A British adventurer plans to sail a replica of a Phoenician sailing boat across Atlantic, to prove that the New World could have been reached a thousand years before Columbus.
It is one of the most striking sights on the River Thames just now: a perfectly crafted replica of a Phoenician sailing boat of a kind built 2,600 years ago.
In an extraordinary feat of seamanship it has already circumnavigated the entire coast of Africa, under the command of a British adventurer who wanted to settle the maritime mystery of whether an ancient civilisation could effect such a long-distance voyage.
Now, not long since he moored the 50-ton wooden vessel in St Katherine's Dock, near Tower Bridge, Philip Beale, a 52-year-old former City fund manager from Lulworth, Dorset, is contemplating a new and even more hazardous challenge: sailing his boat, the Phoenicia, across the Atlantic.
He has just been invited by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to be part of the museum's landmark exhibition on the Phoenician civilisation, opening in September 2014.
A museum curator visited the boat last week and suggested it join other historic ships in New York as part of the exhibition. "It's exactly the spur we need to make the journey happen," Mr Beale said.
His expedition around Africa might have been straight out of the pages of Kon-Tiki. He hired archaeologists and traditional shipwrights to construct the boat based on the design of an ancient galley found wrecked in the western Mediterranean: almost 65ft in length, with a single sail and emergency oar holes for when the wind dropped. "Luckily, we didn't have to row our way out of trouble," he said.
Then, like a modern-day Phileas Fogg, he set sail in it to prove that the fabled voyage was possible using only the power of the wind and the tide.
His expedition set off from Arwad Island, off the coast of Syria, where it had been built by local craftsmen. The trip took the crew – which varied in size, "from six at one point up to 15" – through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, down and around the southernmost tip of Africa. Once past the Cape of Good Hope, they worked along the coasts of west Africa and back to Syria through the Straits of Gibraltar. During their expedition, which lasted two years two months, they covered more than 20,000 miles.
By completing the trip, Mr Beale proved the Phoenicians – the dominant power in the Mediterranean between 1500BC and 300BC, and referred to in the Bible as "rulers of the sea" – had the capability to circumnavigate Africa 2,000 years before the first European, Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the Cape in 1488.
The entire endeavour cost £250,000, and Mr Beale invested a significant amount of his own savings. He added that "money's short at the moment": he is living on board the boat for the summer.
Now, if he can raise the further £100,000 he says would need in order to embark on the new voyage Mr Beale hopes to challenge another historical assumption – that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1592. He believes the Phoenicians could have crossed the Atlantic almost a thousand years earlier, starting from the Azores Islands, off the coast of modern-day Morocco.
The voyage would take two or three months, he said. "We'd take the ship to Carthage in Tunisia, and from there sail it out of the Med, probably to the Canaries, and then just let the sails go, heading towards America's east coast, and see where the winds take us," he said.
"To some degree, it would be a game of chance. We would probably land somewhere like Florida or the Caribbean, but could chug up the coast to be in New York in time for the opening of the exhibition in the autumn."
Mr Beale and his crew were lucky to have survived their round-Africa trip. During the voyage, the boat's rudder broke nine times, the sail ripped in half, high winds drove them perilously close to rocks, and they narrowly escaped capture by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
"There were some scary moments," he said with practised understatement. "But I'm pretty determined and I don't let things get in the way. If somebody says 'You can't do it' then I'll say 'I'm going to do it'. I knew I would never give up."
It was this single-mindedness that spawned the idea for the project in the first place. Staying in South Africa at the end of a previous sailing expedition, Mr Beale got into an argument with a professor over which civilisation was the first to trade with Africa. "He said he thought it was the Indians about 3,000 years ago, and I said I thought it was more likely to be the Arabs."
Mr Beale based his argument on an account of a voyage by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who described a circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians in 600BC. Mr Beale was determined to prove it could be done. He commissioned shipbuilders on Arwad Island, which was a major shipping port during the time of the Phoenicians and still has a traditional boat-building industry
The shipwrights were under strict instructions to remain faithful to the original design, all the way down to the thickness of the planks, the spacing of the ribs and the position of the mast, which meant none of the comforts of a 21st-century vessel.
