Things can change very little in two and half thousand years. When Pharaoh Necho II challenged the Phoenicians to circumnavigate Africa in 600 BC, it took three years’ hard sailing, riding out storms and dodging the dangers of pirate coasts. When mariner and adventurer Philip Beale set out to recreate the epic journey in 2007, it took almost three years of hard sailing, through big swells, 30 knots winds and dodging the dangers of modern pirates.
The Phoenicians were the dominant maritime power of the age, roughly between 1550 to 300 BC. From modern-day Syria and Lebanon they established a vast trading empire through the Mediterranean, trading along the coasts of Africa and as far North as Cornwall. Many historians, from Herodotus onwards have doubted they really did circumnavigate Africa.
Taking sail in the Phoenicia
Philip Beale wanted to prove those doubting voices wrong and on 23 August 2008 set sail with his crew onboard Phoenicia, an authentic replica of a Phoenician trading vessel. From her home port of Arwad, Syria they headed through the Suez Canal, into the Red Sea and the pirate dangers of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
“I didn’t take any women on that leg because I just couldn’t have lived with the consequences had we been hijacked,” says Philip. “I think a lot of the crew’s parents were more worried about the trip than the actual crew. Some families thought we were being irresponsible by even going.”
“When we first started planning in 2005, the advice was stay east of 58 degrees. That changed to 60, then 62, and now 65. But the real advice is: don’t do this unless you absolutely have to, but we did absolutely have to,” Philip says.
At this point Philip pulls out a copy of the FT, folded to an article on the cost of Somalian piracy, and a map of attacks in the area. With his index finger he traces Phoenicia’s zig-zag route through the dangerous waters.
Zig-zagging to escape the pirates
“Every time the coalition forces said you must go further out, further and further out,” he sighs. “There were two unsuccessful attacks on ships about 100 miles in front of us, so we diverted east towards the Maldives, and in the next three days three ships were hijacked. Had we not done that we would have been literally in the middle of it.”
Phoenicia was built and sailed as a traditional trading vessel, but the pirate threat meant modern communications technology was essential. Advice from marine security agency Drum Cussac, and daily updates on attacks, from project manager Alice Chutter, helped keep the crew out of danger.
“Frankly had we not had that information then we would have been done for,” says Philip. “I was looking at the latitude and longitude [of one of the attacks] and thought gosh, that’s right in front of us and had we not immediately changed course then we would have been in trouble.”
“People say: ‘oh but they wouldn’t have been interested in you’ but that’s nonsense, they’re interested in anyone they can get,” says Philip jabbing his finger on the map of the attacks. “Right now they’re holding three Yemeni fishermen from Sakotra, who were hijacked a few months ago. They want 50 barrels of oil in exchange for the boat and the fishermen.”
Feeling close to the original Phoenicians
Philip laughs when I ask him whether dodging pirates made him feel closer to the Phoenicians. “There’s certainly mentions in the literature of pirates, and I mean if you were carrying a cargo of Frankincense up that coast…” he lets the sentence hang in the air. “Yes, yes it does.”
This experience has taught him tremendous respect for the Phoenicians as sailors. “Those boats are not easy to sail. Phoenicia is basically a big bathtub, you can only sail it with the wind behind you or just in front of the beam. To do it well is a challenge, so their perseverance and their skills were obviously pretty incredible.”
Philip chuckles when I ask him how it feels to sail such an ancient vessel, built with no fibreglass or aluminium.
“If it’s not going according to plan and you just can’t get the right wind angle and you’re closing in on some rocks or a cliff then it’s frightening and you just think ‘what can I do?’ The helm doesn’t respond and the wind is just pushing you sideways and you’re thinking I’ve only got another few miles and we’re on the rocks. Do we anchor? What do we do? And it’s all quite tense.”
Taken for suckers in the Red Sea
In the Red Sea “the rudders were just jumping out of the thwarts after any real pressure” says Philip. “These things weigh about 300-400 pounds each, so it’s exhausting for the crew to get them on deck and re-set them.
“We went into Port Sudan and spent a couple of months there but we were ripped off. Nobody particularly wanted to come out and help us and we were just taken for suckers by the local boat yards. It took us a month just to get the boat out of the water.”
A few crew members even left the voyage entirely, but Philip smiles when he recalls that just a few months after Port Sudan, Phoenicia was sailing round the Cape of Good Hope.
“When she’s sailing well and there’s good wind, it’s just phenomenal,” says Philip smiling broadly. “Heading round the Cape [of Good Hope] with 30-40 knots of wind, we were doing 5-6 knots, with big following seas but the wind was behind us and she’s just charging through. It’s quite a stable boat, even though it’s bit like a bathtub really. It’s just an amazingly impressive thing, you just get a real buzz when it’s sailing well, you just really feel on top the world.”
“Hitting ten knots was practically supersonic”
Heading down the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Phoenicia picked up the Aghulas Current and an extra four knots, meaning that at one point “we were hitting ten knots, which for a boat like her is practically supersonic.”
The Cape proved challenging for Phoenicia when the mainsail split at 3am one morning, but crew coped well says Philip proudly. “They were big seas, the ship was wallowing around while we got the new sail up. But the actual way we sailed around the Cape, we got it absolutely right, the distance from the coast, the winds, and we got up to Cape Town without any problem.”
The construction of Phoenicia proved as tricky as the sailing at times. And there was some wrangling with Khalid Hammoud, the Arwad ship builder over how to build the ship.
“We actually had to teach them how to build like Phoenicians,” says Philip. Explaining that instead of laying a keel, building the ribs and gunwhales, and then planking up, the Phoenician vessels were built plank first before being stiffened with the ribs.
“When we first spoke to the people in Arwad they didn’t believe us. They said ‘no, we build it in the ancient way’, and we had to come back and say ‘well no you actually build it in a comparatively modern way’. Eventually they agreed and said ‘ok we believe you’, but taking them back to using that process was quite a challenge. It was a huge learning curve for them, because they had never done it before and it all had to be done by hand.”
Phoenicia was built with traditional timbers such as Aleppo pine, Mediterranean Red Pine and Cypress, using dowelled mortis and tenons to joint the ribs together. Phoenicia is herself based on the Jules Verne VII, a Phoenician trading vessel wrecked off the coast of Marseille. Sail plans were put together from various descriptions on vases, coins and in literature.
After rounding the Cape, Phoenicia headed for the Ascension Islands, the Azores and re-entered the Med through the Straits of Gibraltar. They sailed into Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli in turn – all now in Lebanon, but once Phoenician city states, before heading home to Arwad.
“It’s a shared heritage that the Lebanese and Syrians have and I think that actually warmed up the Syrians, dare I say it, and so not to be outdone they put on a huge welcome for us,” says Philip. A small fleet of boats sailed out to meet Phoenicia when she sailed into Arwad on 23 October 2010. “It was very emotional – all the people in Arwad Island, crowding round the ship, and the children who had heard the stories and had slightly forgotten that the ship had gone off two years before. There were thousands of people there and we were mobbed.”