Ashkelon, Israel

As 2015 comes to a close with traditional hopes for world peace, it is hard to ignore continuing conflicts, especially in the Middle East. Almost two decades ago I participated in a symbolic peace rally that preceded the Twin Tower disaster and several wars in the region. But back then, full of hope and under a blazing sun with gentle Mediterranean breezes, six boats crossed the starting line off the Ashkelon Marina headed for Crete on the first leg of the Millennium Odyssey. It was 1998 and on board each boat was a special brass lantern designed to carry a flame around the world. The day before, boat owners and their crews joined in a moving flame lighting ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. The flames of peace were to be carried around the world and passed along to other boats starting the rally at different points.

At a ceremonial dinner, Jimmy Cornell, the organizer, explained that the Jerusalem flame would circle the globe and be given to the Pope in Rome on Easter Sunday 2000 as a symbol of peace and friendship for the new millennium. He noted that passing the flame on to boats starting their circumnavigation at other points around the world was like mankind’s earliest gesture of friendship─helping tribes sustain their fires.

Israel was a good choice for the start of a new millennium peace theme. Not only does the Church of the Holy Sepulchre maintain a perpetual flame of peace and goodwill, but the sites of Ashkelon and Jerusalem have been at the crossroads of mankind’s history for at least five millennia.

Around 2600 B.C., the first recorded seagoing passage was made between Egypt and the port of Byblos in Phoenicia (now Lebanon). The goods probably included cedars of Lebanon. The four-thousand-year-old port of Ashkelon was astride this shipping route and helped Phoenicians establish the world’s first maritime trade monopoly in the Mediterranean Sea. By 700 B.C., Phoenicians are said to have sailed down the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa, up to the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), finally crossing the Mediterranean back to their home ports.

Routes of discovery, shipping routes, and personal exploits of serious racers and recreational sailors have always fascinated those who yearn for offshore adventures. Many avidly follow the heroics of record-breaking singlehanders in races circling the globe from West to East to capture the strong prevailing winds of the high southern latitudes. Others are entranced by early circumnavigations of discovery from East to West─by Magellan, Drake, and Cook─motivated by commercial interests to find maritime routes from Europe to Asia. Still others dream of visiting exotic South Sea Islands along the gentle trade wind routes.

The Millennium Odyssey was designed to satisfy many daydreams. The first group started in Ashkelon after the flame lighting ceremony and church blessings in Jerusalem. This group would cross the Mediterranean headed for the Canaries. Shortly after the Ashkelon start, a group started in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, to meet up with those starting in London and also headed for the Canaries.

In the Canaries, one group continued across the Atlantic headed for Panama while another group headed for Cape Horn and Antarctica. One of the aims of the rally is to start the new millennium by connecting all corners of the globe, its seven continents, and all the major oceans in a sailing gesture of goodwill.

I joined the group starting in Ft. Lauderdale and met up with the European starters in Panama to receive the flame from Jerusalem and then cross the Pacific to Tahiti. This was a major rendezvous of all boats, including those that rounded Cape Horn and touched Antarctica.

From Tahiti, one group headed for Australia and Bali and one group headed for Singapore, across the Indian Ocean, and up the Red Sea, back to the Mediterranean, where the symbolic flame was given to the Vatican in Rome. I left Bali for Cape Town and then crossed the South Atlantic to South America and the Caribbean.

St. Lucia hosted another rendezvous before the remaining group split up with boats headed homeward to the U.S.A. and others returning to Europe across the North Atlantic by way of the Azores. I took a brief detour from St. Lucia by way of a plane ride to Rome to join the Vatican festivities including a group meeting presenting the peace flame to the Pope on Easter Sunday 2000.

The rally schedule called for a circumnavigation in about a year-and-a-half. Many would consider this a fast orbit, far too hurried―not enough time to smell the roses. For others, the time frame was ideal, satisfying the yen for a circumnavigation without having to drop out of their land-life for too long. The rally falls under the modern notion of “trophy travel.” It allows participants to claim a circumnavigation, the transit of a major canal, visits to exotic ports, rounding a major cape, crossing all seven seas . . . and similar “trophies.”

Fortunately, many of the worldly experiences gained from an offshore adventure come long before and last long after the actual sail. Regardless of the trip’s duration, the months and years of planning play an important part in the whole adventure. Before setting sail, I took great pleasure in the cultural and geographic research surrounding the voyage. Even simple sketches and lists of destinations along the route heighten my awareness of what lies ahead. Obtaining the latest colors and patterns for national flags and courtesy flags updates my understanding of political change. Even a simple sketch of weather facsimile map areas or the “footprints” of the Inmarsat communication satellites impress me with the vastness of the oceans along my route.

During boat preparations, I also marveled at technology currently available that was unimaginable to Slocum and Chichester, who popularized circumnavigations in small sailboats. Placing the Phoenicians, Ashkelon, and Magellan in the context of maritime history added immeasurably to my adventure and my humble place in history. Best of all, was meeting new sailors from foreign lands and friendships long after the adventure.

In retrospect, the Peace Flame symbol was a good excuse for an adventure.

Pope John Paul II — Servizio Fotographico de Vaticano
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