DRIFTING in and out of sleep, I hear a song. Very loud, though slightly muffled, a man’s monotone singsong chant is at one moment a rude wake-up call, at the next a soothing lullaby. In the waking moments, I begin to wonder where I am. I open my eyes and see a small wooden cabin; three feet above my head is an open window, from which the voice calls through an inky-blue sunrise sky.
I think back: There was the 22-hour trip, from my home in Nashville to Chicago to Istanbul and on to Bodrum on the Aegean coast. There was the taxi and the public minibus and the drive through the parched, hilly countryside, past the giant Greek amphitheater, to the small port town of Turgutreis. Then there was a walk through the old town center, a warren of narrow stone streets and closely packed shops, and then, finally, a glimpse of my home for the next week: the 40-foot sailboat Adele.
It was there that I now found myself, in a disorienting dreamland, eventually realizing I was being called to prayer by the muezzin of the local mosque. It would be only the first of many times that the religious and the secular, East and West, ancient and contemporary [Turkey] would combine to make this a sailing trip like no other.
My sailing companions — a friend from New York, the boat’s skipper and his friend — and I had varying reasons for traveling so far to go sailing last June. The skipper, Cengiz Onuk, who spends most of the year teaching futures and options at New York University, knew that the [Carian Coast], in southwestern Turkeyroughly between Bodrum and [Marmaris], is Turkey‘s most popular sailing area, thanks to its large, protected gulfs, secluded bays and coves, tranquil waters and wild coastlines. Not to mention ideal weather and, more often than not, wind. So he was spending his summer in his homeland skippering the Adele, one of the few American boats in these waters — “Brooklyn” was emblazoned on the stern, the Stars and Stripes waved on the port side; it had been piloted across the Atlantic from Brooklyn to Greece the summer before.
Cengiz (pronounced JENG-iz) had put out an invitation to other sailors, and eventually three of us joined him: myself, eager to learn a bit about sailing and see a Turkey removed from the traditional tourist experience; my friend Carla Murphy, who normally sails smaller J/24’s in New York Harbor with the Manhattan Sailing Club; and Oytun Altasli, a Turkish businesswoman living in London (and a former student of Cengiz’s), who was looking for a week away from big-city life.
We would soon learn that sailing in Turkey is very different from sailing in the United States and Europe, where port towns are often playgrounds for the world’s rich and famous. The smaller ports we called on were more about local, everyday life than international, second-home escape, more about culture than consumption. And the people welcomed us more like guests than like tourists.
We set sail from Turgutreis, on the western side of the Bodrum Peninsula, and headed for the [Gulf of Gokova], a national park area stretching some 45 miles east from Bodrum, where the warm, salty water ranges from brilliant turquoise to seductive sapphire. Pine-clad mountains unmarred by human development enclose every view, and few other boats spoil the fantasy that the water is all yours and only yours.
With the two novice sailors — Oytun and me —having experienced their first, and fortunately last, bout of sea queasiness, we stopped in Bodrum. When its native son Herodotus, the father of history, wrote about what was then [Halicarnassus], it’s doubtful he would have envisioned modern Bodrum, a beautiful old town overrun in high season by vacationing Europeans and Turks.
After midnight, the main pedestrian artery is so clogged with people it comes to a standstill. Before noon, however, while they’re sleeping it off, the streets and beachside cafes are blissfully empty, revealing Bodrum’s considerable charms.
The next day we stood on the bow until we lost sight of Bodrum’s imposing coastal fortress and 15th-century castle (with its wonderful Museum of Underwater Archaeology) or, in other words, until civilization — the sugar-cube towns and holiday resorts — faded from view. The waves were frothy, the wind 15 to 20 knots — “a sailor’s dream,” Cengiz said. He stood at the helm and told Carla when to raise the main sail.
Oytun and I at first just tried to stay out of the way. But soon we got our first lessons in learning to raise the sails with the winch and how to tie, or cleat, the ropes to hold them. Soon we were zipping along at more than 5 knots, a gentle rock, a nice heel and the first taste of sea spray on our already-browning faces.
