Wine Dark Sea

by Sir Taki Theodoracopulos


Ah, the wine dark sea and all that, we’ve heard it all before but no Greek can get enough of it. The famous likening of the sea to wine has endured through the ages, from at least the 8th century BC, the composition date of The Iliad, and the phrase “wine dark” is now so securely lodged in our collective consciousness as to be known even by people who think Homer is the first name of some character in an American TV soap opera, (Homer Pyle. Watched only by morons.)

Although Homer’s follow up sailor saga deals mostly with the sea, his land-bound Iliad was the one that launched one of his best – known epithets on the world. The “wine-dark” has stuck with us, as the phrase is alluring, stirring, and instinctively evocative. It is also incomprehensible: In what way did the sea remind Homer of dark wine? And of the myriad ways to evoke the sea, why compare it to wine at all?

Not being a Homeric scholar I will not bludgeon the subject any further, suffice it to say that “oinopa ponton” are the ancient Greek words for it, and here I leave the intellectuals among you to discuss the matter. The sea makes wits out of dullards, and comics out of sad sacks. Anais Nin, a depressed but sexually adventurous writer living in Paris in mid last century compared herself to a mermaid, “without fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.” Sex and the sea go together like the proverbial boat and sail. “Ashore it’s wine, women, and song; aboard it’s rum, bum, and concertina,” says an English naval saying. Buggery on board was as rampant as rum drinking, and as another saying goes, “ The sole business of a seaman onshore who has to go to sea again is to take as much sexual pleasure as he can.”

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. Like the rest of you, I have heard all three sounds, and that of the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied. It’s also very, very scary if in the midst of a storm. I began sailing early on my father’s beautiful boat the Aries, a Camper Nicholson 120 footer built in 1953. My first sailer was a Swedish beauty built for the America’s Cup in 1938, and I was on her crossing the Messina Straights on my way to Greece when we hit the mother of all storms and I experienced my first “knock down,” when the mast hits the water and the boat remains sideways. Before it righted itself, it seemed like a lifetime. The Messina Straights were known in Homeric times as Scylla and Charybdis, a sailor’s nightmare, with the sea boiling and the straights looking like the monsters described by Homer. I couldn’t help but think what Odysseus and his crew must have felt like back then. Here we were with modern equipment and maps, an experienced crew, yet the seascape was one of terror. I remember a Soviet troop carrier crossing nearby and the sailors waving at the pretty girl I had on board who looked terrified and egging her to come on their boat.

I can’t remember going to Mykonos back in the days when Mykonos was fun and not crossing without hearing the heavy roaring of the meltemi, long seething seethes, sharp rifle-shots of whistling wind, sometime loud and thundering, at times placid. I’ve ripped more sails than Tsipras has made false promises, but looking back it was great fun. An English couple I once had on board went below as the storm hit us and began to sing. They thought they were going to die, and English people tend to sing before meeting their maker.

Although the romantics among us view the sea as the perfect place to have romantic thoughts and encounters, the sea has swallowed up people mercilessly and since time immemorial. Space prevents me from mentioning the worse disasters because they are so numerous and so heart wrenching. The thousands of slaves thrown overboard by cruel Arab slave traders, the thousands of slaves who rowed Spanish, English, French and Dutch warships and went down chained to their benches, the thousands of sailors who went down with their ships as they foundered on uncharted rocks and coasts, the thousands of brave submariners who are entombed forever deep below us. But I will mention one instance where the cruel sea showed her real self, and another when the cruel sea took second place to the cruelty and inhumanity of man: In the battle for Okinawa an American destroyer was sunk by a Japanese submarine. On board were five brothers, the Sullivans, who had insisted they serve together because “together we are invincible.” All five went down with the ship. There have been two destroyers named after them, the U.S.S. Sullivan, and a wonderful film made of their brief lives. The sea was cruel indeed in their case.

The other “incident” took place on the night of April 15, 1912, when the Titanic went down. After the great ship had sunk, the partially filled lifeboats standing by a few hundreds of yards away, never came back. The cries of those swimming aimlessly in the freezing black waters could be clearly heard. But no boat came near. How could any human being fail to heed those cries? They were afraid the lifeboats would be swamped by those in the water. And yet, the most heart-rending part of the whole tragedy was the failure of the boats that were partially filled to pick up the poor souls foundering in the water. They listened to the cries, and still they did not come back. Had they done so, a few hundreds souls would have been saved. This was the real scandal of the Titanic disaster, and where humans showed themselves to be inhuman after all. The sea, after all, can’t help being cruel. Humans can.

So, after sixty years of sailing around the Mediterranean, the sea that once was a border between a civilized world and the barbarian one has become a conduit for Africans to settle Europe. I no longer own a boat but charter every year. My last Bushido was number five, and as I became a geriatric Odysseus the Calypsos and the Sirens stopped materializing. I sailed Bushido mainly around the Ionian isles where my father came from, Zante, Fiore di Levante, the birthplace of Solomos and Italy’s greatest bard, Foscolo. The Ionian was always the bridge between Greece with the rest of Europe, and it encapsulated the beauty of the Greek countryside and the nobility of Venetian architecture, the azure of the sea and the dark green of the cypress trees. I loved Fitzcardo and Assos in Cephalonia, and when I was a boy on board my father’s boat to visit Zakynthos. We’d see Dionyssis Romas and dad’s cousins the Karer family and talk about the past and the Filiki Eteria whom our ancestors belonged to. Well, they’re all gone now, and modern horrors have replaced the Venetian buildings, but the sea remains.


Photos: Getty Images/Ideal Image

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