Excerpt from Kihivas

Chapter 1:

The Ocean Calls and Waits

“There is no destination. The voyage itself is the destination.”

                    –Paul Geraldy


June 1990

THE SWITCHBACKS LEADING TO THE ISTRIAN PENINSULA swept lower and lower as our small car slowly crossed the Karst Mountains of Yugoslavia. The driver had to be especially careful watching out for the sharp turns while keeping an eye on the laboring truck in front of us, transporting Salammbo on its trailer. It was getting more difficult to concentrate on the road and the vehicle at the same time.

Many times the waves of excitement swept over me. At last, I gazed upon the view I had been anticipating. As the mountains finally gave way, the sea appeared before us. The Adriatic lazed in its best colors in the Bay of Fiume on that early afternoon in June. Its slowly rolling blue meadows dissolved into fog in the distance. I had seen it before as rough, gray, and stormy, but it had always fascinated me. It reminded me that my contact with the sea was much more than a simple aesthetic experience. It had been the place of my existence for a decade and a half. I can still remember when it all began…

* * *

It was summer then as well… the summer of 1970. The young man with the cropped brown hair excitedly pressed his forehead to the cool window of the compartment as the train sped through the Karst Mountains. From time to time he opened the window, to relieve the fever caused by the numerous inoculations he had just received. It was the first excursion out of the country for the vacationing high school student. Yet somehow he had a feeling that many more such adventures awaited him in the future, deepening his connection with the sea.

As the train descended to the Bay of Fiume, the boy’s thrill over the proximity of the vast waters pushed the throbbing pain of his punctured arm into the background. His curiosity wasn’t triggered by the water alone, but more by the ships. The port wasn’t yet visible, but the bay was occupied by oceangoing ships, anchored and waiting to be loaded. The sight of these vessels completed his joy at encountering the sea for the first time in his life.

It was another three months before our young hero opened the window of the train again—now with calloused hands—to wave goodbye to his new friends the seamen.[1] He had grown to a man over the summer vacation he spent as a deck boy on the M/V Borsod.[2] He predicted correctly that his new bond with the sea would have a decisive impact on his whole life. His future would be linked with that of the Hungarian Merchant Marine. The MAHART shipping company[3] was a method of escaping Hungary’s borders to see the world, which was a unique opportunity at that time in an Eastern European country. The application process was so highly selective that it was more difficult to secure a berth with MAHART than to be admitted to the best university in the country. Even for the lowest position, there were fewer than five hundred openings. The minimum requirements included a high school diploma, aptitude and psychological tests, and a thorough physical examination.

Naturally, those who were fortunate enough to be accepted wanted to preserve their privileged status, and the price of doing so in those times was honest hard work. The traditions of the pre-World War II years still had their influence, and experts in the old companies taught and educated the new generation. Those working on ships of the Merchant Marine, who were always away on extended voyages, were lucky that they did not have to suffer through what the general population of Eastern Europe was forced to endure. The trade of the mariner could be pursued under more suitable circumstances, because merchant seamanship is a demanding and sometimes dangerous occupation. In most career fields, people were chosen for jobs based on their degree of loyalty to the Communist Party. Fortunately this system was not possible in the merchant marine, in which seamen had to be truly experienced and qualified to have any chance of surviving in the trade. It was the era when sea captains spoke five languages and knew all maritime laws. Party-inspired personnel selection (based on political “reliability”) would only later show its destructive effects in our line of work. But on board M/V Borsod the respected values were still honest work and camaraderie, as well as love of country, profession, and family. This conservative order of values, combined with the strict hierarchy of the chain of command, ensured the discipline that is always demanded by the extreme requirements of seagoing.

