Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Saturday, 9 August 2008 13:07 UK

Around Africa in a Phoenician boat

Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

The Phoenicia, Arwad Island, Syria
The boat is entirely wooden and has only one sail
On Arwad Island off the coast of Syria, a group of 20 sailors-to-be are preparing for a voyage their captain believes has not been undertaken for two and a half millennia.

They plan to set off on Sunday on a journey that attempts to replicate what the Greek historian Herodotus mentions as the first circumnavigation of Africa in about 600BC.

Their vessel, the small, pine-wood Phoenicia, is modelled on the type of ship the Phoenician sailors he credited with the landmark voyage would have used.

The Phoenicians lived in areas of modern-day Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Mediterranean from about 1200BC and are widely credited with being both strong seafarers and the first civilisation to make extensive use of an alphabet.

Mammoth project

Celebrating Damascus as a capital of Arab Culture for the year 2008, event organisers sponsored the British-run expedition project to mark their festivities.

Phoenicia route map
The year-long voyage will take the crew into some of the most dangerous waters in the world.

As well as sailing round the southern most tip of Africa, they are preparing to deal with pirates and long periods of waiting for favourable winds.

The skilful shipbuilders in Arwad are familiar with construction techniques dating back 200-300 years, but shipbuilder Orwa Bader, 28, says this is the first time they have ever tried to build in the Phoenician style.

"Usually it takes three men and two months to build any type of ship. But this time, we needed at least five to 10 builders to work on it over eight months to make it ready. It was a hard but enjoyable job."

The vessel, designed on the basis of information from wrecked ships, pottery and other archaeological artefacts from the era, is made entirely of wood, with a single sail and no engine.

The only concession to 21st Century sailing equipment is its navigational system. Its top speed will be the equivalent of 10km/h on land.

Piracy fears

The route goes through the Red Sea, past Somalia and down the East African cost before rounding the southern tip of Africa around Christmas time.

The Phoenicia, Arwad Island, Syria
The vessel was designed from archaeological evidence
The ship's skipper, Philip Beale, planned the voyage.

"The most difficult part will be circumnavigating around the Cape of Good Hope where many shipwrecks are testimony to the difficult conditions there. You can get big waves of 20 metres or more there. It is a dangerous area and we'll be there in December and January."

He predicts they have a 70% chance of completing the voyage successfully.

"But there's a 30% chance we make a serious navigational error or we come up against pirates and we are kidnapped or something," he adds.

Few luxuries

The ship will be crewed by a largely British team of volunteers, some of whom have never done anything similar. Living conditions will be tough, and little different from those the Phoenicians would have endured.

The experience will be new for John Bainbridge, 23: "It's about how you get on with people. That's the most essential skill," he says.

The Phoenicia, Arwad Island, Syria
Local boatmakers said they had never done anything like it before
And Julia Rouc, 26, originally from Zimbabwe, is hoping to spend time reading and possibly continue developing her aspirations to become a professional artist.

"I am excited about it. It is a great experience. I am used to living in tough conditions so it is all fine by me. But I am not sure if I will have time to continue painting."

Below deck, it feels extremely hot. There will be no ventilation and no running water, and one toilet for the 20 crew members. Their bunks are barely big enough to lie in.

Unlike the Phoenicians' ships, the vessel will be equipped with lifeboats, and will carry large amounts of food and fresh water.

But just like the ancient sailors, the crew will not really know how the boat will fare until it hits the open sea.

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