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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 25


The next morning we were up-and-at-em before the pavement got hot enough to melt our boots. It's how we came upon the horrible, dark source of that incessant, demonic, gamelan orchestra: Netsel marina. The maniacal clanging was coming from a near infinity of animated ropes, convulsing random tarantellas in the satanic breeze; slapping at hollow, aluminum, organ pipes jutting from the immense flotilla they impaled. Those of you who haven't been driven freaking nuts by the din of a breeze through a marina full of sailboats, just picture the typical, travel brochure of Mediterranean paradise.

Marmaris, Turkey, near Netsel Marina: the canal

Marmaris, Turkey, near Netsel Marina: the canal -- full of picturesque, perfectly innocent, wooden, fishing boats in April 2007.

Crossing the canal -- full of picturesque, perfectly innocent, wooden, fishing boats -- Elena and I trudged along the ancient harbor, away from the marina. Despite the distance we made from the cacophonous flotilla, something was very wrong with that town. Every second business -- and that is probably an underestimate -- had something to do with yachting. You couldn't swing a cat-o-nine-tails without hitting an establishment that: equips yachts, provisions yachts, builds yachts, fixes yachts, maintains yachts, hypes yachts, sails yachts, rents yachts, or sells yachts. Which is why we were there, poking our noses around old, Greek buildings, and scuffing our winter boots up and down the cobblestone streets.

We were on a mission to procure an ocean-crossing escape-vessel! At least, I was. Elena was still a bit deer-in-the-headlights, following along, wraith-like. My boat buying experience tallied up to a boozy, bullshit deal in a yacht club lounge. It netted me a teensy, waterlogged, clapped-out day-sailor and a hangover from hell. When it came to buying a yacht, I knew absolutely nothing. I had to start somewhere. I figured, the more yachts I saw, the more chatter I heard, the more sailing jargon I absorbed, the better.

Until that paperback expose of solo, round-the-world yacht racing, literally fell at my feet. A yacht, to me -- and just about anyone else with an ounce of common sense -- was a big motorboat, owned by someone like Thurston Howell The Third, and upon which martinis and three-hour tours were de rigueur. A sailboat, on the other hand, was just a sailboat, after all.

Gulets and Rugs for sale in Marmaris, Turkey

Boats and rugs! One stop shopping in old Marmaris.

From my painfully slow Google search the day before, I'd hand scrawled a map of Marmaris and yacht brokerages within walking distance. The first X-marks-the-spot led us to a square, stone building, probably hundreds of years old, and festooned with Persian rugs. Above the rugs, a sign read GULET BROKERAGE. We stopped and stared the building from the sidewalk. A dozen or more rugs were laid out and draped over sawhorses.

"Meg, what is a gulet?"

"Part of the digestive tract, as far as I know." At the time, I assumed it was someone's name on the business, like Gullet, Duodenum and sons.

It took a well-dressed, Turkish man no more than a few seconds to hustle toward us. "Yes, please! How are you today? For you lovely ladies I have the finest rugs, and today I have the best deals, and where are you from, may I ask?"

"From?" That took me by surprise. "Uhh, we caught a taxi in from Dalaman.

"You have come on an airplane from afar, I see. Then, my friends, you are doubly in luck because not only do I have the best deals, but I can ship your rug to USA, the UK... anywhere." He took a breath and prodded, "Tell me, have you seen finer rugs... anywhere?"

"No... I mean, yes!" Until then, I thought I was the world's fastest talker. "I mean, they are lovely rugs, but I'm looking for a yacht brokerage."

Elena forced a smile. I'm pretty sure she hadn't a clue what to make of the exchange.

Turkish gulets built in the open, near Marmaris, Turkey

Turkish gulets: classic, large, wooden, sailing ships are being built in the open, near Marmaris, Turkey.

"Ladies, you have come to the right place. Please do follow me."

"You sell boats and rugs?"

"Indeed, finest boats and truly exquisite rugs... As I am sure you can see." A sweeping hand gesture encompassed his rugs with a flourish. He bowed elegantly. "You, my friends, shall see my brother about boats, and then I will show you the most exquisite rugs in all of Christendom."


We followed him into the building and up narrow stone stairs worn like hammocks. His brother's lair was a single room taking up the entire second floor. It consisted of dark, massive wood-plank flooring, plaster over rock walls, and open beams and trusses. The rug seller's brother got up from a desk and introduced himself.