In my seventeenth year, I could not yet comprehend the political situation within the Hungarian Merchant Marine, but I could discern true values from sham (this talent of mine would later get me into some conflicts). My instinct for knowing what was right stemmed from my previous sailing experience, for I had not been a greenhorn landlubber when I first embarked in Fiume. I had lived near water and boats since I was just a few months old. Everybody in my family sailed, and they do so to this day. My attraction for the water led to many close calls over the years, but the Lord somehow always saved me. First it was in the person of Uncle Kamatler. It was he who dragged me out of the deep bay of the clubhouse in Almadi, where as a five-year-old I made my debut in near-drowning. I had similar experiences on the icy Lake Balaton, at the waterfall of Lillafüred, and in the Szilas Creek, where I jumped from a railroad bridge. It was clearly evident early on that I was not going to be a sedentary type.

In addition to my adventurous ramblings, I always found time for reading exciting books. It should come as no surprise that after devouring the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Karl May, and Jules Verne, I moved on to those of András Dekany, the famous Hungarian writer of sailing novels. By the light of my reading lamp, I voyaged on the high seas under the command of Hornblower, Wandellar, and Nelson.

I was twelve years old when I got my first sailboat, the Red Fox. The boat was nearly thirty years old, a well experienced “Pirate” type, [4] and really only half mine—but I don’t remember any other present in my whole life that gave me such happiness. My fellow club members in Balatonalmádi know how much I loved my subsequent boats, but my first notable accomplishments were achieved at the tiller of the Red Fox. Among these were the Almadi-Csopak-Almadi sail (approximately 12 miles), and my week-long circumnavigation of Lake Balaton (approximately 115 miles). The Red Fox was followed by younger and sportier boats. But they belonged to the next chapter of my life, when racing was center stage.

So when I first stepped onto the hot and rusty deck of the vessel Borsod as a seventeen-year-old, I could distinguish the stern from the stem, and I had an idea of the skills involved in running a ship. My favorite novels did not misrepresent the truth; their heroes resembled the seamen I met, so I was happy to put on the uniform of a merchant mariner. The only downside was that I had to walk away from active racing at the worst time for a competitor—I had been winning.

I was compensated with eventful sailing years. In my first thirteen years with MAHART, I visited fifty countries, and advanced through the proper certifications. My training on the International Radio-Telecommunication course was followed by studying at the Budapest Technical University, where I majored in Maritime Studies.[5] It was during that period that the effects of political degradation reached the bastions of seagoing shipping. The company’s privileged status quickly disappeared as modern ships with “push-button efficiency” meant that skills and experience at sea no longer had as much value. The personnel were soon diluted with incompetent political appointees. Absurd ideological discussions were introduced. In a trade in which some assignments were more desirable than others, appointments to destinations started being decided purely on the basis of political loyalty. Cliques sprang up in different branches. The quality of work and the condition of the ships rapidly declined. Before the total collapse could occur, I had to disembark from the ship Petöfi due to a family tragedy. In consideration of my family’s wishes, as well as the deterioration of the conditions in the seafaring industry, I chose not to rejoin. I pursued my livelihood on land for a while, until I came upon my ultimate plan—judged to be madness by many—along with the instrument needed to achieve it: Salammbo



[1] In this book I use the term “seaman” to refer to merchant mariners working on ships, while I use the term “sailor” to describe the skippers or crew of sailboats.

[2] The prefix “M/V” is short for “Motor Vessel” and is used to distinguish so-called steamers (aka diesel-powered vessels), as opposed to wind-powered vessels.

[3] MAHART (MHRT), an acronym for the Hungarian Shipping Company (Magyar Hajózási Részvénytársaság), was the only shipping company allowed in Hungary at the time. Since it engaged in trade with various capitalist countries, it intentionally had the “RT” part of the name (indicating it had shareholders) to give the impression that it was a private company, even though it was in fact state-owned. MAHART had five branches, including among them a seagoing branch, lake shipping branch, and river shipping branch.

[4] “Pirate” type sailboats were small, old-fashioned wooden dinghies of German design. They had a huge open cockpit and were mostly used on lakes.

[5] Budapest Technical University was a very prestigious institution. Maritime operator certification was required in order to operate nautical shipping. International radio-telecommunication required learning Morse Code, which was only transmitted in English (meanwhile, the legal code I had to learn was in French). The radio telephone was barely used at that time due to the likelihood of miscommunication.