The Phoenicians have been unfairly ignored; so said our guide on board the Phoenicia, a sturdy rugged beautiful bruiser of a ship.
There were a couple of information boards propped against a mooring alongside a makeshift table that had some hand-scribbled notes about tour times.
The two deckhands were busy doing their thing as a few of us lingered expectantly waiting to be invited aboard given the 11am start time had passed. I was the first to boldly stand at the edge of the harbour wall and ask permission to board, ‘of course’, was the reply, ‘so I just clamber over?’ I ask.
There’s no gangplank or gap in the rail, just clamber over in whatever way you choose but mind the gap between the boat and the harbour wall, it’s quite a drop and you’d probably get squished if you fell down there…’can I give you a hand?’ he asks.
Now I’m no sissy but given the choice of trying to clamber over a rail of a bobbing boat without anything to hold on to and risk falling into the briny or taking the offer of a helping hand, it’s the hand every time.
I hated sailing; as a child I dreaded the weekends because one of us was always dragged to the sailing club by our dear old dad to crew for him on his little dinghy and being the youngest of three, it was usually me. There was nothing I enjoyed less. But when I stepped onto the deck of the Phoenicia it honestly felt like I had come home. There was a gentle familiar roll to her as she moved in unison with the water but at the same time her sturdy wooden bulk was reassuringly safe and welcoming.
Following my lead, there were soon eight of us seated on the makeshift tourist seating that looked like it had been hastily arranged just minutes before. This was by no means your typical tourist fodder and I rather liked that.
Our tour-guide soon launched into an introduction of the boat, the cup of Costa coffee in his hand replacing a tot of sailor’s rum. He gave us a potted history of the Phoenicia; she had been built in Arwad, Syria over a period of 10 months using ancient boat building techniques including mortise tenon joints. The mast is a Cyprus fir and was allegedly the tallest tree in Syria when it was cut down. The captain of the ship, Captain Philip Beale is interested in ancient history and sailing so it was the perfect combination.
There was a nod to a 21st century bit of tech with a solar panel linked to a battery to power the navigation equipment, but there was also a diesel engine as backup.
Below deck were the sleeping quarters where you would get to know your fellow travellers very quickly, there really was not a huge amount of space. They had a crew of 6 but it could accommodate 12 which seemed quite impossible to me but our guide explained they used the Swedish watch system when shifts are rotated so no one is made to do the same night-watch over and over and they wouldn’t all be sleeping at the same time. I wondered about the facilities given I couldn’t see any. Apparently there was a wooden bench with holes in that used to hook onto the side with a tarpaulin over it for privacy but it was lost during a storm so they do without.
They were keen to say they would exclude no one from joining the crew, male or female, they just had to bring something to the party. I seem to recall someone saying one of the essentials for Glastonbury are wet-wipes, I think the same goes for crewing the Phoenicia.
As our mini tour sadly came to an end in the main galley under which lay their supplies of food and spare equipment. Our guide pointed out a small number of merch on the table, pencils and books mostly. I didn’t want to buy anything but was happy to drop £5 into the pot. I didn’t ask how the whole thing is funded, I am guessing it is either a large research organisation of some sort of some generous benefactor but either way I’m sure they are always short of ready cash.
One of my fellow tourists lingered to talk to Captain Beale, it was certainly very tempting, a simple life, away from all the demands and pressures that life can put upon you but as comforting and homely as it felt, the thought of hanging over the side, one hand keeping a tight hold of the rail and the other trying to hold a packet of wet-wipes, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for the ultimate in Glastonbury-esque experiences.