OUR plan was to go where our moods took us. After all, the advantage of sailing a small boat like ours is the freedom to check out any island, visit any village or overnight in any isolated cove, all at our own pace. We were sharing the gulf with other sailboats, some private, some chartered, and with magnificent chartered gulets — large, wooden yachts of traditional Turkish design but with all modern amenities.
“Yes, you may be jealous,” Cengiz told us, given the gulets’ ample room, air-conditioned cabins and full crew, but they rarely raise their sails, spend most of their time motoring and can’t dock in smaller coves. “They are not for real sailors.”
Hmmm. By the time we’d spent one full morning swabbing the deck and cleaning the head — which, by the way, had to be pumped for every flush — and by the time my eyes had swollen up from an overnight bug bite, Oytun’s face had broken out in a rash and Carla had banged up her nose on the metal contraption that held the solar panel, we girls weren’t so sure we wanted to be real sailors.
But then we got to Cokertme, a small bay fronted by three restaurants, a magical little hamlet one might miss if on a gulet, since meals are eaten onboard and there’s no need to debark to stretch your legs. As we approached, two small motorboats raced out to meet us, each with a man waving wildly toward his own restaurant. We chose one — the one with the skull-and-crossbones pirate motif, the Rose Mary — and they helped us moor at a wooden jetty before ushering us into the simple, open-air restaurant.
First, we went into the kitchen to check out the array of homemade mezes — octopus salad, smoked eggplant salad, tomato-chili salad — before being led into the walk-in refrigerator to choose our fish from the fresh-caught supply. We settled on a giant sea bass, and soon the waiter approached for the voilà moment, displaying a large platter featuring the simply grilled whole fish, served with nothing but a lemon-olive oil sauce, a few French fries and a tomato-cucumber salad. It was so fresh and perfect that we fought over every last bite — including the head.
Another irresistible temptation was a mysterious cafe at the end of the quay. A seriously exotic place, apparently owned by Turkish communists (check out the bookshelves), it was literally a nomad’s tent perched on the dock above the sea. “There’s not many places sailors can experience desert culture,” said Carla, as we removed our shoes and settled into the cushions and carpets on the floor.
Each table had its own water pipe, but our intoxicant of choice is raki, the Turkish anise liquor that’s less heavy and sweet than ouzo. Even more intoxicating, a group of young men begin to play the seven-string tambur and other classical instruments and sing Ottoman court songs. Not to be outdone, husband and wife customers break out their own three-string instruments and harmonize on traditional Anatolian folk songs. As the only nonlocals in the place, the others having come down from the nearby village, we marvel at what the Adele has already shown us.
Talking with the cafe’s owner, we realize it wasn’t too long ago that areas like this depended on the sea for their livelihood, transportation and communications. Roads are an afterthought here. And we are even more thrilled to be traveling by boat.
The next morning, Oytun and I took the dinghy to the next cove for a swim in the pristine waters, the pebbly beach all ours save for a village family on a picnic. Covered head to toe, they were nonetheless seemingly unbothered by our bikinis.
The dinghy was our own little water taxi. At other times and places, it would whisk us across the bay where we moored by the market. Just a few local ingredients and Oytun would whip up an incredible breakfast of lightly fried Turkish eggs in a blanket of spiced feta cheese.
Some days, the wind was weak and we’d have to motor. Cengiz taught us how to read the nautical chart, map the coordinates of where we were headed and load them in the G.P.S. system. Most often, though, we navigated by sight and by the sailing bible for this area, Rod Heikell’s “Turkish Waters and Cyprus Pilot.”
At Degirmen Bay, quite a few gulets and yachts were crowding the dock, so we anchored in the bay and tied our lines to trees on shore. This was easier said than done for three women who had never done such a thing. Frustratingly, and embarrassingly, this comedy of errors took a couple hours and involved a fair amount of heated discussion.
