Troy Hightower

Sailing the Turkish Coast in a Wooden Gulet

The Turquoise Coast—serried ranks of craggy charcoal mountains rising in slight haze from the coastline; taupe and salmon sky, the fading sun above still snow-capped peaks of the Taurus mountains. Rocky seaside covered in silvery-green olives, and dusty chaparral. Lacy coastline, winding aside the limpid turquoise sea. These are the hauntingly memorable images retained from a week’s liesurely, relaxing sailing voyage off the Aegean Turkish coast.

Aegean Turkish cruising is usually done in native-built sailing yachts called gulets. These are wide, stable, graceful wooden boats. Ours, the Melanurya, is 18 meters in length, with four cabins—just right for seven good friends. Cabins are small (as always except on the most expensive and luxurious yachts) but with adequate storage, and each with compact private bath. One learns to live efficiently and keep everything in its place. There is a long foredeck, with built in cushioned seats and canvas duck-covered sunning pads. The awning-covered rear deck likewise features a cushioned raised seating/lounge area we dub the “play pen” and a table & chairs for outdoor dining. Our crew is three—Yelcek, the leather faced Turkish captain, a cigarette always hanging from his lip, Feirhat, general seaman and steward, and Hussein, first mate and cook—and what a cook! Meals are fresh, varied, well spiced and delicious—Turkish home cuisine at its best. Feirhat and Hussein are both dark-haired, square-jawed handsome young Turks—friendly, efficient and ready to please.

Two-masted, with a forward jib, Melanurya can put up quite a bit of sail when the wind is right—and she’s a beautiful boat under sail. The gentle lap of the sea against the hull, wind-sounds of air over the sails, tangy sea breeze in the face and the warm touch of sun let us know this will be a really relaxing vacation.

Some of the going is by motor, due to schedule and wind conditions, but the relaxation factor isn’t lost.
Wake when you please, but at dawn, with the sun peeking out over the far ridge past the rocky cove the morning is serenely lovely. Peach & salmon tinges follow grays and creams on shredded clouds as the sun rises, the early morning water a blue black sheet of glass before the sun turns it azure.

The water is flat calm, tiny iridescent fish darting at the surface of the azure water. Into the drink for a refreshing morning swim around the cove—the water just on the cusp of cool/warm. All is quiet while paddling past the knobby granite and pine trees of the cove shore. A fresh water deck shower, dry off in the sun, and a half hour to read or write before breakfast. The air is silky and the low sunlight limpid. The filigreed rock cove with its scrub pine forest right down to waters edge is exceedingly beautiful. Turkish breakfast is refreshing and healthy—bread, white cheese (feta) tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, thick tangy yoghurt with spicy honey, a soft egg if desired and tea or chewy (literally) Turkish coffee. A Turkish specialty called Menamen—sautéed onions, peppers, tomatoes combined with soft scrambled eggs is also featured this morning.

After breakfast, an hour of reading or mind-drifting, and the Melanurya weighs anchor, pulls out from the cove, and heads south. We raise the jib and the main, and run before the wind. Typically, there are 2-4 hours of sailing or motoring in a day, moving from cove to beautiful cove, and the next attraction on the itinerary. Today we head for Gemiller Island, site of ancient ruins, and the Olu Deniz, one of the most beautiful beaches on the Turkish coast.

The coast south of Fethiye is varied—some sheer vertical 200 foot cliffs dropping straight into the sea. Much is nubby-green berber carpet of pine forest undulating down to filigreed rock shore. These are often rent by rock cliff lines seismically formed, where one fault-side has dropped dozens of feet to form the iron-streaked cliffs. Natural rock amphitheatres abound—great sweeps of curving rock face, rose and gray tinged inward slopes, often with sea caves at the bottom. Wild pink oleander stud the organ-pipes of silvery-gray rock forming the verge between forest and water, itself an undulating line rising and falling along the coast. The astonishing carved Lycian tombs at Dalayan and above Fethiye—temple style, with Doric porticos, columns, gables & pediments carved right into the cliff face in colors of ochre, rust, beige, gray—are some of the most fascinating and photographed ruins in Turkey.

A huge, magnificent 270 degree sweep of cove at Olu Denize, a ring of jagged, towering peaks falling into the sea-pined trees dotting a near ridge, silhouetted against the morning sky. We anchor off Olu Deniz, take a dinghy tour of the cove and beach. European style, the beach charges a fee, and offers mats, chaises, and sun shades. Pale, pink and bronze sunning beauties abound.

Lunch on board normally features lots of vegetables, salads, and a little bit of meat, if any. Today Hussein serves small green peppers stuffed with rice, raisins & ground lamb, a dense rich velvety moussaka, and shepherd’s salad of tomatoes, sweet onion, cucumbers, sweet peppers and chopped lettuce. Dessert is almost always sliced fruit—Turkish oranges, watermelon, apple, banana. Very healthy cuisine, all in all, washed down with abundant and extremely inexpensive Turkish wines—Villa Doluça and Chankaya quickly become two of our favorites.

After lunch we round the cove and anchor in the channel between the mainland and Gemiller Island. Afternoon is taken up with sunning, reading, snorlking, swimming and attempts to master windsurfing. As the sun transits toward the horizon, we cross the channel in the dinghy for a hike up to the peak of Gemiller Island. The island sits along the north coast of the bay, a long, narrow island, covered with un-restored overgrown ruins, separated from land by a narrow channel. A hike to the top through the ruins and rubble rewards with a stupendous, panoramic view. Dating to the 5th century AD, the habitations here were originally part of the mainland—an earthquake 500 years ago leveled it, and sunk a channel 60 feet, forming the separation. The hike down the scree-covered path is more treacherous, and requires more care than the hike up.

 Private Ruins


As the sun’s orb drops below the horizon and purple begins to tinge the dusk, cocktail hour is declared. Our group trades idle banter over Jamaican run and orange juice, Turkish vodka and tonic, or gin and lemon, as Hussein busily prepares dinner in the tiny galley below. Deep purple fades to black as he presents a platter of tiny, succulent lamb chops, accompanied by pasta in fresh tomato sauce, and a salad of parsley, white cheese, cherry tomatoes and olives. Halfway through dinner a stiff breezed kicks up, black clouds scud across the stars, and moments later raindrops pelt our awning. It lasts a brief ten minutes, and leaves a fresh, rain-washed taste to the air.

Turkish Baklava, bought this morning in the market in Fethiye—phyllo filled with chopped walnuts and drenched in grape syrup provides a light, sweet conclusion to our repast, with Turkish coffee for those who choose. The soft laughter and gentle bantering of close friends echoes into the black night—a glass of watered Raki—anise liqueur— encourages the digestion. Soon it’s 10:30, and heads begin to nod, ready for a refreshing night’s sleep in the sea air to prepare mind and body for another day of intensely relaxing gulet life.