When we announced to friends and family that we were planning to visit Syria they told us we were mad. Why, we asked, it's a beautiful country, once the cradle of civilisation and full of incredible sites to visit. There is no threat to simple yachties. We've transited the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, sailed to Egypt and to Tunisia and we've never had a problem, only a warm welcome. Why should Syria be any different? Had we known we would be a victims of a dishonourable official, make a round trip of 200 miles for a piece of paper and still not been allowed to set foot beyond the quayside in Lattakia port, we might have made a few alterations to our schedule!
It was a schedule which had already been disrupted. At the beginning of May we were in Rhodes to refuel and provision before setting out to the entry port of Lattakia in Syria. Just as we were leaving Mandraki harbour, all our well-laid plans were thrown into disarray in an instant when I managed to lose part of my little finger and damage others in the anchor winch. We spent a couple of unplanned weeks in the marina and then anchored another week in picturesque Lindos where I was still within easy reach of the hospital.
With my hand finally out of bandages and on the road to recovery, we sailed off from Lindos arriving in Lattakia, Syria 7 days later. Due to our more than usually "short-handed" crew, we stopped to anchor a few times along the southern Turkish coast to rest and relax and for Nic to carry out repairs to the furling system on our Genoa sail.
Our last leg took 3 days and nights and culminated in an exhausting slog against headwinds into the port. We moored at the Syrian Yacht Club, a concrete quay in a tiny, crowded fishing harbour, under grey skies, an omen perhaps of what was to transpire. After our boat papers and passports were inspected we were asked for exit papers from our last port of call. This was something we did not have since, as a British-flagged boat leaving an EEC port, we had not formally checked out of Rhodes.
The day proceeded with a gaggle of up to 10 officials gathering on the quay next to our boat. The problem was not with us, the immigration officials were happy with our visas; the difficulty was Irony. The underlying dilemma was that we might have taken our boat to Israel (a 600 mile detour!) after leaving Rhodes and they couldn't have their quay tainted by such a possibility while we were off touring their country.
Out came receipts from Mandraki marina and Lindos, we showed them our GPS track on the laptop and gave them a copy of our log but nothing would sway them. The endless discussions punctuated by much gesticulating and innumerable mobile phone conversations with the unseen chief making the final decision were to no avail. To satisfy their paperwork requirements we would have to sail 85 miles to Iskenderum in Turkey, check-in and check-out, and return with the exit papers they needed.
We protested. We were exhausted, we needed to do repairs to the boat and we lacked enough fuel get us to Turkey. To our surprise and disbelief an engineer was summoned to our boat to check if we were lying about our fuel situation. After inspecting the tanks and what, for him, appeared to be difficult calculations requiring the use of our calculator, pen and paper, a tanker arrived at the quay.
With a couple of hundred litres of diesel in our tanks and a large proportion of it running over our decks after the night time refuelling operation, the pressure was on to depart. At this point the stress of the day, the absurdity of the situation, lack of food and complete exhaustion dissolved me into tears. The hard-nosed officials looked visibly distressed. They suggested Nic radio Lattakia port control which he did and we were granted a stay of expulsion until the morning.
Off we set to Turkey 200 miles to check and out! 3 days later after battling near-gale headwinds and 2-4m seas we returned to Lattakia. A sense of foreboding developed when it took a couple of hours for the authorities to appear. Imagine our astonishment when we were again told we would have to leave immediately. No one was interested in the check-out papers we had just obtained from Turkey; in fact no one ever looked at them.
First they accused us of not contacting them on the radio when we approached Syrian waters. This was blatantly untrue; Nic had radioed 5 times finally receiving an answer when we were 6 miles off the coast. Next they said we had not given them 24 hours notice of our arrival also a lie. We had emailed the Syrian Yacht Club on Saturday night to inform them of our arrival on Monday and received a reply attaching suggestions for tours in the country! They also denied that they had promised us entry if we made the round trip to Turkey.
This time the throng of officials settled themselves into plastic garden chairs on the quayside ringside seats for the afternoon performance. There was absolutely no sympathy to the fact they were putting both us and our boat in danger by sending us out to sea unprepared. We had only managed to get an hour's sleep the night before and had not eaten since 9pm. We still needed to make repairs to the boat, outstanding from our first arrival, and had no weather information. Since we were planning to remain in Syria for at least a couple of weeks of sightseeing we had dwindling provisions and had made no passage plan to our next destination. The officials laughed saying we had entered Syria illegally and therefore had no rights. .
Our best efforts and those of the marina staff were in vain. A vehicle was brought to the quay and we were advised that if we did not leave immediately the situation would "escalate". The implication was that we would be arrested. Two guards were posted by the boat.
At around 6pm we eventually got the fuel we required and the marina staff brought some weather information more strong headwinds predicted if we sailed south as intended. At the last moment, a call Nic had made to the Consul at the Syrian Embassy in London paid off. His timely intervention allowed us to remain until morning. The poor guards got a mattress to supplement their garden chairs for the night and we got some much needed sleep.
We sailed to Cyprus, not a destination we had planned to visit but at least somewhere we can rest and carry out repairs without further hassle. We are still incredulous of what has taken place. It is now obvious that we were never going to be allowed entry. What is so shocking is the dishonesty of the Syrian authorities in not advising us of this on first arrival. To tell us to make a 200 mile journey under false pretences is unforgivable. The irony of the situation is that, if we take our boat to Israel, we can travel overland to Jordan and can enter Syria from there. It will be Israel and an Israeli marina which will benefit from this ridiculous episode, an outcome I am sure the "decision-maker" in Syria did not intend.