Before I arrived at the Sicilian coastal town of Milazzo, my previous experience with boats had been at the age of 16. On a holiday in Canada, my cousin and I had chartered our aunt’s senile rowing boat into the far reaches of the family’s lake. It had led us to a menacing-looking island which my cousin immediately diagnosed as a perfect spot to camp. A decision, thanks to the overprotective bird population and rocky ground, we would live to regret.
Although it had left me with a long-standing back problem and a fear of cranes, I also began to see sailing as a way to appreciating the raw beauty of nature. So when I was introduced to the Aeolian Islands –a cluster of Volcanic islands that lie off the North coast of Sicily– I saw a chance to re-establish these ties.
Laying the plans
With my father’s friend Andy at the helm, we planned to take his 22ft sailboat on a tour of the islands from our base in Milazzo. However, we soon reached a geographical snag after the map revealed that, beyond the island of Lipari, the archipelago parted ways into the two separate strands of its crescent shape. Therefore, for the purposes of the trip we temporarily erased the islands of Salina, Filicudi and Alicudi and settled for their eastern counterpart, Stromboli, as the furthest island of the voyage.
Setting off into the blue expanse of the Tyrrhenian Sea, I began to wish that the Greek deity Aeolus –the god of wind whom the islands are named after– would give our boat a hand in making the 22 mile slog to Lipari. On the way, we passed by the island of Vulcano, which lived up to its name by providing a source of geothermal energy and would be the last island we visited.
Eventually we arrived at the Lipari’s self-named town as the sun was beginning to disappear and its light was replaced by the twinkling of the harbour.
Dropping anchor in Lipari
Our decision to sleep aboard during the trip left us no reason to venture onshore, but I was intrigued enough by the ominous walls that crowned Lipari’s hill to chance a quick exploration. It was a network of lively streets that greeted our walk through the town’s cobbled streets and the architecture was interspersed between the medieval grandeur of its churches and the simple designs of the houses. Lipari seemed to revel in its role as the archipelago’s largest island and the area around the marina was a hub for restaurants and bars.
The next morning, after passing on the opportunity to explore the rest of the island by scooter, we sailed along its jagged walls of rock to an isolated cove where we could make full use of the water’s crystal transparency. Using a hunting tool I had fashioned out of a stick, I then began to chase the cove’s colourful, and no doubt endangered, aquatic inhabitants, but my home-made javelin was no match for their speed.
As we had previously agreed, the nearby island of Salina was bypassed and we set a course for Panarea, which had earned a reputation of being a trendy destination for the well-heeled Europeans. The day-time sail revealed to me the true ruthlessness of the Italian sun and I often had to clamber below deck to seek refuge. Our simplistic meals onboard paid homage to the local cuisine and usually consisted of Italian ham and cheese sandwiches.
As we approached, I was surprised at how small the island appeared and later discovered that it was only 3.5 km2. Stuffed onto this small space was a sea of whitewashed houses lining the slope and, with the promise of a breath-taking view at the summit, we began to ascend one of its mountains, Punta del Corvo. At the top, the rugged landscape panned out before us and small rocky islands rose from the waves. On the horizon we spotted plumes of smoke rising from a cone-shaped island that signalled the presence of Stromboli.
A sea of jellyfish
The next day, having rubbed shoulders with the affluent beach-goers, we decided to take the dinghy around the island. Closer-up the masses of rock seemed to defy gravity in their formations and we came across a vast cave lined with ledges jutting out invitingly as diving platforms. Without a moment’s hesitation I took up this invite and, scrabbling up the moss-laden walls, I reached a ledge about five metres (16ft) off the water. From my new perspective the water’s alluring blue shimmer had turned more malicious and my haste during the climb was replaced by a sense of foreboding, but it was too late now.
My entrance into the water left me relatively unscathed but as I opened my eyes instinctively whilst returning to the surface, I saw hundreds of jellyfish floating eerily around me. The boat was still some meters away and I thought that if I splashed excessively in my desperate swim to safety, I could dislodge the jellyfish from my path and avoid their stinging tentacles. With my heart in my mouth I scrambled, pumping every limb before I was hauled back onto the dinghy and into the wall of laughter that marked the end of my near-death experience. When they regained sufficient breath, I was told that the jellyfish were completely harmless and a nearby boat had complimented me on my progress in learning how to swim.
We often slept on the deck to make use of the soft evening breeze and as I sat contemplating the stars and surrounded by the gentle din of other boats, I was reminded of the tranquil moments that sailing can bring.
Into Volcano territory
Our farthest stop of the sail was the island of Stromboli and when we ground ashore, it was on a beach of midnight black sand. The volcano loomed before us and we walked up its dark slopes to a restaurant where I fulfilled the cliché of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ by ordering a Stromboli pizza. The simmering volcano was in constant activity and we resolved to endure a night-time sail to the northern face, where we would be able to see its famous lava flows under the luminous gaze of the moon.
When night descended, sailing was tough work. With only the mischievous lights of other boats to prevent any crashes, it was time for all hands on deck and I perched at the fore of the deck to call out any approaching danger. The risk was justified when we dropped anchor and watched the spectacle of its frequent, and thankfully mild, eruptions. A cloud of smoke would be shot out of the crater and drift lazily into the night sky. Every so often these eruptions would be accompanied by a stream of fire pouring down the slope and glowing fiercely against the shadowy backdrop of the volcano. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight and a gentle reminder of what nature was still capable of.
A ritual cleansing
Before long, the time to return had approached and we tackled the long sail to Vulcano in good time. After we had docked and walked onto the island, the over-powering smell of sulphur hung resolutely in the air and it was only Andy’s inclusion of anchovies in our sandwiches which seemed to neutralise it. The island’s mud baths represented the main attraction and we agreed on taking a dip in them to mark the metaphorical end of our trip. The baths did serve practical purposes as well and the cooling mud was a welcome refreshment to our sun-weary skin. After this, the trip held one more incident up its sleeve when we departed the Vulcano docks.
As we motored out, whilst I was untying the rope from the dock, my arm got pinned against the boat’s railings by the rope. Unaware of this, and assuming we were free of the dock, Andy had continued to reverse away and my arm was seconds away from being snapped by the force of the boat when he heard my strained calls and automatically put the boat into forward. Fortunately Andy had displayed the presence of mind of an experienced skipper but I felt that the episode had served in fulfilling the trip’s excitement quota and returned to Milazzo with a strong sense of satisfaction.