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'Slow boat to Lebanon' has ups and downs but compassion wins out

This is the story of a boat adrift on the deep blue Mediterranean, of war in a faraway land, and of the beauty of what did not happen. Eleven hours out of port, our engines dead, we rolled queasily through the swells of the late-spring Mediterranean, within sight of Beirut. From 11 miles out, Beirut was a peaceful rose-golden city atop azure waves.

Twenty hours later, after drifting up and down the Lebanese coast within range of the shore batteries of a dozen Lebanese warlords, we saw a ray of light. It was not just dawn (which, however, was welcome enough). It was a glimpse of brief humanitarian cooperation between left and right, Muslim and Christian, Phalangist, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, and even Israeli, that ensured we would land safely.

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My voyage began April 29 at the Cyprus port of Larnaca, where I had taken passage aboard a 37-foot cabin cruiser belonging to journalist Christopher Drake. Part necessity, part adventure, the journey was to carry me 120 miles east to Juniye, Lebanon.

For over two weeks the sea route has been one of only two ways left to enter or exit Lebanon. The other way is to cross the Lebanese mountains and the troubled Bekaa Valley, and leave via Syria or Jordan. Normally bustling Beirut International Airport has been closed because of artillery fire directed at it.

Larnaca is crowded these days with Lebanese leaving their country -- or eager to return. Many end up, like several I talked with on the evening of my departure, taking standing room aboard ill equipped tramp steamers and riding 20 or more hours for what should be a 10-hour trip.

With me as passengers aboard Drake's very modern pleasure boat were six young Lebanese men and journalist Noel Alexandre of Visnews.

Our Greek-Cypriot captain, a confident, good-spirited freighter pilot on leave, followed his compass through the rough seas all night. There was little comfort -- except to know the voyage would be nearly over at dawn. But as the boat got within an hour of land, one engine, then the other, coughed out.

Through a last-minute oversight, there was no mechanic on board. We were not far from shore, we knew, and it was 10:00 in the morning. We had plenty of food and drink (if decidedly modest appetites), but the batteries on the boat were dying, and we were losing contact with the shore.

This was one day after Israeli jets had shot down Syrian supply helicopters nearby. Fighting had raged in Lebanon all week.

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Our captain managed to contact Drake, who was in Beirut, and who raced out in a towboat. But because our coordinates were unclear and the seas rough, Drake spent five hours searching in vain.

As afternoon wore on, the Lebanese men on board began to panic. They could see Beirut just across the waves and wanted desperately to be there.One wanted to swim for it. Another cried for a helicopter to come for us.

But no one came -- which by late afternoon was probably for the better, since a Phalange gunboat running along the Palestinian-controlled shores of West Beirut would have brought to life bored soldiers of the opposition.

Now we would have to ride a very rough sea very quietly. A boat off of Beirut at night could be an Israeli naval vessel. Only 10 days before, an Israeli patrol boat had come up the coast this way, firing on Sidon and drawing fire from Beirut.

A signal flare often marks the start of the battle.We, therefore, decided not to signal.

While we buttoned up for a second evening on the sea, Drake and many other journalists in Beirut were feverishly phoning every faction along the coast asking that they not open fire if we caught their attention.

No other boat crossed our horizon until 3 a.m. At that time we managed to get the radio working once again and contacted shore. Drake was patched through to us and told us to sit tight until dawn.

Four hours later Drake arrived with a tugboat and pulled us into the port of Beirut by 9 a.m. on May 1.

The spell of quiet lasted until nightfall.As the captain and first mate were driving from the boat to the hotel, they were fired upon by snipers. They escaped and all rested at the Commodore Hotel that night.

Much credit for our safe passage of course was due to word being passed that two journalists were aboard the boat. No one wants to alienate the press -- and this might explain the restraint. However, we prefer to think our passage due as well to a shining through of the rule of compassion, understanding and tolerance that cannot forever be obstructed by the political clouds over Lebanon.

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