My boating education had begun. I learned that a gulet is a large, traditional, wooden boat with masts and sails. Nowadays, it also comes with a motor. Looking like 16th-century sailing ships, gulets are coveted in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean as charter vessels. The broker pointed through his open window to the historic seawall. A breeze off the water was stirring air that felt as though it was about to ignite. Dozens of meticulously maintained gulets were tied up, gangplanks down, waiting for customers . Although stunningly beautiful, they were far too much boat for a couple of total newbies, or my finances.

Marmaris appeared to be about yachting

Everything in Marmaris appeared to be about yachting; at least, that's how it seemed to Elena and Meg, in that hot and dangerous Spring of 2007.

To me, as an aspiring, get-to-the-other-side-of-the-planet do-it-yourselfer, Gino's Yachting had a lot more promise than the gulet and rug place. We wandered in. I looked around nonchalantly. It's important to give the impression you know what you're doing in situations like that. That I was wearing tall boots, sweating profusely, and expecting a showroom of some sort, probably didn't lend to the overall effect I was trying to achieve.

"Welcome to Gino Yachting, may I be of assistance?" A receptionist asked.

Hmmm, I wondered how she knew I spoke English. "Ahh, yeah... Umm, I need a boat... I mean, a yacht. Maybe a sailboat, but yeah, I think a yacht is more like it." Ooooh, way to play it cool, Meg!

"This is a brokerage. We represent yachts for purchase." She folded her hands on her desk. "In the old town, across the footbridge, you can charter a boat, or find many yachting excursions to beaches and clubs." She smiled politely and gestured toward the door with her eyes.

"Right, but I really do want to purchase a boat."

"You do realize we only have, hmmm, how shall I say it... rather serious boats, with inboard motors, cabins and..." She cast around at her colleagues, like she wanted backup, none was forthcoming. "Serious, or quite large prices."

"I know, that is what we..." I looked around for Elena. She'd ghosted into the background, cloaked, gone invisible; something she had a tendency to do a lot. I couldn't see her, and I'm uncomfortable referring to myself in the plural, until someone elects me Pope. "... err, a serious yacht is what I am looking for."

"Is there a specific yacht listing you are inquiring about?"

"No." Listing?! Krikey, that sounded like real estate. I wanted to buy a boat, not a bloody house. "I am interested in a yacht that can cross an ocean."

Yachting Mecca, a store in Marmaris, Turkey

Marmaris, Turkey: Yachting Mecca. At least it was, way back in the heady days of twenty-aught-seven.

I'm pretty sure the receptionist thought I was nuts. Still, she introduced us to Erdem -- Elena had beamed back down from Deep Space Nine by then -- an impeccably well-dressed, young man. Despite his great threads, the poor guy had a look about him, like someone about to face a board of examiners, or the inquisition.

"Madam, what type of yacht did you have in mind?" For some reason he zeroed in on me. Probably, Elena had gone invisible again.

"I am thinking, a sailboat. We need to get to Canada, and a motorboat won't have the range... Am I right?" Of course, I was thinking in correlative aviation terminology. Maybe a sailboat to a powerboat was the same as a blimp to a Boeing.

"It all depends on the size." Erdem looked sideways at the receptionist for support.

She smiled, sheepishly.

He yanked nervously at the hem of his suit jacket, cleared his throat. "In what price range are you and your husband prepared to consider an offer on a yacht? Missus..."

"Meg, is fine. Miz, if you must. No husband involved, just Elena and me."

Erdem froze. His lips parted slightly, his jaw dropped. "You mean, you two. Just two ladies, no husbands, uncles, father... maybe brother is with you?"

"Nope, just us." I waggled a finger between Elena and myself. "As for the price range, it depends on what can meet our needs safely. When I know what there is, what it's capable of, and what it costs, I'll be in a position to provide a price range."

"I must apologize, and do please forgive such impertinence, but how much can you spend?" He blushed so brilliantly, it's a miracle his mustache wasn't singed.

I was dumbfounded. That was like walking onto a used car lot and telling the guy in a leisure-suit, "I've got twenty grand, and not a penny more! And how much is the darling Chevette with the fuzzy dice?"

He changed tack. "Ah... your needs?"

Marine store in Marmaris, Turkey

Yachting! Yachting! Yachting!

"Right, we need a vessel that can do a long, deep-ocean voyage without stopping. Oh, and it has to be something the two of us can handle by ourselves."

