Painting Through Pirate Waters: Danielle Eubank, Expedition Artist on the All-Wood Phoenicia Sailing Around Africa
The pirate plan, as Danielle Eubank, expedition artist aboard the good ship Phoenicia, sees it, is to run like hell in case of attack and try to escape with her life. The pirates are real, mainly Somalian, but there are no guns aboard the Phoenicia — largely to reduce misunderstandings with potential attackers and to ensure that innocent people aren’t accidentally shot, also because this is no ordinary vessel ... not, at least, for the 21st century. She is a reconstruction of an ancient Phoenician ship, circa 600 B.C., made entirely of wood and accurate down to the iron nails and single, massive sail. British businessman Philip Beale, the expedition leader, aims to prove that it was the Phoenicians, not the Portuguese, who first sailed around the Cape, some 2,500 years earlier than previously thought. The Phoenicia, which set sail on December 8, is currently circumnavigating Africa, and pirate-wise, the most treacherous leg of the journey is along the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden, as those waters flow into the Arabian Sea.
There are other top-secret elements to the escape plan, which Eubank, who is on shore leave, is reluctant to disclose. “Although, really,” she says, seated in the dining room of her cozy home in Tujunga, “how many pirates read Los Angeles newspapers?”
On the day before her return to Arwad, Syria, where the ship was built, she putters around her house. She checks and double-checks the small black Samsonite luggage packed with T-shirts and jeans purchased by her husband at Old Navy, a painting kit, sunscreen, a sketch book, a camera.
Except for a 21st-century navigation system, with radar and GPS, the vessel’s design is based on archaeological data from shipwrecks, Greek historian Herodotus’ account of the Phoenicians’ journey, and artifacts of the era. Arwad is an island with a longstanding tradition of boat making. “The old guys would come up while we were stitching the sail,” Eubank says, “and their eyes would light up. Traditional boat-making craftsmanship has given way to fiberglass hulls, but we were hammering wood.”
At the ship’s launch ceremony in October, a gold-painted Syrian lady danced. Children released doves next to a display of Eubank’s waterscapes. A bleating sacrificial lamb was brought onboard, and its throat was slit for good luck.
Seeing her bunk for the first time gave her pause. It is small, hot, black and coffin-shaped. Then there are the smells. The overwhelming scent of pitch coated her gloves, making them smell like a campfire. And there is aroma of the boat itself — the Aleppo pine, the oak, cypress and olivewood. Even peeing on an ancient ship is an adventure. This is actually Eubank’s second voyage aboard a ship resurrected from the dead. Her first was a few years ago, aboard the Borobudur, a wooden replica of an 8th-century Indonesian trading vessel, again helmed by Captain Beale. It too had no toilets. “Let me draw you a little picture,” she says, flipping over a printout of a map of Africa. On the back she draws the Borobudur, the protruding bit of planking where you crouch, grip tight and hope to God you don’t fall into the water, because, yes, there are indeed sharks.
When the Phoenicia crosses the Suez Canal, Eubank and the rest of the crew will row the boat through — you can’t use a sail. Killer, but not so bad, considering that the ancient Phoenicians carried their vessels overland across the Suez, which hadn’t yet been carved through. From there, the ship will hug the east coast, round the Cape, then continue up the west coast through the Strait of Gibraltar. It will cross the Mediterranean to return home to Syria.
The crew is divided into two teams, which sleep in shifts. Pirates, being not so civilized, tend to strike at night. Eubank’s duties will include cooking and keeping watch for big tankers or strange floating objects with which the ship could collide. “We are such a tiny boat on the sea,” she says. “You know when you do something long enough that it feels like you haven’t done anything else? It was like, ‘I’m on this boat. This is my life. This is what I do.’”
Meals are her favorite times, when everybody gets together to talk and tell stories — the three guys from the tiny Mediterranean island who spoke no English, who had one TV set on the entire island. The several 20-something college students. The Swede, the Iranian photographer, the carpenter, the smattering of Brits and Aussies. What do you eat on a re-created ancient ship? On the Borobudur it was rice, fish and Navy beef, donated by the Indonesian government. Eubank made a Bolognese pasta, which the Indonesians refused to eat. “Yes, the rice did get weevils. We picked them out.” At port, they ordered pizza.
Mostly, Eubank drew and painted onboard. She painted the reflection of the purple striped sail in water, which seemed to resolve into eyes and faces and mouths agape. She painted the harbor lights glimmering on the black water at night, then the golden-yellow morning sun warming the ship’s large, arching bow, which curves up into an edged point like a scimitar. She painted the vessel’s belly. “The ship has a voluptuous curve right in the middle,” she says of the painting. “Difficult to capture.”
The entire round trip will take a year. Beale is still accepting crew applications for later legs of the journey. The crew of 20 changes for each of the 12 legs, with a core group of six making the entire push. Eubank won’t be onboard the entire journey — she’s in L.A. this week for a gallery show of her work but will soon leave for the Phoenicia. She will rent studio bungalows at various ports of call so she can paint and then will catch up with the ship as it traces the continent. Eubank is happy to be skipping the scariest part, when the Phoenicia rounds the Cape of Good Hope at South Africa, past Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Here, there are freak waves and currents unlike anywhere else on the globe. Still, she’s anxious to get back to the sea, where the modern world slips away. What you see is a whole lot of open water, which glistens enigmatically in Eubank’s oil paintings on canvas.
One night, she saw a light on the horizon. She watched it and watched it, thinking it might be another ship. But the light didn’t move. It was a star. (Appropriately, the Phoenicians are credited with the discovery of Polaris, the pole star.)
After three weeks of solitary sea, a guy on a speedboat circled the crew — a weird sight for both parties. “He didn’t even stop to say hello,” Eubank recalls. “There were days when I wouldn’t see anyone. Not another ship. Not even a plane in the sky.”
Just the boundless ocean.
Danielle Eubank’s waterscapes will be on display Jan. 17-Feb. 22 at Found Gallery, 1903 Hyperion Ave., L.A. (323) 669-1247. Opening reception on Saturday, Jan. 17, 6-9 p.m. The Phoenician Expedition is ongoing, until July 2009. To apply to join the crew or read Captain Beale’s blog, go to www.phoenicia.org.uk. View Danielle Eubank’s art at www.danielleeubank.com.
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