BROOKINGS RESIDENT SHARES SAILBOATING STORY

July 20, 2001 12:00 am
Children give Zoltan Gyurko a canoe ride to shore at Morovia Lagoon in the Solomon Islands. ().
Children give Zoltan Gyurko a canoe ride to shore at Morovia Lagoon in the Solomon Islands. ().

It was a lifelong dream to buy a sailboat and take a voyage around the world.

Even now I have memories of standing upon the edge of the ocean, vowing that someday I would see other lands and peoples, exposing myself to ideas and challenges far beyond my experience.

In August of 1994, at the age of 21, I bought a 26-foot Pearson Commander sloop, named The Way. Five weeks later, I left America to circumnavigate the world and realize my dream.

When I look back on my life now, it seems to begin with that first dawn of solo sailing and the Los Angeles skyline fading into the morning sun. Those first moments are always the most frightening, yet precious.

Since then I have sailed tens of thousands of miles, visited 51 countries and crossed two oceans.

The first two years of my trip were spent almost entirely in the South Pacific. From Los Angeles I made the grueling 2,400-mile, 20-day passage to Hawaii. After a quick stop off in Oahu, I sailed 800 miles due south until reaching a tiny atoll named Tabueran, part of the Kiribati Island chain.

Here I spent the next six months of my voyage living among the indigenous people-Pacific islanders whose culture has yet to experience electricity, cars, hotels, airports, tourists or Coca-Cola. The Tabueran people are a simple, loving community, living undisturbed today as they have for centuries before.

After leaving the Kiribati chain, I sailed for another 20 days before reaching Western Samoa. There I saw the greatest fire dancers in the world perform for their peoples Independence Day celebration.

From Samoa, it was to Tonga, then Fiji.

The age-old tradition in Fiji is to present a Kava root to the high chief of any island you visit. If he accepts it, he will allow you to stay on his island and protect you from any harm that comes your way. In the seven outer islands I visited in Fiji, I presented the Kava root seven times. No harm ever came my way.

But after departing Fiji on a 500-mile passage to Vanuatu, I hit my first severe storm. For 70 hours I battled 35 foot seas, my sailboat being thrown around like a plastic bath toy. Perhaps I needed to present Kava to the Pacific Ocean, I thought. But soon enough Vanuatu came into sight and I pulled into Port Resolution for safety.

After not sleeping for three days while fighting the storm. I dropped my anchor in the large bay and collapsed on my bed. I was out for 30 hours.

I awoke in the middle of the night to drum beats and a rumbling volcano less than a mile away. It was an eerie feeling, but something I would soon get used to.

Volcanoes and villagers drum beats became a way of life as I slowly sailed through a thousand-mile archipelago that made up Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The next three months of traveling would be the favorite of my seven years.

My most spectacular experience occurred on a large island in northern Vanuatu. I was one of the first white persons ever to visit an obscure bush deep in the mountainous jungle.

Reaching the tribe involved a treacherous two-day hike across steep terrain and verdant rain forests. The high chief of the village had three wives, and the people never left my side for days, touching my blond hair and following me even on my visit to the jungle to relieve myself.

After Vanuatu I sailed to the Solomon Islands where I toured the battlefields of World War II, and later, while alone on my boat, fought my own war against Dengue fever.

In Papua New Guinea, I scaled some of the worlds most active volcanoes and visited the infamous mud men in the Highlands.

After a quick stop in Australia for some diving on the Great Barrier Reef, I made my way to Guam. Soon after arriving I got a job as an archeological salvage diver otherwise known as a treasure hunter.

For four months I worked on the recovery of a Spanish galleon that hit a reef and sank in 1690 off the southern tip of Guam.

According to Spanish archives, the galleon was carrying a million silver coins. If found, the treasure would be valued at more than $500 million.

The Pilar Project, as the excavation is called, is considered the most potentially lucrative underwater treasure hunt currently under way in the world today. Unfortunately, by the time I earned enough money to get sailing again, our team of divers still had not recovered anything more significant than cannon balls, pottery shards and 33 silver coins.

From Guam I cruised The Way through Micronesia learning the ancient types of sailing methods with locals in their dugout canoes.

On many of the outer island atolls, only traditional dress was permitted. This meant that all persons including women must remain topless and wear only Lava-lavas.