The whites of his dark eyes got huge. It was actually a little disturbing until he got his incredulity under control. "Two girls... er, ladies. Just the two of you will take a yacht across the sea?"

"Yes, just the two of us, and we're not just crossing the sea, but the ocean too."

"The Atlantic?!"

"Probably, and then the Pacific, unless we go the other way; around Africa, then it's the Atlantic, Indian and then the Pacific." I think I'd lost him, so I shut up.

Erdem cogitated, holding his right elbow with his left hand, he absentmindedly stroked his mustache with his index finger. "Let us see then, what we have listed." His hands were shaking as he pulled one of many large binders from a shelving unit. In it were pages and pages of sailboat listings. Some looked like bigger versions of my little day-sailor back home; some resembled oversized bathtubs with masts, and a disturbingly large number of them looked like set pieces from the Costner flick, Waterworld.

yachting signage in Marmaris, Turkey

And more yachting! Yachting! Yachting!

"Hello, lovely ladies." A whiny, little voice came from the ether.

I looked at Elena, she looked at me. There was nary a lovely lady in sight.

"Lovely ladies!" There it was again. Someone's weird ring tone? A parrot with a penchant for high society women? A talking zombie-fish?

Just off the crowded, waterfront walkway, a tray of dead fish on crushed ice had our attention. Along the opposite side, the sterns of dozens of gulets were tied to the seawall, their gangplanks down, their decks lit by strings of lights and hanging lamps. Arabic voices called out to each other. Groups of men sat on outdoor sofas, smoking hookahs. Middle Eastern music and spicy aromas wafted on the evening breeze. It was an enchanting, exotic world a long way from home, and I was enraptured.

"Sea bass, bream! Just for you, lovely ladies." The voice suddenly had a source. A gregarious maƮtre d' in a crisp white shirt and tie emerged from the glare of his restaurant, beaming with excitement, arms wide in welcome -- and deference to the catch of the day.

"I'm vegetarian." I blurted. I hate being snarky, always after the fact. Shit, why am I such a bitch? Anyway, getting hustled every two steps, is par for the course in a Turkish tourist trap. It wears your patience thin in pretty short order, but still.... it's true, I had a lot of growing up to do.

"Ah, but then, you are in luck. I shall bring for you, a gourmet, vegetarian pizza, specially made, to our best table."

Tables spilled out from the restaurant, all the way to the promenade. All were set with china, linens, flowers, even candles fluttering in the breeze. Not a single one was occupied. It yanked at my heart. Despite his hustle, I couldn't be haughty. "Which one is your best table?"

He pointed at the building, and up above the flickering candles, the evening strollers, the sea of tables and diners, the hookah smokers, fabric peddlers and even the wooden decks of the moored gulets, a single table-for-two perched on an iron balcony under the eves. We had pizza, and we made a new friend.

Marmaris at night

The view of Marmaris at night, from Meg and Elena's, balcony table-for-two at the Marina Restaurant.

Out front, on the broiling, non-canal side of the apartment-hotel, Elena and I jousted for slivers of shade. Bloody hell, it was barely 9:00 am, and the heat was already relentless. All we had to wear was what we dragged with us from wintry Ukraine. I was sweating in a turtleneck, dark slacks and the same heavy, wedgie, tall boots I'd kicked the crap out of a car with in Kiev. Elena's feet were slow-cooking in her beloved Doc Martins. Over fleece lined pants, she had a heavy sweatshirt -- also a beloved purchase she made before escaping to Kiev. Needless to say, we were somewhat overdressed, or so I thought.

Until Erdem -- the dazed, neophyte yacht broker we met the day before -- pulled up in a late model, compact sedan the color of old nylons. I didn't know anyone in Marmaris could possibly be dressed warmer than us, but Erdem was. In a three-piece suit and tie, he had to be mere seconds from fatal heatstroke, but he wasn't even sweating. He pulled up with the car windows down: the guy didn't have air conditioning! It was downright spooky, how he managed to survive.

Miles of tooth-loosening road, mortised into near-vertical rock faces, led to an aerial view of an isthmus far below. Erdem double clutched, geared down, and the car pitched forward into a steep dive. Approaching the isthmus, haphazard, white rows of objects resolved into a myriad of boats lined up, like enormous tombstones.

"Ookh-tee!" Elena said from the backseat. "All of those white things are boats? Sure is a lot of them!"

