Zambak

Patrick sent this story to me, along with several others, on 25 Dec 2013. This one tells the story of the Zambak, chronicled elsewhere indirectly.

Billy Bielmeyer and I were sailing in the Bay of Izmir in his tiny Pirate dinghy. The hills of Izmir rising up on all sides from the deep blue sea bristled with minarets. It was the hour when the muezzins called the faithful to prayer, but you could not hear them out where we fizzed along on the sea, the main and jib flaphappy in the stiff breeze coming off the land. The wind was hot on my cheeks, and I felt grains of sand on my skin.

Billy leaned back in the stern, the wooden tiller in his right hand, a bottle of PX beer in his left. He grinned broadly, showing his gold tooth, and held the craft on the wind, the mast at a thrilling forty-five degree angle. I was leaning out over the sea, my weight countering the [???]

As we passed a boatyard near Karshyaka, he pointed to a sloop up on stanchions.

-There’s a handsome craft. Belongs to an architect who has bought a bigger one. He wants to sell this one. The Zambak, she’s called.

I took a long look. Nice shape to her bottom. Shallow keel. Mast a bit stubby, spit nicely angled.

-How much?

-Five hundred dollars, he’s asking. About five thousand lira.

One month’s salary. Thirty-five feet of boat, Billy informed me. A cabin could sleep four. My mind swept around the Greek islands and Italy. No way could I resist this.

What a fool. Twenty-seven years old, in love with a woman, adventure, and now a dream. Already I was mentally composing a letter to Fred. Let’s follow the route of Ulysses. We will have our own siren aboard, so there’s no danger from Circe.

Billy was my bandleader in the NCO club of the USAF. Born in Munich, too young to have fought in the war, he had picked up jazz from the American musicians who entertained the occupying forces. He dressed and talked like the Americans he worked for, but with a slight lisp and German accent surfacing in his English. He had a slight beer belly on which he balanced his sax. He smoked unfiltered Camels, often holding one burning between his forth and fifth fingers while trading fours with the drummer or pianist.

He had been playing tenor sax in that same club for five or six years, six nights a week plus Sunday afternoons for bingo and the family show. He loved Turkey, and he loved the sea. He and his wife Minx lived with little Joanna in a basement apartment in the Greek quarter, less than a block from the quay where he tied up his Pirate, a catboat with a red sail, held to course by a centerboard.

He spent his days reading mystery novels when he was not sailing the Pirate. Minx made lunch for him and Joanna, after which mother and daughter went for a walk along the waterfront so that Billy could nap before work. At seven o’clock he put on his brown jacket woven with gold threads and headed out to the NCO club.

Mari and I met Nishli Bey in his office opposite the dock for the Karshyaka ferry. He ordered çay from the bar down on the street and snapped his fingers for a male secretary to prepare a document. By the time the boy brought the glasses of sweet tea on a brass tray, I was the owner of a sloop, and Mari had another admirer; Nishli couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“You understand I am removing the motor? It is a Cadillac engine, and costs more than the Zambak herself. I want the motor for my new boat.”

“I understand. But The Zambak will sail under canvas, which is what I am interested in?”

“Yes, of course. I have sailed many years. As far as Rodos. Samos. Bodrum. The engine is of course useful for entering and leaving the harbor I advise you to get something, even if it’s small, fifteen horsepower. The Cadillac has 158 horsepower.”

He handed me an eight-by-ten photograph of the boat. Three or four women in bathing suits held onto the boom and cables.

“Is that your wife?” I asked.

“No. She does not like to sail” He shifted his glance to Mari. “Those are friends who are a bit more adventurous.”

I took a copy of the bill of sale. We shook hands on the deal. He put the greenbacks in his pocket.

So began my brief history on the seas.

For many weeks, Saturdays and Sundays I spent with Billy in the boatyard. The workmen extended the keel, made a coaming for the cabin. I bought an alcohol stove, asked my friend Fred to bring or send foam rubber mattresses, not available locally. Rebek from the Karshiyaka Yacht Club made a new jib of dacron, and took measurements for the mainsail. The glides for hoisting the mainsail were useless, so we located a foundry who made a dozen molded in sand. We ate lunch with the workers, that meal consisting of loaves of bread which we tore apart and dipped into a vat of yoghurt.

If my wife Mari objected to my attentions to the Zambak, she was quiet about it. Whatever initial resistance she might have felt was melted by our frequent meetings with the owner of the boat.

