  Then, one evening at dusk, you spot the lights of a large boat that seems to be coming closer. Keenly aware that several vessels in this area have been attacked by pirates in recent days and anxious to avoid an unplanned stay in a Somalian cave, you keep close watch.  The mystery ship is twenty metres astern and closing when its lights suddenly disappear. With a sinking heart you follow suit, extinguishing all lights. There is no moon and, assuming the worst, your only hope of evading attack is a slender one – to try and lose the pursuing vessel in the gloom.  You quickly realise the futility of the plan – the ship turns, and heads directly towards you; it shows no sign of slowing down….

This was just one of the moments when Philip Beale must have questioned the wisdom of the course (metaphorical as well as literal) he had chosen.  In his recently published book, Sailing Close to the Wind, Beale tells us how he came to leave the home comforts of Purbeck village life, and put what many believed was a mad theory to the test.  To prove that the first circumnavigation of Africa could have been by the Phoenicians in 600BC, a thousand years earlier than conventional history records, he had built a replica ship and was following the same route.

Even before he confronted the terrifying threat of piracy, the voyage had been fraught with complication. He had persuaded sponsors to help with the financing and equipping of the project, identified boat builders capable of constructing a Phoenician vessel and located the traditional materials they would need.  Add to these challenges the logistics of assembling the necessary equipment, medical supplies and boat fittings, navigating them past obstructive security officials and corrupt port authorities; plus the delicate but essential task of enlisting people willing to face the unknown dangers of long periods at sea and join him as crew members.

Phonecia at anchor off Capetown

Most people would have crumbled at such hurdles but Beale’s quietly insatiable appetite for intrepid exploits of the maritime variety was unwavering. Driven by a yearning for adventure, from boyhood he had modelled himself on Thor Heyerdahl who famously navigated his raft Kon-Tiki five thousand miles across the Pacific in 1947. ‘I always sailed and dreamed of undertaking such a project myself,’ he says. Unlike most children, Beale’s passion for exploration did not fade with the passing of time. After a degree in politics he joined the Royal Navy, went through Dartmouth and served on HMS Cardiff and HMS Shetland. ‘My expectations were that this would be a path to adventure. I hoped I might be able to do things like the Whitbread Race, only to be told that this would be ten years down the line if I was lucky.’ Disappointed and too impatient to wait, he left after three years and went to work in the city with the intention of earning enough money to pursue his dream. ‘In a way it sounds calculating, but it wasn’t quite as bad as that. I’d always been interested in finance and business and I look back on it now as a great time. But nagging away was always this great ambition.’

The lead singer in traditional costume at the expedition launch

Phoenicia was not Beale’s first foray into the world of historical sea adventure. In 2003 he had undertaken a similar project, constructing a replica Indonesian double outrigger of the 8th century, known as a Borobudur ship, then sailing it twelve thousand miles across the Indian Ocean from Jakarta to Ghana. The idea for the Phoenicia expedition came in 2004 when, hungry for a new challenge, he was reading the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, and a passage grabbed his attention.  Herodotus described a journey made by the Phoenicians around Africa from east to west, travelling through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, around the Cape into the Atlantic Ocean and returning through the Mediterranean.

Beale knew that, according to conventional history, the first people to navigate this route were the Portuguese in the 16th century.  Could the Phoenicians have outstripped them by a millennium?  Gripped by the idea of retracing the voyage in a replica boat to show this could have been the case, he sought the advice of leading Phoenician experts and marine archaeologists. The result was a ship design based on archaeological data – such as shipwrecks and images on coins and pottery.

Phoenicia was built on the Syrian island of Arwad, where traditional boat building was still thriving. ‘We used the ancient construction method in which the planks of the hull are first assembled and the ribs inserted afterwards,’ Beale explains.  The finished vessel was 20 metres long and 6 metres wide with a shallow hull. ‘It is a tubby sort of boat,’ Beale says, ‘almost a third wide as long. It has no real keel so there is no lateral resistance and any wind on a beam makes it crab sideways.’

First planks on the keel
Mortice and tenon joints on Phoenicia
Completed hull with frames for bunks being added

The expedition set off from Arwad on 11th August 2008, heading through the Suez Canal for the Red Sea where, according to Herodotus, the Phoenicians had begun their journey. At this point there was no engine on board and they were reliant on tugs or other shipping to tow them.  It was only when they reached the Gulf of Suez and began sailing that they realised the difficulties posed by sailing a ship of such primitive construction in busy 21st century waters.  In high winds her rudders and sails were unmanageable and, at one point, they were left drifting helplessly on a collision course with two oil platforms.  At Port Berenice, an isolated Egyptian naval base near the border with Sudan, the expedition hit a low point and five members of the crew, worn out by the difficulties, decided to leave. ‘They had lost confidence, couldn’t deal with the thrills and spills or see how the problems we faced could be solved,’ says Beale.

