We’re on the high seas, some 100 nautical miles from Israel. The time is 2:30 am. The moon has disappeared over the horizon and the skies are pitch black with heavy clouds. I paddle forward carefully – the sea around me is rough, winds of up to 25 knots and a huge swell are behind me. I can’t see the waves, I just feel them lift the kayak like a matchstick. Sometimes they break beside me, and I am forced to make a support stroke with the paddle to avoid capsizing.
I am not alone. Motti Ben Atiya, my teammate, paddles beside me in his own kayak. I can’t see his face but I can imagine the exhilaration he must be feeling.
Omer Singer, one of Terra Santa’s founders, negotiates choppy seas (Photo: Kobi Sade)
Ola, our accompanying yacht, is a few meters before us. I can just make out the white stern light and the red glow of the compass. I know the skipper Motti Harari is sitting by the wheel, and next to him the next pair of paddlers who will take over in an hour and a half.
We are in the middle of the sea, making our way from Limassol, Cyprus, to Herzliya. The paddling is hard and sometimes frightening on the stormy waters, but after all the effort we’ve invested, we won’t stop now.
The Mediterranean is divided into “sea areas”. The area along Israel’s coast, reaching up to Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria, is known as Crusade, after the knights who came to conquer the “terra santa” – the Holy Land. Many vessels have crossed these waters throughout history – warships and merchant galleys, driven by sails, steam and diesel, but till now nobody has ever made this crossing in a kayak.
Skipper Motti relaxes before the real work begins (Photo: Kobi Sade)
How it all began
Water sports are well developed in Israel, and the latest addition to this field is sea kayaking. Terra Santa, founded over 10 years ago, was the first sea kayak club to open in Israel, and many fine paddlers have grown within the club. The club’s instructors lead paddling expeditions in Greece, the Seychelles, Alaska, Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Norway and other destinations, and some have already earned themselves an international reputation. In Israel, most paddling takes place along the coast or just a few kilometers westward, out to sea. Never have we left Israel’s territorial waters…
Omer battles the inky waters (Photo: Kobi Sade)
But all those who have sat in a kayak and paddled westward from Israel’s shores have asked themselves the same question: How can one paddle 180 nautical miles (some 350 km) from Cyprus to Israel? This challenge of crossing sea area Crusade had been the dream of many, but had so far been unfulfilled.
During the summer of 2010 a decision was taken: It was time to realize the dream. After discussing various options and scenarios, we decided we’d make the crossing in two kayaks, each paddled by three people, accompanied by a yacht for safety and rest. The paddlers chosen were all instructors at Terra Santa, and preference was given to those who were also skippers.
The team included: Omer Singer, one of the club’s founders; Nir Abas, a veteran instructor and owner of a factory; Yonatan Preminger, instructor, doctorate student in the social sciences and professional skipper; Motti Ben Atiya, instructor and marathon runner from the hi-tech world; Alon Peled, instructor, extreme sport enthusiast and experienced skipper; and myself, Kobi Sade, instructor, skipper and doctor.
The team (L to R): Nir Abas, Kobi Sade, Motti Harari, Alon Peled, Yonatan Preminger, Motti Ben Atiya, Omer Singer, Karel Vissel
After hard training including exercises for switching paddlers in the middle of the sea, gearing up, and logistics, the yacht Ola under the command of Motti Harari set out for Cyprus carrying two fiberglass kayaks. We sailed against headwinds and high seas, hearing with trepidation the gale forecasts.
Most of the storms buffeting Israel’s shores have their source in barometric lows coming from the Cyprus area, known therefore as “Cyprus lows,” making the weather in the eastern Mediterranean very changeable. Till the last minute we weren’t sure whether we would set off – but finally a calculated risk was taken and we were away.
On Wednesday we put the kayaks in the water in Limassol marina and asked the Cypriot border control officers if we could paddle out. “Where to?” they asked. “To Israel,” we responded truthfully. They laughed at our “joke” and gave us permission.
Just keep paddling…
The idea was simple: Two kayaks being paddled non-stop to Herzliya, with the paddlers changing every two hours – two hours paddling, four hours rest on the yacht, over and over again… We did the changeover using a dingy towed behind the yacht. Even though we practiced before setting out, this was not an easy matter in strong winds and rolling swell. Sometimes the yacht was moving at 3 knots even without sails or motor!
During one changeover, a kayak escaped our grip and disappeared into the darkness behind us. Omer, who was in the second kayak, paddled off in pursuit, while Motti the skipper carried out the “man overboard” procedure, swinging the yacht round full circle and bringing the dinghy up to the runaway kayak, now firmly in Omer’s grip. It was clear to us all that we couldn’t let such a thing happen again.
Ola surrounded by club members who paddled out to greet us (Photo: Kobi Sade)
Rest hours were short and not always restful. The yacht pitched and rolled in the following swell, while the sound of the motor and the autohelm made sleep almost impossible. Furthermore, some were queasy from seasickness. Yet we managed to snatch a few minutes here and there, ate something sweet, drank a little and began getting dressed for the next session in the kayaks.
Despite the exhaustion and the pain of getting into wet clothes for another two hours of paddling, once I was in the kayak I was filled with energy again, and rapidly entered into the rhythm of paddling. The beauty of a kayak is that you are sitting low, close to the water, feeling every wave – at one with the elements!
Approaching Israel’s shores
On Thursday morning after our first night paddling we were optimistic – we had covered over half the distance and were progressing at a good pace, and our bodies had adjusted to the new rhythm of life at sea.
Terra Santa club members: Accompaniment for the last 5 km! (Photo: Kobi Sade)
The weather eased up and Motti the skipper surprised us with a delicious meal of rice and beef, while our weatherman Karel Vissel who kept us updated throughout the trip had some encouraging reports. As darkness fell for the second night, we could already see lights on Israel’s shores. Despite the excitement of imminent arrival, we decided to slow down a little to avoid arriving too early – otherwise we would have to wait outside the marina for border control to arrive.
The Israeli navy identified the yacht and after we exchanged details via the radio they gave us permission to sail on, wishing us bon voyage. At 6 the next morning, Nir and Alon completed their shift, giving the kayaks to Omer and Yonatan to cover the final leg, and we informed those on shore of our ETA.
At around 7 am, some 5 km from Herzliya, we suddenly saw dozens of kayaks coming out to greet us. The excitement of being so close to our target was expressed in whoops and shouts of joy – it was an enormous relief to see our friends from Terra Santa who had accompanied us in training, preparations and dreaming join us for the final stretch into Herzliya Marina.
And the dream is fulfilled. The kayaks go down in history as the first to make this crossing, joining a venerable line of vessels to struggle over the restless waters to the Holy Land. And us? Well, we’re thinking of the next challenge…
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