Where I Learned to sail: The Port of Haifa, Israel

Cap't Ziggy


My passion for sailing was born in the Port of Haifa Israel as a teenager in the early 70s. Before that my boating experience was limited to growing up white water canoeing in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.

My family moved to Israel for a while due to my father’s job. While there a family friend suggested I join a youth sailing club sailing out of the Port of Haifa. It was the start to a completely new way of life.

The Port of Haifa was part of the awesome vista seen from our home on the side of Mt. Carmel. With a pair of binoculars I could look down on the club from my bedroom window to see if the guys were sailing.

One nice thing about Israel is the weather is constant and predictable. It never rains in the summer. People actually remove their windshield wipers saving them for winter when it rains for a couple of hours every afternoon. You can make outdoor plans years in advance and know exactly what the weather will be.

The club sailed out of the northern section of the port separated from the commercial southern end of the port. It was a small private area for personal yachters, fishermen and world travelers. The harbor was filled with a collection of yachts large and small.

Entrance to the marina was via a small gravel road weaving around the backside of an oil refinery. Once to the water’s edge there is an army checkpoint and gate. There we would be questioned and the vehicle searched. We even had special access U.N. license plates and diplomatic passports and were still given the once over every time.

I remember being fascinated by a family that had just completed a sail from the UK the long way around circumnavigating the planet on their way to Haifa. They were planning on selling their trimaran and starting a new life in Israel.

The thought of such an adventure seemed daunting and sparked my imagination. My dad caught the same fever and was intent on buying the tri and sailing her home to the States in a year when our stay was up. The plan was that by the time we sailed her out of the Mediterranean Ocean we would have learned enough to get her across the Atlantic in one piece.

Those grand adventure plans died at the hands of my mother’s practicality. She didn’t share the men’s dreams of sailing off like pirates into the unknown without a supermarket in sight.

The club met every weekend. They had an area where the small fleet of boats were stored. It was rounded out with a few outbuildings and a pole barn.

Our fleet consisted of a bunch of small Sunfish sailboats used in the races and several large heavy wooden “whaling boats”. The sunfish were reserved for the higher seniority members who had spent years sailing the bigger boats.

I was thus in the whaler sailing group. These boats may have had no known connection to whaling but somehow that was the translation into English of the pet name for these old tubs. They actually resembled old surplus Lifeboats from who knows where. They were large clunky tubs with a lot of bench seats front to back making moving around an obstacle course. They were definitely designed to carry people rather than leisurely sail up and down the coast of Israel.

They were large open top affairs and the auxiliary power was us, the low seniority crew. No power or navigational lights with a crew of a dozen or more people. The boats were powered by long oars and were manned by a row of 4 or 5 people on each side like a Viking ship. We would row out of the marina into the larger commercial harbor where we would throw the large heavy mainsail and pointed her for the open waters of the Med.

I don’t remember having a foresail but it may have. The steady winds may have made its use an unnecessary task. The Harbor is at the foot of a large flat bottom valley that runs north of Mt. Carmel for miles leading right to the foothills of Nazareth. This funneled the air into perfect sailing conditions.

Once out on the water we would use the massive oil tankers as rounding marks and the race was on. We would have to keep a fair distance from the anchored boats or a gruff visit from the Israeli military would be in order and these people are a little more trigger happy than our Homeland Security swat teams that I have had run ins with when sailing near the Canadian borders in the Great Lakes.

It was common to have a nuclear sub or two anchored off shore that was a major no go zone. The whole area was on lock down when the Queen Mary II came to port for a week or so. The mouth of the port was blocked surface to bottom with a huge steel net and the waters patrolled with teams of Israeli frogmen day and night with the aid of flares dropped by the air force. It was great entertainment from the balcony of our home safely up the mountain side.

My favorite sail was the 10 miles or so up to the Port of Akko. Akko is on the northern end of the natural bay of Haifa. Our other favorite was to sail down to the ruins of Caesarea’s castle.

Akko is a beautiful place lost in time. It has stood unchanged for thousands of years and is the world’s oldest continuously used port in the world. According to Greek myth, Hercules found curative herbs here to heal his wounds. Akko is the holiest city of the ahá'í Faith. Historical records date back before the 16th century BC.

Caesarea Castle’s ruins are left from the days when it was the Roman Capital of Palestine in the 1st century BCE under King Herod before being conquered during the Crusades in 1101.

We would spend the day sailing down to the ruins or up to Akko or sometimes a little farther up to the Lebanese border and back. There was always something to keep us busy on the old woodies. They had no keel to speak of and a long primitive dagger board. We would have to in mass throw our weight to offset the large sail. On the windier days we would rig a guy into a harness and hook him to a halyard so he could swing out over the side when heeled over to provide extra ballast. The teamwork was a great lesson in discipline.

The sail into port was usually less strenuous than the ride out of the harbor. We had a guy on the rudder that loved to charge full steam ahead straight at the dock and turn at the last second to slam into the dock portside first as we dumped the sail al ’a Capt. Ron before there was a Capt. Ron.

This was always fun while we freaked out the spectators acting like we were all terrified screaming like we knew we were going to die. People would run for their lives in a panic. Once we bounced off the dock and threw our lines we would laugh till we had tears coming down our cheeks. Those days are at the top of the “good old days” list in my head. I would love to go back and relive one of those sails now.