Between Scylla and Charybdis

We are on our way to Greece. First we have to overcome a few dangers. We set off for Carloforte in southern Sardinia. It is a port with a familiar feel. Its biscuits similar to the “carquiñoles” we know and facades painted in pastel hues make us feel at home. We are just about to skirt around the Balearic Islands when a force seven storm suddenly erupts. The Mediterranean is like that: it surprises you.

We redirect the boat to the port of Pollença. It is a Furia 32 sailboat without radar. There is scarcely a gap to be found: dozens of boats crowd each other. Inside the port and out. We try to drop anchor time and time again. But it drags so we try once more. We have to hoist it up by hand because the anchor engine is broken. Our strength is failing us. We seek refuge elsewhere and find it in the north where we sleep badly. At last, the wind calms.

Now we head off once again towards the island of San Pietro, where Carloforte is situated. At last we can unpack our suitcases. A borrowed and forgotten book appears. It is the Odyssey translated into Catalan by Carles Riba. We open it and from then on never close it. Except when it gets dark. Like when we crossed the Sicilian Channel: the black of night was spotted with hundreds of white, green, red and yellow lights in the vast highway of merchant ships going full blast.

We lose ourselves in reading, encouraged by the landscape. Now we drop anchor in the island of Pantelleria, covered in the craters of now extinct volcanoes. Then we set a course around Gozo, almost reaching Valetta. A navy vessel then decides to use us for morning target practice. It shoots rubber balls up to ten metres from our boat but seeing them hit the water makes us jump at each shot.

We skirt around the three tentacles of the Peloponnese and disembark at Kithera, one of the many islands said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite. We had finished the Odyssey days ago but find ourselves reliving what we read in the many adventures we experience. These are soon forgotten as we steer a course through the Corinth Canal. Navpaktos, formerly Lepanto, with its plaque commemorating the battle that took place there that gave Cervantes his nickname, “manco” in Spanish or “one arm”, reminds us of other shores.

But when we reach the Straits of Messina we come up against Scylla and Charybdis. At first, we are not worried. We open the chart of Italian waters and in the northern mouth appear two marine dangers: Scylla and Charybdis. We remember the two Wandering Rocks that were once nymphs turned into monsters that Homer said no one could escape without coming to any harm. It is night time. Passenger boats cross from side to side at great speed. Out of caution, we lower our sails and turn on the engine. Speed: six knots. Suddenly, the dial shows four knots, then two and then less than one. We realise how the tides are flowing: the current is against us.

We have scarcely reached the northern mouth when the surface of the water becomes choppier than we could have imagined. I read in the chart that this is an area of whirlpools and strong gusts of wind. I remember the divine Charybdis who swallowed the dark waters: she spewed them out three times a day and then sucked them back in with a tremendous undertow. An arrow’s flight away lies the cave where Scylla lived from which her horrible howls could be heard.

The wind screeches and we sweat it out until we manage to negotiate that infernal northern mouth. The storm continues and the island of Vulcano appears before us, with its still active crater leaking fetid smoke through its cracks. Further on there lies Stromboli, dark and enigmatic. We pass it at night and every twenty minutes we see red lava sliding down the north side. They call it the first lighthouse of the Mediterranean and Homer told how it guided Ulysses to eternity.

NOTE: Between Scylla and Charybdis. (An allusion to the two sea monsters that Homer situated in the mouth of the Straits of Messina). An expression used to explain a situation whereby one danger cannot be avoided without running into another.

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