The Straits of Messina was, according to our calculations, the fourth place along our journey, where we had to carefully time our passage with the tides. The others were Alderney Race and Chenal du Four in France, and the Straits of Gibraltar. Messina is the only place in the Mediterranean that has significant tidal currents. The height difference is less than a foot, and it’s really surprising how it can cause such strong currents. In Brittany the tidal range was as much as 12 metres in places, so the currents were understandable. But perhaps the Mediterranean has a logic of its own, when it comes to tides, much as it seems to have its own logic with the winds and weather.
We left Milazzo at sunrise, and arrived at Capo Peloro at the northern end of Messina before noon. The current was with us, but already slowing down. The wind was totally still, too, so we had a very slim chance of falling victim to Scylla or Charybdis, like poor Odysseus, who sailed in these waters a while back. Scylla is a monster residing in the caves on the Italian mainland, she has six dog heads and can seize six sailors from a ship. As we don’t have that many crew members to spare, we sailed down along the Sicilian side, where there is a risk of being swallowed by a whirlpool created by a dreadful sea monster called Charybdis. We noticed the boat accelerating, then slowing down, and being pushed slightly sideways, and saw disturbed movement in the water – sharp ripples, flat areas, big waves – but the sea monster seemed to have a day off!
We did see something odd and typical to Messina, though: a swordfish boat, passerelle, with a high tower from where these large fish can be seen. They are then harpooned from a long bowsprit according to the spotter’s instructions. The hunting season for swordfish is from May to August, but it was so late in the season, we only saw one boat. During the peak season there are many of them, reportedly not very considerate towards pleasure craft in the narrow shipping lanes.
Very light winds were forecast, but wind gusts and wave height are often more relevant things to check in these parts. Mornings are commonly still, and the wind awakens some time in the afternoon. Surrounding land masses affect the wind direction and the strength of gusts, so that an average wind of 6 knots can at times gust up to 20 or even 30 knots. Sicily’s mountainous coast line caused quite a few gusts along our way, and during the passage of a few hours we had winds from every direction. There were also some pretty murky thunder clouds looming over the closest hill tops.
We made it to a beautiful bay below the town of Taormina in the evening, and dropped the anchor. Just before the sun set behind the mountains, we caught a glimpse of the top of Mount Etna, freed from her cloud cover for an instant. The lights of the towns and villages along the hills lit up, it was very peaceful.
We spent over a week in Taormina and the neighbouring town of Naxos. It was sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, but the thick clouds constantly lingered over Etna. We decided to postpone our visit to the famous volcano until the next time we would call in Sicily. But there was quite enough to see in the town of Taormina! This ancient city, founded by the Greek in 392 BC, is best known for its Greek theatre.
A bus ride up to the town took only about a quarter of an hour, but afforded several pleasant turns of the stomach, as the bus meandered up a steep, narrow mountain road. The town is very medieval, like many towns in Sicily. But the views equalling those from Taormina, over the Mount Etna, the surrounding hills and the incredibly blue sea are not to be found anywhere, so it’s little wonder the place has been popular among travellers for a long, long time. The first “tourists” were Roman patricians and consuls, building their villas all over the hills. For their diversion, the Greek theatre was rebuilt and extended, and the Greek dramas and musical performances gave way to gladiator fights and other such entertainment more suited to the Roman taste.
Since the visit of J.W. Goethe in the late 18th century, Taormina became a popular destination, particularly among artists and writers, and was visited by Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner and the Russian Emperor Nikolai I, just to name a few.
A couple of nights following our arrival, Andrea Bocelli performed at the theatre. What a magical experience it would have been to hear that voice in these surroundings! But like they say, sailor’s plans are written in sand during low tide – concert tickets have to be bought a year in advance, which for most sailors is not very convenient, as it’s usually difficult for us to know exactly when and where we’re going to be. It’s naturally easier for those who have professional crew and private jets. But we had our own little concert in the cockpit, with a bluetooth speaker and a bottle of good Sicilian Nero d’Avola, enjoying the beautiful sunset views and gentle rocking of our boat at her anchor.
See the latest info on the Taormina / Naxos anchorage on Noforeignland!
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