Trip Reports

The Odyssey (01-Jul-2002-07-53):
7:53 AM local time, Monday, July 1 (0453 July 1 UTC) 37 37 N 024 01 E. Temp. 83, Humidity 64%, Cloud Cover 5%. Underway off Cape Sounion, Greece, enroute from Kea to Salamis.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

You've got your Connor, Turner, Taberly, Aebi, Knox-Johnston, Moitessier, Chichester, and Slocum. There's Magellan, Columbus, Nelson, Drake, Jones, and Cook. Don't neglect Noah. But mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the greatest sailor of all? No silly, not your Captain. You're making me blush.

It's our man, Odysseus.

The ancient temple of Poseidon was clearly visible a moment ago as we came abeam of Cape Sounion at the tip of the Attic Peninsula, and crossed the course of Odysseus when he sailed homeward from Troy for Ithaca lo these 3200 years past. The seas are flat calm, a relief from the meltemi that finally abated after 72 hours, and we are motoring instead of rowing, as his crew would have done in the same conditions. The captain of the sacred boat returning from Delos some 800 years after the Trojan War, sailing approximately the same course as Maverick, would have passed this landmark and taken it for a welcome sight as he was nearing home. But Odysseus, Agamemnon, Nestor, and Menalaus had to carry on and find their way around the Peloponnisos, so harsh challenges still lay ahead.

Now, many of our readers may think that Odysseus was a mythical character made up by Homer, and this was the common view until last part of the nineteenth century, so I wish you would get with it, when a man named Schliemann discovered Troy, or close enough. And by the end of the next century few scholars doubted that as well as Troy, the ruins of Agamemnon's Mycenae, Menelaus' Sparta, Nestor's Pylos, and Odysseus' Ithaca had been identified. The sense now is that the Iliad and the Odyssey relate real historic events about real historic people, enhanced for the telling, just like Hollywood. Some parts of Odysseus' story, the one that interests us most, are more myth than fact, but some researchers feel they can separate the skeleton of reality from the layers of legend and locate the general path of Odysseus' actual voyage, about which more in a minute.

Even though we think of classical Greece as the birthplace of western culture, the Greek gods and heroes were so different from our own it is hard for us to resonate with them, perhaps to our disadvantage. Almost all of our familiar American heroes are chaste to the point of being mythical non-humans themselves. Superman had a Platonic relationship with Lois. Della Street took notes for Perry Mason, but that's all she did. Andy has Aunt Bea and Opie, but the girlfriends never work out. Bogie scrapes off Ingrid at the end of Casablanca, Nash Bridges is divorced, and Spiderman wasn't allowed to get next to that girl. This is not to mention, unless that's just what I'm about to do, the more exotic cases of Batman and Robin, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. You're hard-pressed to find a real macho hero in American mythology who has what one would call an intimate relationship with an important woman in his life. We're used to it being this way, and we think it's normal.

But Odysseus had his Penelope, along with the domineering Calypso and Circe, and he needed Athena's help to kill the bad guys. Agamemnon had Clytemnestra, although that didn't work out too well, and Menelaus that trollop, Helen. The whole Trojan War was fought over Helen, but Helen is not portrayed as being the type of unambiguously pure, helpless victim we like in our damsels in distress. Achilles has a hissy-fit over little Briseis and spends most of the war sitting out the fighting and pouting about her while his friends are getting killed. Would Rambo do that? Even the big man, Zeus, has a woman to answer to, an idea not remotely conceivable in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Greek heroes and gods are characters who are well known for being fickle, lusty, mercurial, and vicious, not like our prim good guys. Homer's Gods are playboys and the folks on Olympus don't see eye to eye on much of anything. The humans are no worse, but on the other hand American culture would have a hard time making them look heroic, as a recent TV movie of the Odyssey proved. Menelaus is history's most famous cuckold. Agamemnon did what Abraham would not and stuck the knife in his daughter but unlike Abraham, who wasn't offered a reward, he expected to get a good sailing breeze in the bargain. Among modern sailors, one can think of only two or three who would make the same deal. The Iliad is filled with ceaseless, repetitious, graphic violence that is the paradigm of gratuitous, and Odysseus' revenge consists of gruesomely slaughtering over 100 men whose most violent act was throwing a footstool at someone they took for a beggar.

Homer almost never refers to Odysseus without us learning that he's wily, clever, cunning, or a smooth talker. He did come up with the Trojan horse thing and was tough enough to be one of those inside it, but think of the plumbing issues. As a sea captain and hero, however, he leaves a bit to be desired. It took him ten years to get home from Troy. A remote-controlled thirty-inch model sailboat could make it a lot quicker than that. I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if all hands had returned safely, but the captain himself was the only one to make it home alive. Shackleton, he's not. He wasn't such a hero to his men either, if Homer is to be believed; otherwise, why do they have so little respect for his orders? Disaster follows disaster as he fails to control them.

And about that cleverness. If you were away from your home and family for approximately forty times as long as you should have been, would it be a good excuse to tell everyone that you were captured by a goddess who made you have sex with her for seven years? Nice try, O wily one.

However, that's our hero, and his being heroic requires that we subsume his flaws in his glory and place him in the empyrean, beyond the reach of the Captain's impertinent remarks. I'm down with that.

Now, as I've mentioned before, Tim Severin sailed his way around the Aegean in a replica of a Bronze Age galley looking for Odysseus' trail and wrote about it in "The Ulysses Voyage." His general thesis is that many of the places mentioned, like the homes of the Cyclops, the lotus-eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, correspond to landfalls, capes, islands, and bays that would naturally fall along the logical sailing route from Troy to Ithaca, and that these locations are moreover corroborated by local place-names and folklore that have grown up around hazardous sections of the journey. He believes that, departing Troy, Odysseus coast-hopped westward along the northern Aegean, then worked his way south, rarely out of sight of land. When he reached Cape Malea on the southern coast of the Peloponnisos which to this day the pilot instructs us to treat with great respect, Odysseus could not double it, as we mariners say, and so was blown southward past Crete to Africa. This is where his problems get worse and the weird stories begin, but from a sailing point of view the scenario to this point is entirely credible. As time went on local legends were added to the story, according to Severin's theory, until it was given its final shape by Homer. He gives little credence to many of the more traditional attempts at locating our hero's adventures, for instance placing Scylla and Charybdis at the Straits of Messina, declaring it is unlikely that Odysseus would have been a poor enough navigator to have found himself lost so far to windward of his destination. These are a sailor's arguments, and if the tale is to have any basis in history it must have been a sailor's yarn to begin with.

Since Maverick sailed from southern Turkey and not from Troy, and since we will not go around the Peloponissos but through the Corinth canal, we'll only cross his path in two places, one of which we've just done. The other will be at his legendary home with Penelope, in Ithaca.

ADDENDUM: For the Odyssey get the Fitzgerald translation and give that clunky Penguin thing away.

PS to Dave Tolmie: I thought I said Alabama was fine at the right time with the right company. How can a cracker like you be so defensive?

PS to Dave Jenkins: Great to hear from you and please say hi to Lorin, and also Peter if you see him. If you want to get added to the email list write again to the email address below.

PS to the rest who've written: We're sure happy to get the letters, and as Mr. Shrode returns home in July for a bit the Captain's job will be even lonelier than usual, so it's your duty, sailors, to keep his morale up by writing short notes to

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