“Drop the anchor now,” Cengiz yelled toward the bow at Carla during each of several attempts.
“But when do I stop?” she kept yelling back.
“You’ll know when.”
But we didn’t.
We lost track of how many times we tried to get the anchor to hold, but when it finally did, we began to feel that we were getting the hang of this sailing thing.
A week on a boat means lots of time talking to your mates and lots of time thinking. There’s no better quiet than that of lapping waves, no better invitation to contemplation than miles of blue or, at night, acres of stars. As we spent one late night sipping raki out on the deck, Cengiz and Oytun talked about the adventures that come with living abroad.
“But I want to come back to Turkey some day,” Oytun said. “Turkey deep down is an Eastern culture where relationships matter; in the West it is less so. This can make things very slow, and maddeningly inefficient. But to me, it is a warmer kind of existence that I started to appreciate after living away.”
I thought about my own expatatriate years, and how I, too, eventually longed for home.
Cengiz said he couldn’t go home again: “I’m a New Yorker.”
In the gulf, we always had shore in sight, but we never knew what was around the next bend or behind the next island. A hidden cove would suddenly reveal a gaggle of anchored gulets. Floating slowly up for a closer look, there was an inescapable feeling of entering a pirates’ lair.
Timelessness began to be palpable, as this place had looked and felt pretty much like this since the days when a succession of Carians, Dorians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans all sailed here. Odysseus was here, I imagine.
Cleopatra was definitely here, they say, at Cleopatra’s Beach — so named because the Egyptian queen once lived on Castle Island and, legend has it, Antony imported enough sand from Africa to make a beautiful white beach for her to sunbathe on.
It is indeed the only sandy beach of its type in the area. The day-trip boats from Marmaris make regular stops, disgorging hordes of swimmers. But after a hot hike around the castle and amphitheater ruins, you won’t care how many people join you for a swim. And it’s still incredibly beautiful.
As we pulled into Sogut and the Gokova Sailing Club, its lovely stone clubhouse hidden among the pines, visions of a luxurious interlude with real showers danced in our heads. Decidedly upscale, though a modest intrusion on its surroundings, the club has members like the general manager of Microsoft Turkey and Sadun Boro, a national hero since he became the first Turk to circumnavigate the world in his small sailboat, the Kismet, in 1968. Cengiz was beside himself when we noticed that the Kismet was moored about five spots down from us.
The manager told us about the owners of the club, a Turkish sailor, his British wife and their children, who made the second Turkish sail around the world, in the late 1980’s. The large map in the restaurant that traces their route is the stuff of dreams.
On a smaller scale, our own sailing dreams were finally fulfilled. On our last full day, the wind graced us with its 15-knot presence for hours. The novices had learned to help raise and trim the sails, and we all got to practice helming through some challenging waves.
It was so sublime, in fact, that it replaced the memory of previous days’ motoring with the sound of only wind and waves, the sight of soaring sails and the feeling of empowerment that comes from harnessing nature for your own ends.
Arriving in the Yedi Adalari, or the Seven Islands, our only quandary was which of the stunning coves to call home for the night. Choosing one called Bekar, we had it all to ourselves, not a boat, dock or restaurant in sight, only a semicircle of protective pines and a vista of receding islands. By now, dropping anchor and taking a line to shore was no problem for the seaworthy women.
No provisions were available there, but we had stocked up — crusty loaves of bread, feta cheese, spicy cured beef (pastirma), melons, olives, local olive oil and quince preserves, as well as very drinkable Turkish wine and, of course, raki. As the sun went down and an appropriately Turkish crescent moon rose, we sat on the deck, having bonded in the way that only four people in a small boat could in a short amount of time, eating, drinking and talking for hours.
A heaven full of stars twinkled on the still-as-glass water, and we gazed up at the similarly sparkling lights of the Adele’s mast, toasting our luck that she had brought us safely to so wondrous a place.