She came with us once to see the Zambak, but she did not feel comfortable among the rough men building boats. They started with logs ripped by hand, then shaped each piece with hand tools.

She left me sopping up yoghurt with in the shadow of the Zambak and returned to town in Nishli’s red convertible. He had come to see how work was progressing and invited us both for a rooftop lunch at the Santral Palas Hotel. I told Mari she should accept, but I wanted to stay in the boatyard till dark. Just because I wanted to drink raki with the Turks under the rusted hulks of merchant wrecks was no good reason for her to hang out with me.

While the Zambak was being readied I applied for a pilot’s license. To my dismay, I had to take an examination to get permission to sail anywhere except within view of the coast. The exam was in Turkish, of course. Ever optimistic, I bought a dictionary and a grammar.

Finally the carpentry was done, and Mari came with me to see the Zambak launched. The boat slid down the ramp, rocked on the wash from a passing speedboat for a moment and slowly sank to the bottom, only the tip of the mast showing.

“That’s normal, Billy translated for me. -The wood swells and makes her watertight. They will hoist her out in a couple of days and pump her dry.”

Mari had already indicated her lack of enthusiasm to accompany us on the maiden voyage. The sight of the craft sinking set her against my brilliant idea of following the route of Ulysses.

Billy and I took the Zambak out for the first time on a Monday, the day clubs gave musicians the night off, giving us as many hours as we wanted. At 11:00 am, Rebek tossed me the painter and with a thrill I felt the Zambak accept the wind; with a sudden lurch we were under way. Billy leaned back at the tiller, a can of Budweiser gripped between his sneakers.

The sky was a brilliant blue, matched by the deeper blue of the sea, tiny whitecaps fleeing away from the shore. In the distance there you could see dozens of minarets spiking the hills of Izmir. The wind was fresh, coming off the land, chopping a little froth from the bay. We set out with the mainsail billowing easily as we lugged out toward the widening mouth of the crescent harbor. When we held steadily against the wind, Billy tried various necessary maneuvers – heading into the wind till the main flapped free, while we still had headway, he reversed the rudder and ducked the boom as we came around; he came as hard on the wind as he could, and he liked the way the Zambak seemed to settle right down into the sea and the slapping of wave crests on the hull came ever faster.

The jib was new, but Nevzat had not yet finished the new mainsail, so we used the old cotton sail stowed in the hold for God knows how many years.

The Bay of Izmir is a beautifully protected harbor, the land wrapped like pincers around the sea between the headlands behond Karshiyaka and Mentes. After that you are in the Aegean Sea.

We cleared the headland, the breeze stiffening. I felt sand stinging my eyes. Billy grasped the tiller with both hands now, holding the Zambak hard on the wind. For the first time I felt uneasy; the tiller was an iron bar fitted loosely on the post of the rudder. Nothing held the bar in place except gravity. Were it to drop into the sea…

In the middle of that thought, the mainsail ripped and became two rags loose on the wind. The jib held but Billy fought to maintain our heading. We rolled in the troughs coming off the land until there was a cracking sound and we were lying on the side, aground on a sandbar.

-Drop the jib! Billy shouted. I was relieved to see that he removed the tiller and laid it on the boards of the cockpit. I crawled over the cabin roof and loosed the line for the jib. Now the jib was down, the mainsail in tatters, and the boat lifted and fell with the waves, putting us further and further onto the sandbar.

In a hopeless gesture, I lowered myself into the shallow sea, shouldered the anchor and set off to windward, whitecaps slapping my face. I had a vague notion that if I could lay the anchor out there somewhere, Billy and I could pull the Zambak off the sandbar. A stupid idea, of course. She weighed six tons, and the bottom was nothing but sand. Nevertheless I dropped the anchor at the furthest the chain would reach, returned, and together we pulled at the chain and eventually brought the anchor right back onto the deck.

The sea was rougher by the minute. I could see a foreboding cliff face half a kilometer away, not worth trying to swim there. Then around the headland we had left behind us, a ship appeared – green steel hull, machinery at the stern for hauling in nets. The crew sighted us and put in closer before dropping anchor, prow to the wind. The fishing boat hove to, if that’s the phrase, and I left the Zambak again to get close to the cable the captain had tossed us, secured to a life preserver. I pushed the preserver ahead of me in the whitecaps. Lying on my back on the slanting deck, I wound the cable four times around the mast. Billy waved an all clear and the slack was taken up. I didn’t like the cracking sound when the cable came taut, but it felt good to start moving toward the other craft.

