Thursday 5 July 2012

Strait of Messina

The market in Ortigia is a riot of colour and smells. There are stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables and fish counters awash with fish of every possible variety. Shoppers mill around the busy stalls where grizzled merchants hold court, bellowing across the street to advertise their wares. A fishmonger uses a large hatchet to chop three blood red slices off a huge slab of Tuna, his cigarette never leaving his mouth, then throws in another slice for free with a grin and a roar. We buy three varieties of tomato, small round peaches, a bunch of fresh basil and big globs of mozzarella; 'half buffalo, half cow' we are told by a very charming and persuasive woman who convinces Fatty to buy armfuls of cheese, olives and even home-made beer which we lug back to the boat in the searing midday sun.

The following morning we leave Syracuse early for the 55 mile trip to Taormina. At three in the afternoon we motor into Taormina Roads, cliffs towering above us and perched impossibly on the edge of the rocks, the town of Taormina. We have heard that a Maltese man called George operates some moorings here and as we near the shore, almost on cue, a rib surges up alongside us and a moustachioed George introduces himself in fluent English. However, the idea of paying 80 Euros to simply attach our boat to a buoy doesn't appeal to us and instead we drop anchor in 10 metres of deep blue water. The heat sits heavily over the bay, stifling any breeze and we swim to cool off before supper. The Tuna from the market is delicious, eaten raw, marinated in lemon juice and garlic, with mozzarella, tomato and crisp green lettuce. When the sun sets, the temperature doesn't change appreciably and a huge purple moon rises through the clouds over the anchorage. It is a murky humid evening, with thunderclouds hanging over the summit of Mount Etna, and the clammy warm air clings to the boat. On the shore a freight train rumbles past and we watch George trying his patter on latecomers to the anchorage. He only scores two out of five and I am convinced that he should be more commercial, filling his buoys at this late hour at almost any cost, rather than holding his price and leaving them empty, yielding nothing for his pains.

After a hot but peaceful night we leave the anchorage early, heading North to the Strait of Messina and then onto the Aeolian Islands. Another still day with not a ripple on the water and more diesel consumed. Motoring into the straights we spot one of the distinctive swordfish fishing boats ahead, with two men at the top of the high mast, spotting, while the rest of the crew wait, lazing in the shade of a sun awning. Just as we are passing them, there is a burst of activity, the engine roars into life and they charge across our bows, the men aloft pointing. A crew member runs along a huge bowsprit, maybe 20 metres long which hangs from the bows supported by wires from the mast. He hurls his harpoon into the water attached to a long line which quickly disappears below the surface while two men in the boat haul on the line while the beast in the water thrashes wildly. They lean over the side of the boat and retrieve the harpoon, still impaled in the flanks of the swordfish and both weapon and catch are retrieved and wrestled to the deck.

The Strait of Messina separates Sicily from mainland Italy and is barely a mile wide at its narrowest point. The straights are famous for their currents and whirlpools created by the temperature difference between the warm Tyrrhenian Sea from the north and the salty Ionian Sea from the south which flow in opposite directions at different depths, creating swirling pools of still water surrounded by white capped waves running in all directions. As we cross one of the large whirlpools the wheel is snatched from my hand by the currents and I have to pull hard on the helm to keep Juno on course. The tide is running against us and it takes us an hour punching the foul tide to travel the short distance through the straights until we finally break out of its grip into the open sea beyond. The wind has been building from the South and we leave Sicily behind us in the haze as we sail North West on a beam reach at 8 knots towards the volcanic Aeolian Islands.

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