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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greek Sailors Cast Anchor on Black Sea Odyssey

For MTThe inflatable boat that will carry the four explorers on their two-month expedition.
Following in the wake of their fearless sea-faring ancestors, a group of Greek mariners set sail from Athens on Monday to "rediscover" the Black Sea coast, the setting of several ancient Greek myths and home to generations of Greek colonizers.

Armed with cameras and film equipment rather than the swords and shields of yesteryear, the four modern-day Greek explorers weighed anchor in a British-made 315-horsepower Scorpio rigid inflatable boat on a voyage that will take them along the shores of six Black Sea countries, including Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.

Although other expeditions have attempted to retrace the routes of ancient Greek sailors since the fall of the Soviet Union, the group claims it will be the first to document modern life in the many Black Sea towns that were once settled by ancient Greeks. They will also be the first people to circumnavigate the Black Sea in an inflatable boat.

For the better part of the next two months, Vladimir Levidis, 31, and 30-year-olds Anastassis Agathos, Gerasimos Rigas and Alexis Cabot will live on the 8.75-meter-long boat as it shuttles around the sea.

From Athens the team is headed for Istanbul and the Bosporus Strait, which they are due to cross around July 7. Once they are through the strait and into the Black Sea, they will visit ports along the Turkish coastline followed by Georgian, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian and Bulgarian towns before returning to Athens.

In total, the team will try to stop at 35 ports along the Black, Aegean and Azov seas and the Danube River.

Among the planned destinations on the 5,120-kilometer voyage are the southern Russian towns of Sochi and Novorossiisk and possibly Anapa and the Taman Peninsula, also in Russia, where several important ancient Greek towns were located.

Greek adventurers first began setting up trading posts along the Black Sea coast around 1000 B.C. and permanent settlements followed a couple of centuries later. Some of the biggest were Panticapaeum, located on the eastern tip of Crimea at Kerch, Ukraine, and Phanagoria and Gorgippia on the Taman Peninsula, which exported bread to Greece.

Many of the Greek towns in the area survived until the 4th century, when they were overrun by tribes from the east, although Phanagoria lasted until the 12th century. The vineyards that grow along the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea coast today are reminders of that Greek heritage.

Despite their modern speedboat, the team will try to capture the essence of the ancient Greek voyages, traveling close to the shore by daylight and docking at night. They will also guide themselves using three texts written by ancient Greek geographers.

"We are not archeologists but we want to see if there really are these capes and bays as stated in these ancient texts, and we intend to base our navigation on them," said Levidis, the organizer of the expedition and skipper of the boat. "They [texts] should be more than adequate as they are pretty complete about the [Black] sea."

Should things go wrong, the team is equipped with modern maps and GPS satellite navigation technology, paid for with the help of the Stavros I. Niarchos Foundation and Phoenix Insurance, which funded the expedition. In total, the group raised more than 150,000 euros ($148,000) for the project, a sum they hope will last the journey.

The Black Sea voyage is not the first time Levidis has taken to the seas. In 1998, he sailed from Piraeus, Greece, to Sweden in a rigid inflatable boat, following the same route as the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas of Marseilles. Following that success, Levidis, whose great-grandfather was a Cossack from the Don region, decided to undertake a new adventure with a different purpose.

"We were looking to follow the trails of other Greek adventurers and thought about following a route to the Red Sea," he said. "But considering the Black Sea is more open today politically speaking than before, filled with Greek history and temples and having a large Greek diaspora, it made sense to choose this route."

Despite their long history in the region, the Greek communities that exist today in Russian towns like Anapa, Gelendzhik, Novorossiisk and Sochi date back only a couple of centuries.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Greeks living along the Black Sea coast under Ottoman control began resettling into the Russian Empire at the tsars' invitation. These communities grew through several waves of emigration, the last one coming in the aftermath of World War I, when Greeks fled Turkey en masse.

By 1918, about 1 million Greeks lived within the Russian empire, and about 150,000 ethnic Greeks still live in Russia today, many along the Black Sea coast.

The crew hopes to document the fate of these communities and become a bridge for dialogue between the diaspora and Greece.

"There are very active Greek communities in Ukraine and Russia that don't see or know many Greeks, and we hope to give to them something about life there," Levidis said. "But we also want to rediscover this area that is an important part of Greek history but not well known in Greece today."

Although poor weather could slow the team down, a more likely source of trouble along the way is bureaucratic problems.

Unlike Jason and the Argonauts, who muscled their way into Black Sea ports on their way to recovering the Golden Fleece from the town of Colchis in today's Georgia, and other mythical travelers to the Black Sea like Hercules and Ulysses, Levidis and his crew need visas to pull into port.

"We have had difficulty obtaining a visa for Georgia despite the good relations between our countries," said Levidis, who is unsure if they will be able to stop in Georgian ports.

The Russian Embassy in Athens, on the other hand, was very helpful in arranging the team's visas and giving them advice about the trip, he said.

All the same, Levidis is not counting his chickens when it comes to Russian customs: A group of Greek sailors writing a book on the Black Sea were turned away at Sochi last year even though they had valid visas, he said.