In Palau I spent weeks anchored in secluded coves amongst the infamous Rock Islands, home to some of the best scuba diving in the world. From there I left the Pacific Ocean and entered the Java Sea, making landfall in Bali officially Southeast Asia.

Bali is home to the rich Hindu culture and I visited numerous temples, many of which overhang the rugged, vertical coastline similar to that of Oregon.

From Bali I made my way to Borneo, where I took my boat up an obscure river encountering traditional Muslim villages.

Men walked around the bustling market squares with giant moon rings on their fingers and their multiple wives following attentively behind.

The Yellow Sea was my next major waterway, and not one I was fond of. It has the highest incidence of lightning and the heaviest amount of shipping per square mile in the world.

Near Singapore I counted 456 freighters within sight, and on Christmas Eve of 1997, a radio station reported lightning occurring every six seconds for seven hours straight. When you travel with 40 gallons of gasoline on board, nothing could be worse.

Singapore was the ideal place to leave my boat to do some land traveling. As soon as I found a harbor, I jumped on a train headed for Thailand.

From Bangkok I flew to Japan and Hong Kong. An Australian model joined me for some of it. While trying to impress her in Macau, I lost a significant sum gambling in one of the worlds most famous casinos.

Funny now-but devastating to the budget back then. She laughed, making me dinner at her place and telling me of a giant bargain food store in downtown Singapore, similar to that of Costco.

The next week I stocked up there, preparing for the next phase of my voyage: a nearly straight shot across the Indian Ocean. After motoring through the Straits of Malacca, I began a 1,200-mile sail to what would become one of my favorite countries: Sri Lanka.

Almost exclusively an all Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka is country in disarray. People ride in hordes on the roofs of trains, snake charmers earn a living mesmerizing cobras, and locals discuss (over Ceylon tea) its ongoing multidecade civil war.

After three weeks of visiting the ancient monuments and world-famous national parks, I sailed to the Maldives. Here there was nothing to do but surf, play the guitar and spear lobster all day.

Nineteen days after leaving the Maldives, I reached Oman, the first of seven Middle Eastern countries I would visit. And still probably my favorite.

What makes Oman different than the rest of the Middle East is that the Sultan shares his oil wealth with his people, so that the standard of living for the average person is often better than that of Brookings. New cars and Rolex watches are a common sight.

Yemen was another story altogether. Its main port, Aden, was filthy, dangerous and mostly destroyed from years of civil war. I was in and out as quickly as possible.

I was 150 miles from Aden on my 26th birthday when I got blasted into the Red Sea. The wind was howling 40 knots from behind me. I made two record setting days until I reached Massawa, the main port for Eritrea.

Reaching Africa was a great high. And Eritrea lived up to everything I hoped for friendly people and an endless, dry landscape with stunning sunsets.

The most startling feature about Eritrea was its lack of men my age. They have all been sent to the front, fighting the war against Ethiopia. And sadly, many never return.

From Eritrea I cruised along the coast of Sudan, finally reaching Egypt. I visited the pyramids, Cairo and the temples of Luxor. After motoring through the Suez Canal, I sailed to Israel.

Jerusalem is a fascinating city, and if youre a Christian, I believe its a must to visit. Something about the Old City drummed very deep inside me.

A great side trip I took was to Petra, in Jordan. Most people know it from the final scenes in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Its even more amazing than the movie makes it. I wandered for days looking at the ancient city carved into rose-red cliffs.

My seven-year journey took me through three more countries: Cyprus, Turkey and Greece all of which have the flair of the warm, slow Mediterranean life.

Every morning at anchorage Id wake to herders taking their goats to the morning feed. After 10:30 a.m. it was siesta time too hot to do anything but sit in the shade, sip a cool drink and watch the sea sparkle. Well maybe play a game of checkers too, a Greek friend once told me with a grin.

My journey is over for now. Ive left my boat safely on a tiny island in Peloponisia. But when I have the funds to return, I will make the sail home to America via the Atlantic Ocean.

Great adventures in South America, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and the Galapagos Islands still wait. And perhaps Ill find in my final return to the states, that I just havent seen enough yet, and well, maybe, Ill see the fading of the Los Angeles skyline into the morning sun all over again the beginning of another dream.