The perils of guiding – taken hostage on the Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee, in northeast Israel, near the Golan Heights (Photo: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Sea of Galilee, or “Kinneret,” is the lowest freshwater lake in the world, located at 200 meters below sea level encompassed by the Galilee region and the Golan Heights.

It forms part of a major geological fault line, called the Afro-Syrian Rift Valley. The primary source of the lake is from the upper Jordan River, and correspondingly the lake feeds into the lower Jordan River, which runs its course, before emptying into the Dead Sea.

A pilgrimage to Israel, following the belief in the New Testament, invariably involves a visit to the sites surrounding the Sea of Galilee, which richly conjure images of the landscape in which Jesus walked. A short boat cruise on the water can strengthen their faith of the pilgrims.

It was a warm, spring day. The Sea of Galilee looked scintillating. The group under my guidance was comprised of 16 elderly Texans, called Battalion Deborah, and as the name would suggest, they were in a stalwart mood and looking forward to an inspiring and spiritually refreshing cruise on the Kinneret.

Our party arrived early to the dock at Kibbutz Ginnocsar and charged down the gangway, proceeding to board our boat after making preliminary enquiries to ascertain if the boat was Holyland Sailing. I also questioned the name of the boat to verify the booking made by the agency and received the “royal nod” from one of the crew members. I assumed that was a sign of confirmation.

The group sat down around the deck, and the captain boarded the boat and introduced himself to me – Daniel, a handsome bearded figure, with flowing golden locks.

Once again I enquired, and this time from the captain, whether the boat was Holyland Sailing? I received some form of affirmative response. I then informed the captain that we were waiting for two people with another guide who had requested to join our group. The captain responded, stating that he was waiting for a Russian group of evangelicals – 25 people who would join our group. Somewhat puzzled by the inflated number, I suggested he consult with the group captain, Jodie, for her consent.

I introduced the captain to Jodie. She was very excited to meet him because he was the captain whom she had initially requested to book for the cruise after viewing  a very personable performance of him on YouTube. Subsequently, they entered into  what appeared, a very amicable and excited  conversation, whilst I attended to the needs of other members of the group.

The Russian group arrived 15 minutes late, and we finally set sail.

Firstly, we raised the American flag, with the anthem, then, the Russian flag and anthem, and finally the Israeli flag and HaTikva, the Israeli anthem. Despite my joy, I muttered to myself, “Thank God the group was not a delegation from the United Nations!”

However, during the HaTikva, my solemn attention was interrupted when I received an unanticipated phonecall

“Graeme, where are you?” 

“We are on the boat.” I added patriotically, “We are in the middle of HaTikva.”

“What is the name of your boat?” 

I was being interrogated, with a slight edge of tension in the question. I tried to stretch my neck over the side of the boat to confirm its name, but to no avail. I managed to successfully retract myself back inside the railings without falling overboard.

“You are on the wrong boat! Get off immediately!” sounded the blasting cry.

During that infinite moment of gasping revelation and the potential of its truth, I considered jumping overboard, which probably would have been an unsightly leap of faith, in view of the circumstances, and with the unlikelihood of me being able to walk on water confirmed by my underwater disappearance.

“Get off the boat with the group – there is a boat waiting for you beside the dock. Turn the boat around now!” the caller exhorted, bringing me back to reality.

I wondered if I should wrestle the ship’s steering wheel from the captain. He seemed to firm his grip on the wheel, as though he had divined my thoughts. It flashed through my mind this could be considered a mutiny at sea, and the captain might chain me in irons and throw me into the hold, or perhaps be persuaded to throw me overboard. I was possessed by reflections of the fate of Jonah.

With the sound of threats reverberating through the telephone, I hesitantly passed the cellphone to the captain. I heard a throttled screech and then the phone was silent — disconnected.

I recovered the phone, and immediately I received a call again, demanding that I turn the boat around and return to the dock. I tried to explain to the caller, that we were now about 500 meters from shore.

As the shoreline further receded into the horizon, my imagination raced ahead to ponder what are considered “beyond territorial waters” on the Sea of Galilee. (After all, Israel had annexed the eastern shore in 1981, but the annexation had not been accepted internationally.) And now, there was a potential mutiny on board which could provoke a dispute over jurisdiction.

The captain was being disagreeable and ignored my request to return to shore. The next 30 seconds were filled with expletives coming from the other end of the phone.

I was now in a dilemma – what would a professional guide do in this situation? My group and myself had been kidnapped on the Sea of Galilee. What should have been a normal excursion now had the potential to be an international incident back on terra firma! Why was this hostage scenario never anticipated in the tour guide course?

I now had visions of the other boat chasing after us, catching us in mid-sea, and either trying to ram my boat or execute a forced boarding to release the hostage situation. A drama like this had not been played out since the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans on the Sea of Galilee, as recorded by Josephus Flavius!

I needed to think. I lightly stepped away from the captain’s wheel, between the ecstatic, gyrating passengers on the deck who were dancing to the pulsating sound of loud gospel music, and made my way to the bow of the boat.

I looked despondently at the horizon and gazed up to the sky. It seemed the heavens were opening up, and I was beginning to see a golden chariot ascending whilst Daniel, the captain, stepped upon an improvised stage, and was singing Hebrew Psalms translated into English, with the rapturous effect on the audience that would have made Julio Iglesias proud.

Desperately holding the telephone, I tried to explain to the caller that my group was now hypnotized and entranced by the captain who had transformed himself into a charismatic virtuoso. The audience were like sailors lured onto Lesbos. The other end of the telephone line was now dead. We had sailed over a kilometer from the shore. The party on board had been rousingly uplifted and had experienced inspiration from the Sea of Galilee.

I had played out my hand and the situation had passed beyond my control. I decided to go with the flow and enjoy the festivity and the beautiful views of the surrounding landscape and the reflections on the sparkling water.

The cruise was a wonderful success and thoroughly enjoyed by the party on board.

As the boat steered on its return journey toward the dock, the crew enterprisingly engaged in selling the captain’s CDs to the literally, captive audience, whilst the captain graciously informed me that I should give the voucher, which was the financial re-numeration for the boat ride, to the other boat awaiting our arrival.

Feeling enlightened, believing in the efficacy of diplomacy and without desire to create further drama, I felt at this point that the best resolution of the situation would be that the voucher was returned to the other boat when we landed on shore. And so it was done.

Of course, nowadays I am very careful to clarify the name of the boat before I set sail.