This summer, Matt Newbury enjoyed a ‘legendary’ swim across the Strait of Messina, between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland
I love a swim with a legend attached to it and the Strait of Messina has a great one that inspired the myth of Scilla and Cariddi. These two terrible sea monsters are said to be responsible for the treacherous conditions that plague sailors crossing this narrow body of water between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland. Indeed, the strait’s strong currents can cause whirlpools to form and rip seaweed from the ocean floor.
If you book onto the swim with Swimming Travel, you will learn all about the legends (and how to be safe) at the briefing the night before. Stood on the beach in the setting sun, several swimmers were given roles and props to tell the tale of doomed lovers and terrifying monsters, although you will have to book onto the swim (or consult Google) to find out how things pan out.
In the shadow of Etna
We had flown into Catania International Airport and driven a hire car down to Messina to meet our fellow swimmers and the organisers from Swimming Travel. It’s a stunning drive along the east coast of Sicily, with a smoking Mount Etna on one side of us (the airport had been closed fairly recently as the volcano was erupting) and Ionian Sea on the other.
To take part, you need to provide the organisers with an estimated time for swimming two miles and a medical certificate from your doctor. You are then assigned a boat with three other swimmers who have indicated a similar pace to you, while extra boats can be booked for spectators. You also need to book a few days in Messina, in case the weather conditions aren’t optimal, as those whirlwinds and whirlpools from the ancient legends are very much a real thing.
The briefing was a great opportunity to meet our fellow swimmers, most of whom were Italian. There is a translator to explain what is going on to those of us whose linguistic ability is limited to only being able to order beer, wine and pizza in Italian. As well as learning about the sea monsters from legends, they also mentioned a few real sea monsters. There are jellyfish is the waters over the summer months, while there are apparently also sharks, although these tend to keep themselves to the very deep waters below you. Which I’m not sure is the most comforting of thoughts.
We then all took to the sea for a quick dip to christen the 28-degree waters, where hundreds of colourful fish darted around us like we were swimming in an endless aquarium. There was then a welcome meal, where as well as loading up carbohydrates through the consumption of some delicious seafood pasta, we may have also drunk one too many Aperol Spritz for the night before a major swimming challenge.
The next morning we were up bright (ish) and early to be assigned our boat, which was one of a very colourful fleet of local fishing boats. We were then ferried a short distance away to the beach where the swim begins, with our goal of mainland Italy clearly visible in the distance. We were told to jump in and swim to the sand and wait for a whistle, with our four swimmers due to go first, as we had indicated the slowest swim times out of the 30 or so participants taking part.
The experienced boat drivers know the perfect time to set off when the currents reach their optimal peak and we were soon off in our group of four, getting a very short-lived head start on the others. The colour of the water was a mesmerising sapphire blue and we soon got into a swimming rhythm, with the four people in our pack of a really similar pace. I have done a number of swim challenges in my life, but this was by far the most enjoyable. The water was clear and warm, the destination on the mainland visible throughout and the support boat close enough that we could hear the calls of encouragement from our friends. Most importantly the fishermen/pilots were experts at understanding the currents and we went incredibly fast with very little effort.
Sorry for the sting
The only slight downside were some jellyfish we swam to, one of which stung my fellow swimmer Queenie on the bum at the exact moment I asked her to stop swimming and pose for a photograph. She wasn’t at all amused and blamed me for the painful sting for the remainder of the swim. All was soon forgotten as we reached the warm sands of mainland Italy and hugged our fellow swimmers. The boats then transport you back to the island across the picturesque body of water.
If you are looking for a very achievable challenge in a beautiful setting, I would highly recommend this swim. We did the entire two miles in around an hour thanks to the current assistance and enjoyed every minute of it. We also timed the swim, so we had a few days after to explore the local area. We took a ferry out to the Aeolian Island of Salina and celebrated our swim crossing with delicious seafood and local wines, the perfect accompaniment for planning our next swimming adventure.