The Phoenicia has no toilet or running water and no mechanical winches or capstans to hoist the sail. To avoid paying tow companies, it was fitted with a small engine which Mr Beale used sparingly to get in and out of ports, "and never when out at sea". As the boat only has one square sail, she needed the wind behind her at all times, meaning that the prevailing winds and currents dictated her journey around Africa.
"Time wasn't an issue for the Phoenicians," said Mr Beale. "We were all worrying, 'Oh gosh, I'm back at work in a week's time', whereas for them, there wasn't work – there wasn't an office. That was their work and if it took them a year to get back or three months to wait until the season changed, that's what they'd do."
"A sailing ship only arrives when it arrives. You have to adapt. You can't say 'I must be back by this time or that' otherwise you'll have a real problem."
Mr Beale describes the expedition as "experimental archaeology", and says that during the first few months he and his crew were beset by problems as they learnt how to sail her.
"We kept losing the rudders," said John Bainbridge, a 26-year-old graduate who spent a total of nine months on board the Phoenicia. "And we didn't have any engine back-up until we got to Sudan." This meant the ship kept being towed back to shore, until Mr Beale modified the rudders to make them more secure.
The boat took on a lot of water. "The whole ship creaks and groans as you move through the water, and it's continuously leaking – you get about 12 inches of water every two hours, so that has to be bailed all the time," said Mr Bainbridge.
And the work was made even tougher by the difficult seas and poor conditions. The weather could change rapidly. Periods of intense heat and humidity could give way to heavy downpours which would soak through the deck and drench everything in the cabin below. In the doldrums, the winds would vanish for days, and the ship was forced to drift.
At other times, it was pounded by storm-force winds and ferocious seas. After 18 months at sea, as the Phoenicia rounded the Cape of Good Hope, where waves were 20ft high, the sail ripped in two. But Mr Beale insists the crew reacted to every setback in an exemplary fashion. "The yard came down, and within 45 minutes we had another one up and we were off again," he said.
On the initial leg, just as the Phoenicia was due to set sail from Oman down the east coast of Africa, news reached Mr Beale that the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler had been seized by pirates.
"One night, we had a small boat following us," said Mr Beale. "We got the satellite phone out and prepared for the worst. But then a big container vessel came between us and we slipped into the night."
About a week later, Mr Beale received a report that there was a pirate ship attacking vessels ahead of them. Luckily, the wind was blowing to the west and the Phoenicia was able to sail away from trouble.
He insists everybody on board knew the risks, although the atmosphere was not always harmonious. In the first weeks, several crew members demanded to be let off to go home – "like rats off a sinking ship," Mr Beale said dismissively – and he had to contact friends to fly out and join him. Not many people fancied sailing through pirate territory, either.
But, once the Phoenicia was south of Mozambique, Mr Beale said he was inundated with requests to come on board. "Going around the Cape, we had 15 people," he said.
The second phase of the expedition – from Cape Town back to Arwad – was, relatively speaking, plain sailing. Mr Beale had ironed out most of the problems with manoeuvring the ship, and they reached their top speed of 10 knots as the trade winds took them on a north westerly course to the remote Atlantic islands of St Helena, Ascension and the Azores.
The jury is still out on whether Mr Beale, like many adventurers, is brave or foolhardy. He certainly has a different perception of danger to most. "I had mentally prepared myself to be captured," he said. "The question for me was, 'If we were taken could I survive for a year in a Somali cave while friends and family worked something out. And if you come to terms with that – could you do that, could you cope? – you'll be all right.'
But what if he'd been killed? "Generally these people won't kill you because they want the money. There's no benefit in killing you. People only get killed when military forces mess up on the rescues."
The final leg of the journey inspired his idea for a second expedition. To get around Africa, the Phoenicians would have gone – as Mr Beale did – within 700 miles of the American mainland. Could they have actually discovered the Americas? Mr Beale thinks it's a distinct possibility.
"Some Egyptian mummies have traces of tobacco and cocaine which were only available in the New World," he said. "That indicates that something was going on across the Atlantic. And who were the sailors for the Egyptians? It was the Phoenicians."----
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