BEIRUT: The myth of Princess Elissa goes something like this: At some point during the ninth century BC, King Pygmalion of Tyre made a contract killing on his sister Elissa's husband. Aggrieved as she was, Elissa responded by hoodwinking her brother out of a fleet of ships and absconding with the family jewels. She fled from her native kingdom and hit the high seas, sailing westward for seven years until she landed in North Africa. There, she struck a deal with the local king. He offered her a plot of land but told her it couldn't exceed the size of a cow's hide. She agreed, and in a fine bit of feminine ingenuity, pinpointed the loophole in the agreement, ripped the cowhide into thin strips, and outlined a vast stretch of coastal land for herself called Qart Hadasht, now known as Carthage in Tunisia. With that accomplished, she became Queen Dido (meaning the wanderer or the virgin, depending on your source), a pacifist princess who braved the Mediterranean and conquered a kingdom without a single act of violence.
This little legend is now getting a new lease on life, as a premier sailing race is set to retrace Elissa's course from Tyre to Carthage in late August.
"La Route d'Elissa," as the race is called, is a first on many fronts. It is the first major, international sailing race to cross the Mediterranean. It is also the first to do so with United Nations support, part of a resolution aimed at championing sport as a viable cultural exchange between developing countries. And finally, it is the first race of its kind ever to mandate that a woman head every crew that competes.
The feminist twist makes sense, of course, given the story from which the race takes its name. The Elissa legend, in addition to inspiring a passage in Virgil's Aeneid, has long been a favorite of female artists and writers, girl-power groups, and those bastions of third-wave feminism, women's studies programs at American universities. It's a story that celebrates women as strong, adventurous, and all the more clever than their male counterparts. (That Elissa ultimately burned herself to death after her lover, the Trojan hero Aeneas, left her, ought not to play into the picture here).
"La Route d'Elissa" is the brainchild of Najib Gouiaa, an events producer born in Tunisia and based in France. Gouiaa spent most of his professional life working as a television news journalist. But after years covering conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Central Africa, he developed a nagging desire to do something different and more uplifting.
"It's a dream to sail," says Gouiaa, who is an amateur at the sport himself, though not yet at the level of being captain of his own ship. "So many people would like to live away from the tensions in the world, to sail away" as Elissa did. More specifically within the sailing community, he adds: "There are many races in the world and all these courses, but the point is just to be a champion. This is the first race based on a historical story."
Gouiaa says he remembers hearing the myth for the first time when he was a child in school. "She is a symbol," he says, "the first female navigator of the Mediterranean in history. She may not have actually sailed the boat herself, but she was important because she knew how to deal with all the problems. She dealt with many men - religious, military, political. She was a princess who refused to make war on her brother. This is the most important thing, that she didn't make a war. She found a peaceful way."
"La Route d'Elissa" has already attracted some of the top stars from the women's sailing circuit, including Florence Arthaud (the first woman to win a trans-Atlantic race single-handedly), the French sailing champion Christine Briand, and Catherine Chabaud (the first woman to complete a race around the world - alone). Gouiaa hopes to confirm the full roster of teams over the next few months, pulling in talent from all the countries lining the Mediterranean.
Each crew will sail a Beneteau First 40.7, a 40-foot hybrid racer and cruiser with a hull designed by Bruce Farr and a reputation for being both sleek and fast. The race will be governed by the rules of the UNCL, the National Union of Offshore Racing.
Given how the coasts of Lebanon and Tunisia have developed in modern times, the course itself has been altered slightly from its historical origin. The race will begin in Beirut, no doubt showcasing the potential of what the new marina could become in ten years' time. It will then proceed to Tyre, where two buoys will mark Elissa's point of departure. From there, the cross begins. Gouiaa expects that it will take the racers 10 to 12 days to reach the other end of the Mediterranean, where they will make a strategic tack at Carthage (whose ancient port is no longer navigable) and head toward the finish at the more modern marina of Hammamet.
Gouiaa maintains that "La Route d'Elissa" is not a ploy to bring in tourist dollars, though the race will be accompanied by the expected onslaught of sponsor-driven "festive events - concerts, exhibitions, live shows, and happenings." Rather, Gouiaa insists that, at the end of the day, the race is an honest attempt to revisit Phoenician history, revive interest in the Mediterranean itself, and reconnect the countries around it.
"There is not enough cultural interest in the sea," he says. "The Mediterranean is full of archeological riches. It's rich but polluted." Sailing enthusiasts especially tend to dismiss the Mediterranean for being about as invigorating as tepid bathwater. In an attempt to correct this view, Gouiaa has plotted the course so that the race heads mostly into the wind.
But the feminine dimension is really what gives "La Route d'Elissa" its edge. "With all that's happened in the world and in the region, we need a dream," says Gouiaa. "(Lebanon and Tunisia) are two places in the Arab world where women are appreciated in society. But still they have to work hard to improve their situation."
For more information on "La Route d'Elissa," check out www.laroutedelissa.com.