Straits of Messina

The Straits of Messina separate Italy and Sicily and they had a formidable reputation amongst Sailors of old.

Greek Mythology talks of Scylla, a monster and Charybdis a whirlpool on opposing sides of the narrowest part of the Strait where only a mile separates Sicily and Italy. Boats trying to avoid Scylla would be sucked under by Charybdis and those avoiding Charybdis were taken by Scylla. Old Scylla was a nasty piece of work…4 eyes, six long necks with distorted heads and huge sharp teeth and 12 tentacle like legs…. legend has it, for every ship that passed each head would claim a sailor…

…fast forward a few thousand years and the basis for the myth still exists. Strong and variable currents flowing through the Straits can produce violent eddies and unpredictable seas catching the unwary off guard. When you have passed through the straits in a small, slow moving yacht you can really understand why this place has such a reputation.

We left Lipari, on the Aeolia Islands, on a windless day, and motored for 9 hours to Reggio di Calabria, half way through the straights of Messina. It was a hot, lazy day and with not a ripple on the sea. We arrived at the northern entrance to the Straits at about 4pm, timed perfectly (so we thought) to coincide with the change in tide so the current was flowing south, assisting our passage, rather than against us. The current turns and flows South at approx 4.5 hours after high tide at Gibraltar.

We headed into the straits near the coast of Italy and out of the Traffic Separation Scheme, to avoid all the big ships. We had a 2 knot current in our favor and at 8.5 knots we were zipping along.

To the kids horror we saw two sword fishing boats. This, to my knowledge is the only place they exist. They look like a normal boat with a huge tower on top, which serves as a look out and a steering platform for the vessel. There is a huge bow sprit, or horizontal walkway off the bow from which the swordfish are harpooned. Each year between May and July swordfish migrate through the Straits and when they get tired of migrating they sleep on the surface for a while, making easy pickings for our un-sporting harpoon boats. Most seem to catch 20 plus each day and it makes you wonder how long it will be until there are no more of these beautiful fish in our oceans – really quite sad.

Anyway, back to the straits…all was proceeding well and I had just popped a cold can of Ichnusa when Vega was rocked and starting veering from side to side. Our favorable 2 knot current had disappeared and we now had a 5 knot current against us, the sea picked up and swirled around us. We could feel Vega being twisted and turned by the currents. At one point we were being sucked towards shore, a little later spun to starboard towards the tankers– while all the time dodging ferries and fishing boats. It was all a bit disconcerting, but after a tense couple of hours we made it to Reggio di Calibri and I was thankful for our new engine and our ability to motor at 7 knots. Many yachts can only motor at 5 knots and they would have had a much tougher time.

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