"We are going to there. It is place for dry storage of charter yachts." Erdem pulled one hand off the wheel to point. "My uncle has listings of many boats here. Not so many charters are there booked, this season. Not a good summer this year will be. Very bad, indeed."

Marmaris Bay

"Miles of tooth-loosening road, mortised into near-vertical rock faces," allowed Meg to snap this aerial shot of Marmaris Bay.

"You have an uncle in the charter business?" I asked.

"No, brokerage business. He says better sell boats, than sail boats." Erdem grinned at his play on words.

The wind-swept isthmus we'd seen from above was a desert at ground level; an improbable expanse of gravel, canopied by row upon row of yachts propped up on flimsy looking stands: tree limbs, boards, oil drums, even stones. A few had toppled over, falling to the Mediterranean's fabled winds. Up close, the boats were surrealistic behemoths. They towered overhead, like the huge stone heads of Easter Island. Winter storms had sand blasted their solid iron, or lead, keels -- that's the huge metal fin, sticking out of the bottom that acts as a counterweight to keep sailboats from tipping over. Cloudbursts, flash floods, even golf-ball size hail -- I was told -- left their white hulls splattered with mud. Dust was everywhere. It was not an inspiring sight.

Erdem pulled, what looked like, a homemade ladder from a bunch of wreckage piled between the boats. Several feral cats scattered, yowling as they shot out from under planks and metal cans. He didn't react. It's like the cats weren't even there. Just some part of the environment, like flies in an outhouse. Elena, however, was enamored, and more than likely, missing her own cat. The junk pile was home to a number of them and their kittens. She crouched down, held out a hand and mewled, "Koshka, kotichka... kiss-kiss-kiss."

Erdem shook his head in quiet disbelief, then propped the ladder against one of the delicately balanced boats. After a couple of good, reassuring shoves, he scrambled on up and invited us aboard. While I watched -- expecting a colossal domino effect when that boat went over -- Elena ghosted away to the junk pile with its wild kittens and their dens.

"Hey, are you coming aboard?" I called to her. No response, so I grit my teeth, grabbed the ladder, and started to climb. Looking dead ahead, willing the ladder not to break or fall, or the humongous bathtub-toy I was scaling, not to roll over -- crushing me, like a bug on a bowling ball -- I heard a lot of hissing, snarling, shrieking, and Russian expletives from behind. Okay, fine. Elena sounded like she was enjoying herself. I'd go over the first boat without her, trying to absorb as much information and jargon from Erdem. I really didn't want Elena worrying that what Erdem was showing us, I was seeing for the very first time in my life.

Feral dog and puppies in a boat dry storage lot

Kittens weren't the only discarded pets to have gone feral among the dry storage's junk piles. Other castaways, like puppies, adopted by boat owners and renters, are left behind with the boat, even following it "up onto the hard" when the season ends.

Standing on deck, peering three or four meters down at the desert floor, I was hyper-aware of the tiniest nuance of angle, or vibration within the delicately balanced leviathan. Still, I concentrated on Erdem's patter. I knew what some of the stuff was for. Saturdays at the yacht club with friends hadn't been a total waste. The rest I committed to memory, either by name, function, or shape, for clandestine Internet research later on.

My head was swimming -- and I wasn't sure that we wouldn't be too, if I didn't get up to speed, and fast -- when Erdem started going on about chart plotters, autopilots, travelers, weather fax, GPS, toilets and tanks, waterlines, scuppers, bilges, whatchamacallits, thingymajiggits and arrrg! Hardware was comically oversized compared to its equivalent on my day-sailor. This boat was only double its length, but its components were several orders of magnitude bigger. It wasn't a simple factor of length that determined the size of its parts.

One thing I got from the conversation, for sure, was that none of the boats in my price range came equipped to sail offshore. Not only were we going to have to buy a boat and learn to sail it, but we needed to equip it for total self sufficiency on the high-seas; over extremely long distances and duration. With nowhere to land -- and facing arrest and separation if we did -- safe harbor wasn't an option. Only by running to sea, would we find safety together.

The next boat we shinnied aboard was much like the first: dirty and worn out. It was, however, a Beneteau -- a brand I'd heard spoken of around the club, in those hushed, reverent tones, prestige automobiles and expensive watches get mentioned in.

Elena joined us on that one, climbing onto the deck with her arms and legs covered with bites and scratches. From up in the cockpit, she peered into the boat's gloomy interior and asked, "Is that all there is?" Hey, she had never been on, or even, near a sailboat in her life. What did she know?

