Trip Reports

Delos (25-Jun-2002-22-30):
10:30 PM local time, Tuesday, June 25 (1930 June 25 UTC) 37 25 N 025 19 E. Temp. 81, Humidity 65%, Cloud Cover 0%. Anchored at Ornos Bay on the island of Mikonos, Greece.

Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

As dawn spread its rosy fingers across the Aegean one spring morning in the year 399 BC, although they didn't use BC back then for reasons I'll let the reader figure out for himself, the captain of a Greek galley stood at the harbor at Delos contemplating the sky and sea, and decided the winds had finally turned fair for the return trip to Athens. He and his crew had come here to transport the priests and dignitaries who had traveled to Delos on their yearly trip to pay tribute to the god Apollo at the site of his birth, to repay an old debt. Although Phaedo, who tells the story, doesn't give us a season, I'm thinking it was in the spring because they certainly wouldn't sail in winter and summer breezes are either too strong and contrary or nonexistent. And fall doesn't seem right for a trip of this sort. Besides, Apollo's birthday is in the spring.

After the sacrifices had been made, the prayers offered and the libations poured, they had waited for a couple of weeks or more for the wind. This we know because it wouldn't have taken more than two or three days to make the voyage from Athens and Xenophon tells us that the round trip took a month. A galley from that period could not sail upwind at all, and they couldn't row against more than eight or so knots and make any progress, and that at the price of some very tired oarsmen. So they waited until the wind was favorable. Getting to Delos would not have been much of a problem since the winds are northwesterly about three days out of four that time of year and Delos lies to the southeast of Athens. But returning means waiting for two or three days together of fair wind, using your best weather forecaster or soothsayer, so there could be delays. And there was in that time of year still the danger of storms, which were not infrequently disastrous for vessels in this era.

It's only about 90 miles as the crow flies to Piraeus, the port of Athens, from Delos and they could probably do five knots with a good following breeze, so you would think it would be less than a day's sail. But they wouldn't have done it that way, because they couldn't see the landmarks they needed to navigate by at night so they had to be in a safe harbor by dusk. Greek sailors didn't like overnight passages if they could avoid them, not only because of navigation but because they didn't have decent sea berths and lee cloths like Maverick does, or a gimbaled stove, so they couldn't comfortably sleep or cook. So if they left Delos at dawn with a fresh breeze aft of the beam, by mid-afternoon they'd have made it halfway there, to a safe anchorage on Kithnos or Kea, islands off the peninsula southeast of Athens. If the next day gave favorable conditions, they may have made Athens in a total of two days, but if not, it may have taken a week to return. There may have been other reasons too for delay, because there might have been people on board of some influence who were not anxious to return to home, since the same day they returned, a man would die. By tradition, there could be no executions while the sacred ship to Delos was on its yearly mission, so if a death sentence were handed down after the priest of Apollo at Athens had consecrated the ship for the journey, anyone on death row would benefit from a reprieve until her return. At most times, the executions were of common criminals of no great reputation. But this year, it was different. Awaiting death until the day they made landfall was someone everyone on board knew, or at least knew about, and undoubtedly had an opinion of whether they thought he was a great man, or a fool. It was Socrates.

I had to go to the island of Delos and see for myself the place where they made their decision to sail. Perhaps it was just business as usual for them but this seems unlikely. The captain without question would have put the safety of the voyage above any other consideration when he made his call. Yet even among Socrates' worst enemies there appears to have been more annoyance with him than hatred, and there were many others who loved and admired him deeply. So I would think that it would have been an unwelcome burden for a skipper to bear.

Today the ancient harbor was before me, now silted up next to the new mole to the south where the ferries dock. It was quiet except for the wind and the harbor seemed tiny, compared to both its role in history and its reputation as a great port. There wasn't much to see but I know that this is just where they stood and I'll have it in my memory, when I think of that voyage, for the rest of my life.

Next report from this location: City States

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