During a Sail for Peace, Israelis Return to Old War Zones on Yachts

“We are going to look for Baruch’s arm,” jokes a member of the crew preparing to sail the Ayali, a sleek 50-foot yacht, across the Mediterranean to Egypt. Baruch Peretzman, one of the six-man crew, lost his arm in 1972 along the Suez Canal when as a young Navy commando he fell on a landmine during a secret nighttime mission.

On Tuesday the crew, all friends for decades, and most of whom fought as soldiers in the Suez Canal and other parts of Egypt, were slated to sail the Ayali through the historic waterway as part of an international yacht rally from Tel Aviv. The trip will take them down the coast of Egypt and eventually to Jordan.

“It will be the first time we will be there in the light of day,” said David Israeli, 53, who served in the same commando unit as Peretzman and is sailing with him. “Egypt was always a place we associated with war and now for the first time we will be seeing it in a different way,” adding, “For Baruch and I, this is a real closing of a circle.”

The monthlong MedRedRally is dubbed a “Sail for Peace” by its organizers. More than 50 yachts and some 350 sailors are participating in the rally, which set off from Tel Aviv on Sunday. About half of the yachts are Israeli, the rest from around the world. Originally four Palestinian yachtsmen from the Gaza Strip were supposed to sail in the rally, but because of delays in securing travel permits from Israel they were unable to participate, organizers said.

The yachts’ route takes them from Tel Aviv to Egypt’s Port Said and then to the Suez Canal, before heading down the Red Sea to Sharm el-Sheik and across to Eilat. The last leg of the rally will travel from Eilat to the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba.

Egyptian and Jordanian authorities are cooperating fully with the rally, a gesture that the trip’s organizers say indicates a warming of relations and an understanding that it is in everybody’s interest to promote tourism — and particularly the sport of yachting — in the Red Sea area.

“This is about sailing without borders where you are fighting nature instead of fighting each other,” said Eitan Friedlander, an Israeli former yachting world and European champion who organized the rally with Easy Swissa, president of the Israeli Yachting Association.

He added: “It’s about trying to sail, enjoy life and have fun peacefully.”

Swissa, himself a former European yachting champion, said he hopes the rally demonstrates that Israel and its neighbors can cooperate.

“We want to show that in our region there is also normalcy,” he said.

Swissa said attempts were made to recruit Jordanian and Egyptian yachts and crew members but neither country yet has a culture of yachting.

On the wooden deck of the Ayali, the crewmates and friends trade jokes and prepare for the journey; maps are checked, sails secured and ropes untied.

“It’s a strange feeling to be going, it’s hard to know how it will feel to be there,” said Peretzman, 54, a shirt sleeve hanging empty where his right arm once swung. “I never thought I would go back to Egypt, it always felt so far way. But then this opportunity came up to be part of this yacht rally together with friends so we decided to just do it and sail.”

Sitting next to Peretzman is David Stugo who was in Egypt several times during his army service as a paratrooper. He remembers the War of Attrition, where he and his fellow soldiers in position near the Suez Canal in 1969 were shelled by the Egyptians. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he served in Ismailia.

“There is so much to remember, so many people who were killed and injured and now here we are going there for something fun,” said Stugo, 55.

The horn blows for the rally to begin, and one by one the yachts sail out of the Tel Aviv marina and into the open sea.

The crew of the Ayali waves goodbye and sails into the white-capped waves before disappearing over the blue horizon.

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