"Ah, Miss Lenna..." Erdem picked up on what I called her. "There are many yachts on offer, if these are not to your liking..."

"There's a lot more to it down here, than up on deck." I interrupted Erdem. "Just come inside and take a look... pleeeeaaaase."

Sailboat in dry storage

Elena (upper right) crawls aboard one of the sailboats, propped up on sticks in the desert, they took a look at with a yacht broker.

She maneuvered awkwardly down the companionway and looked around. The companionway is a kind-of, steep, widely spaced, set of stairs for getting between the living area below deck, and the cockpit. If that doesn't paint the picture, think of climbing a bookshelf to get between floors. She went through the cabins, sticking her head into closets, even tapping on the walls and floorboards, like an obsessive-compulsive, termite inspector.

"She is an architect. You know how they are." I explained her weirdness away to Erdem. "Everything's a structure to an architect." Then, to Elena, "What in the Sam hell are you doing?!" I stage-whispered.

"Looking for place to hide."

"Hide!?" I flashed a beatific smile in Erdem's direction. "Hide what?"

"My body. To hide me. To me you have told that we go in water of countries that send me to Russia, maybe worse. Who knows what they can do to me?"

"What's with all the knocking on walls? Secret passage? A tunnel, maybe?"

She ignored my question. "How much room is there under the floor?"

"I don't know." I felt my cheeks getting redder than they already were from the heat. "I'll come up with a way to ask Erdem. Meantime don't be so obvious. We're coming across as smugglers. Something else I know, because I've cleaned my fair share of paw prints and dog hair from aircraft upholstery, is that they don't have to see you, to find you."

"What are we going to do then?"

"For one, we're going to stay as far away from countries' territorial waters as possible." I stopped. Erdem was looking more than a little concerned by then. "I'm sorry, Elena and I had something to work out. It's all good now. Please go on."

Elena Ivanova taking a photo in front of Gino Yachting, Marmaris

Meg took this picture of Elena taking a picture (it's the one below) of the boat they ended up with. The building in the background is Gino Yachting's.

Smooth as silk, he transitioned back into boat salesman mode. "The cabin layout and storage space this boat provides is truly the best in its class."

I figure, he'd caught the drift of our whispered exchange. I went with it. "Yeah, storage space is great. A little more room is always nice." I paced around the main salon, appraising the cabinetry through sternly narrowed eyes. "Tell me, Erdem, what about storing stuff below the floor: blankets, provisions, a bean-bag chair, maybe a huge bag of golf clubs and hockey equipment?" I had to come up with something normal people might stow on a yacht that was human body sized.

He shrugged his shoulders, lifted a floor panel using its embedded finger pull. There wasn't much room, barely a crawlspace, and it was traversed throughout by structural bulkheads. Extra provisions, maybe. A human being, not a chance.

At Gino's, Erdem and I presented an offer on that Beneteau. Considering the sorry state it was in, Erdem suggested an offer well below the typically absurd asking price. Tea was served, phone calls were made, and the offer was not only rejected, but the seller countered for more than the listing price.

"What an asshole! I want -- no, I need -- that boat!" I fumed. It should have been easy. We had a deadline, and the dead in deadline was a real possibility, if we didn't meet it.

"The offer was too low, it offended the man with this yacht."

"Erdem. If you knew the seller would be offended, why did you let me make the offer?" I moaned.

Erdem called in his uncle. He was one of those guys you just knew was in charge. Within minutes and a few phone calls, we had a deal lined up on a French built Beneteau that was miles better than the one we lost. Recently outfitted for a no-show charter season, the owner was desperate to unload it. Not only that, it wasn't out in the desert, propped up on sticks, but in the water, sitting at the dock a hundred meters from there, all ready to go.

"Oceanis... Lenna, it's an Oceanis!" I whispered the name that Beneteau had christened that model.

"Nu ee shto - so what?"

"Don't you get it? The model, the design, is called, 'Oceanis.' That means it absolutely has to be for crossing oceans."

"You know this model of yacht?"

I didn't. Luckily, Erdem's uncle strode back into the office, his voice booming, "Today, my friends, you are in luck, for now you have a boat!"

Beneteau Oceanis Elena and Megs boat

In the water, ready to go (on short charters, mind you) this is the boat, dubbed Boadicea by Elena, that became their escape vessel.


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