A second thwart is added in Port Berenice to support the quarter rudders

Pride rather than determination kept him going. ‘I used to say to myself this is completely bonkers; why am I doing it?  But I could never see how we could give up.  It would have been too humiliating and I couldn’t just leave the boat to rot in some African port.’ Even so the crisis made him reassess his original plan and make several fundamental compromises – including the installation of an engine to help steer Phoenicia safely in and out of ports.

It wasn’t only Phoenicia’s lack of manoeuvrability that made life testing for her crew. Her Spartan living quarters added to the rigours: ‘There was a cabin on deck where the cooking, navigating and eating took place. Below, in the forward section, was an open compartment with eight bunks on each side.  Everyone had a place to sleep and, depending on how lucky you were, you got a top bunk or a lower one.’  There was no shower – washing was mainly by bucket and sea water – and although to begin with there was a proper yacht toilet installed in the cabin, this was soon replaced by a more traditional (but precarious) wooden seat suspended over the port side of the bow with a canvas modesty screen around it. ‘It was particularly challenging at night time,’ admits Beale, ‘and one morning in the Indian Ocean I woke up to discover the whole thing had gone overboard.  So using it was tricky – you had to pick your moments.’

Carved from Purbeck oak, the figurehead is a long way from home

The longest leg of the twenty thousand mile journey took 84 days, when they were sailing through the perilous waters of the Atlantic Ocean. By then they had braved Somali pirates (the threatening boat had turned out to be a fishing vessel and was probably as scared as they were) and the mountainous seas of the Cape of Good Hope.

Throughout the voyage Beale claims that the lack of privacy was rarely a problem. ‘Most people were fairly grown up about it.’ Even so, with a mixture of Indonesian and Syrian Muslims and westerners in the crew he admits there were occasional cultural clashes. ‘We had to ask the girls to cover up although, interestingly, one of the Muslims did admit that while he thought women in bikinis was offensive, he also liked it!’  Another awkward moment came when two of the Indonesian crew took exception to couples bunking together, believing they would bring bad luck on the ship. ‘We got around the problem by telling them the couple in question were married. It seemed to work,’ he says with a wry smile.

Days at sea followed a continual rhythm.  ‘We had three four-hour watches during daylight hours and two six-hour watches at night, so that people could get a reasonable sleep,’ says Beale. A typical morning began at around 7.30 when one of the watch would cook breakfast and call the ‘off watch’. ‘What we ate would depend on who was cooking but could be porridge, pancakes, toast or cereal.’ Those on watch would always be kept busy, typically helming for an hour then taking turns to keep lookout for other shipping in the area, navigating, checking the bilges, sails and ropes as well as cooking. For dinner they ate fish when they caught it. For the most part the ship was dry, ‘but twice a week we would have a happy hour when we would have soft drinks or beer. The Muslim crew members didn’t mind us drinking; one even joined in although we had to put the beer in a Coke can.’

The journey ended on 23rd October 2010 with their return to the island of Arwad.  ‘It was a hero’s welcome, worthy of the Phoenician sailors who had taken the first epic voyage and an emotional moment for everyone involved in the project,’ he recounts, vividly describing the escort of fishing boats and other vessels that came to greet them and the riotous jostle of people on the quay.

They had completed the journey just in time. A few months later the Arab Spring began, making such a project impossible.  Beale had originally wanted to leave the Phoenicia in Syria to be used for educational purposes, but was forced to change his plans as the political situation deteriorated. ‘If the country sorts itself out, I will rethink – after all, she is part of their culture.’

For now, Philip Beale is back in his home in the Purbeck village of East Chaldon although he still can’t imagine life without further adventures.  Last year, he sailed Phoenicia from the Mediterranean to the UK to join the Jubilee River Pageant. Having spent the summer in St Katharine Docks, she is now being overhauled in a dry dock in Gillingham in preparation for his next venture – sailing across the Atlantic. There is much debate as to whether or not the Phoenicians could ever have completed such a journey, but Beale thinks it is entirely possible they did and his only constraint in proving it is financial. Having already spent around £500,000 on his adventures, he needs to now raise £100,000 in sponsorship. ‘Then, in May 2014, the plan is to start from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar (where the Phoenicians made offerings), sail on to the Canaries where there was also an important trading base, then to Mogador (Essaouira) in Morocco (also the site of a colony) and then out to sea.’  He is not certain where he will make landfall but thinks it could be Florida – hopefully without bumping into any pirates along the way – and is already looking for intrepid crew members to join him.

Sailing Close to the Wind by Philip Beale and Sarah Taylor (Lulworth Press) £9.99

For more information see www.phoenicia.org


Comments are closed.