The trawler headed toward shore, towing us behind. We moved around one of the horns of the harbor, and Izmir disappeared as we ducked leeward behind a spit of land. Here the water was less agitated. We came up on a cove where several other craft had put in. They were all tight on their mooring buoys, bows to the shoreline. We dropped anchor well away from our saviours; I hadn’t yet bought a zodiac nor a dinghy, so they came for us in a lighter.

One of the men clutched his chest, grimacing with pain, a blood-soaked cloth wound round one hand. The other sailors studied us with no expression at all in their eyes.

When we were safely in the fisherman’s bar, the captain ordered a bottle of brandy to be set in front of the injured man, the made him drink. After a couple of ounces were down him, the captain filled the glass again, and left him to it.

Billy spoke enough Turkish to learn that the sailor’s fingers had caught under the cable when the winch reversed to pull us off the sandbar.

Billy and I kept buying raki through the night, once in a while stripping a few sticks of shish kebap. Toward dawn the storm calmed down, and we all slept where we were – on the floor or in a chair, head on the table among the glasses.

What awoke us was the sound of the owner of the bar cursing out loud as he kicked out the window. The Zambak had shifted on her anchor as the wind and tide changed, dragging the anchor along till the stern of the Zambak now bumped rythmically at the window sill of the bar built right on the pier of weathered planks.

Billy slapped some Turkish lira on the counter, and stepped out the window as the Zambak rose on a swell. A moment later I got my nerve up and leapt out the window to join Billy on deck.

He put me at the helm and hoisted the jib, which was enough for us to come up on the anchor and get under way. He hauled in and stowed the anchor, cut a length of line from the main sheet and bound a clumsy knot of canvas where the sail had split. The main was now less than half its size and let wind through above and below the knot, but the Zambak began moving slowly away from the bar.

Someone leapt into the water and swam after us; not the owner – I could see him standing in the window of the bar shaking a fist at us. When the swimmer had a hand on the railing, Billy dug a couple of bills out of his pockets and shoved them into the man’s free hand, letting one bill float away on the breeze to drift on the blue surface of the bay.

Soon we were lugging under a clear sky back toward the distant minarets. Our provisions were all sopping, and there were no cigarettes. Stomach rumbling, head muddled still by alcohol, I steered my crippled boat into the rising sun, while Billy did a stint of bailing us out.

We limped on the left-over rag of the main and half a jib back into the Izmir Bay and tied up at the dock of the Karshiyaki Yacht Club. From deck to dock was now a step up; before we dragged the sand bar, it would have been a step down. By tomorrow the Zambak could be settling onto the bottom. I asked Nevzat to tow her back to the boatyard where she had come from a few days before. Mine had to be the shortest career as a boat owner and sailor. I held the tiller from the dry dock to the yacht club, a distance of a mile or so. Billy had been in charge on the way out to the sandbar, and I was bailing most of the way back. Nevzat took us back to the yacht club.

We had no phone at home, but if I called the landlord he would take up a message. While I waited for him to answer, I picked up the copy of Aksyam, the Turkish newspaper. A three column photograph on the front page showed Mari getting the news that I’m lost at sea and and presumed dead. At least that’s what I assumed the article was saying. I could read the word for helicopter and the US Air Force.

The phone kept ringing, but no luck.

In the photo, Mari was wearing a white cotton dress I knew was tied at the waist by a wide belt with a silver goddess on the buckle. She pushed a strand of hair back from her forehead as she looked off to the right of the picture. Nishli Bey braced her with an arm around her shoulders. Next to them was the hare-lipped pianist from our group, in uniform, his Captain’s cap in his hand.

The phone company gave up on the call, so I hung up and looked inside the front page, where there was a photo of the Zambak herself, with an inset of Nishli. I wondered what he was telling the papers. I doubt he admitted to selling it to a foreigner for undeclared dollars.

More important I wondered what he was saying right now to Mari, and where he was saying it to her.

I took the ferry over to Konak. From there by shared taxi I would be at our apartment on 131 Sokak in half an hour. The muezzins were calling for the zuhr prayer as I passed the Hisa mosque. There would be two more mosques on the way. No one in the city was beyond hearing the call.

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