Every four years, Greece reminds the world of its former glory by providing the Olympic Flame to the nation that hosts that year’s Olympic Games. This year, 2024, the Games are held in France, with Paris as the host city.

There is a great deal of ceremony that has developed over the years regarding the transport of the Olympic flame from Greece to each host country. This year, a brilliant idea of the French was to transport it from Piraeus to Marseilles (an ancient Greek colony) on the three-masted sailing barque “Belem,” which had the charming coincidence of being launched in 1896 – the same year when the first “modern Olympics” were held in Athens.

The trip started well, and the “Belem” sailed through the Corinth Canal and passed in front of my place near Patra a few hours later. The entire trip would traverse about 950 nautical miles, almost all on its diesel engines, and take about 6 days. But wisely, the organizers had allowed considerably more time for the sailing – a total of 10 days – in order to arrive for the welcoming ceremony at Marseilles on May 8th.

But the leisurely passage turned out to have a similarity to the return of Odysseus from Troy back to his home island – Ithaca. As we know, that journey did not go smoothly. Homer tells us that when the crafty Odysseus blinded the giant Cyclops, his father Poseidon cursed the deed and ordered that the trip take 10 years to complete. Once past the island of Kefalonia, smack in the middle of the Ionian Sea, “Belem” developed propulsion difficulties and stopped for several hours, with its escorting French Navy vessel standing by.

After that problem was surmounted, “Belem” continued successfully through the straits between Sicily and the toe of Italy (Homer tells us this was the dangerous narrows between Scylla and Charybdis) with two Italian Coast Guard boats tagging along, shooing off curious yachts. From there, it was almost a straight line to Marseille, passing between the large islands of Corsica and Sardinia. But, a little further past Messina, next to the active volcano-island of Stromboli (Homer warns about the land of the Sirens, whose song leads men to their destruction), its propulsion apparently broke down again, and it came to a stop.

Eventually, “Belem” began limping along, but not westward for the direct route to Marseilles, but eastward toward Napoli, on the Italian mainland! (Homer tells us about Aeolus giving Odysseus a bag with all the winds trapped within except the favoring one toward Ithaca, but his crew foolishly released them all and thus were blown off-course.)

As the vessel was now far off its direct course, it proceeded via a different, longer route, around the island of Corsica (the birthplace of Napoleon – and perhaps it was previously named Ogygia, of Homer’s enchanting nymph Calypso, whose wiles occupied Odysseus for a while.) There were still about 230 miles to Marseilles, and to make the all-important arrival date, “Belem” had to hurry a bit – although there was still a 2-day cushion left into the trip’s schedule. “Belem’s” speed had, at last, increased again to its cruising pace.

But, off the port of Bastia, in Corsica, the trouble returned; “Belem” became a drifting log, with the French Navy circling helplessly around it. Two specialist support vessels came to assist, one from the French Coast Guard and the other from the French Customs Service, and seem to have helped. Eventually, after several hours, “Belem” managed to chug on its own, at half its cruising speed, heading north toward the azure coast of France and Italy.

It came to pass, at last, that “Belem’s” issues were resolved, so it was then a matter of scheduling: to linger for a day or so in the bay of Genoa until the timing was right to make its run to Marseilles. (Homer tells us how Odysseus, at the culmination of his travels, lingered for a few days with the Phaeacians and their daughter Nausicaa who aided him to return at last to Ithaca. It seems that Odysseus tended to linger a lot, with several ladies on his journey home!)

Finally, with a fair east wind (which Homer names “Evros,”) “Belem” pointed its bow to the west and sailed along the Cote d’ Azur, or French Riviera, passing by Monaco, Nice, Cannes, and St. Tropez (the latter of Brigitte Bardot fame) to make its triumphant entry into the harbor of Marseilles, delivering the Olympic Flame in perfect order onto the French mainland. But not before Poseidon, still outraged, threw a last obstacle in its path: A steering failure off Nice that made “Belem” go around in circles for a while before that problem was sorted out, and yet another steering glitch as it neared the great port of Toulon.*

But as Odysseus’ journey came to a happy end, so did Belem’s. After an overnight anchorage off the port of Le Lavandou, it resumed its last 60-mile stretch, escorted by two French Coast Guard tugs and its French Navy companion, to be greeted and surrounded by an estimated thousand large and small craft at the port of Marseilles in perfect time! “La Flamme Olympique” had arrived in France!

Before the opening ceremony on July 26th—in which the Greek athletes traditionally lead first—the Olympic Flame will travel extensively throughout France and even reach distant French territories, including far-away Indonesia. It would have made a truly Odyssean journey before lighting the Olympic Torch at the Stadium in Paris.

*Of course, the French will not report any of the above travails, but there’s bound to be a lot of yelling, table pounding, bombast, and fustian behind closed doors for a while, with veiled allusions about the guillotine for the chief engineer.