The island of Salina sits off the northeast coast of Sicily. This paradise is in the centre of a cluster of six other volcanic islands, each in a varying state of agitation. Fortunately Salina can only be described as serene, having recorded it’s last eruption 13,000 years ago. My house is on Salina and my sincere hope is that the next eruption isn’t for another 13,000 years. Even 100 will be fine.
On the southeast corner of Salina is a village called Lingua, home to a string of excellent restaurants along the seafront that feed the hoards of tourists visiting Salina when the sun is shining and the speedos come out. One place, called il Gambero, is my unofficial lunch headquarters in Lingua.
il Gambero is a family business. Melo (short for Carmelo), the father, sets out in his wooden fishing boat each morning as the residents of this place have done for centuries. His wife Livy runs the kitchen and can salt bake whatever Melo catches (she is also a critic of my recent weight loss and says she liked me better when I was fatter.) Gessi, one of their three children, is a friend and the one guy you want to have on speed dial when something goes wrong. Anything really. When I ran out of gas on the boat, he showed me how you can cup your hands over the opening of a jerry can and blow air into the container to siphon out the gas instead of sucking the end of a tube – which inevitably leaves the taste of gas in your mouth for days.
While sitting on the terrace at il Gambero Gessi and I enjoy the idle banter that goes hand-in-hand with a two hour lunch. I do the eating and drinking while Gessi works. We have become expert at maintaining a single thread of conversation while he dips in and out of seating other guests, taking orders, and generally directing traffic. One day, several years ago, we looked across the open water from Salina toward the island of Lipari and considered the feasibility of swimming across the channel. We agreed that it really wouldn’t be that hard to swim 4.5 kilometres in open water in a busy shipping lane, and committed ourselves to this modest challenge of light exercise. I had been drinking. Gessi was sober. We were both crazy.
Our boasting of a swim between the islands descended into farce with every lunch that followed. From that first fateful meal our recollection of the conversation had shifted from an actual swim to something I would say is closer to an intellectual exercise. People were noticing. Our manhood was being called into question, mostly by friends and family. I developed an array of reasons why the swim had not been attempted. Sea conditions. Guests at the house. Gessi’s work at the restaurant. The excuses came. Year after year. After year. Until last year.
Fresh off my trip to Everest Basecamp I was having lunch at il Gambero when I told Gessi we had to end the humiliation. We had to make the attempt. “Who cares if we don’t make it? We will have tried, then we can bury the whole sorry episode and rejoice in the testosterone of the attempt. Stories will be told. We’ll be heroes for even trying.” I picked a day for us to attempt the epic swim.
The passenger hydrofoils that navigate the channel skim along the water at 40 knots and neither of us wanted to know what it feels like to get run over by one. Our plan was to have a friend of Gessi’s drive my boat as we swam. It didn’t take long for the plan to unravel. At 7:00am I met Gessi with his girlfriend Vera at the marina where my boat was moored. Gessi’s friend apparently had a big night and was nowhere to be found. Completely unreachable. So Vera, who was expecting to lounge on the bow of the boat for a couple of hours listening to music and reading her book, was reluctantly promoted to boat driver. Gessi assured me that this was going to end badly.
We jumped into the water 20 metres off the shore of Lipari, with Salina in sight 4.5 kilometres away. Vera, our protector, the angel guiding us to Salina, was somewhat disinterested at the helm.
Gessi and I began to swim, and before too long, we could no longer see the hull of the boat as we turned our heads to breathe. Vera was 70 meters ahead and the boat was getting smaller as we watched. Gessi got Vera’s attention, she turned the boat around, came back alongside us, then left us in her wake, again. This wasn’t going to be as much fun as I thought.
The water between Salina and Lipari is deep. The channel sits on a shelf that connects the islands but the bottom is still several hundred metres from the surface. I grew up hundreds of miles from the sea and remain to this day blissfully oblivious to anything dangerous lurking in the depths. Sure, I saw the movie Jaws but the shark was made of plastic. Gessi, on the other hand, grew up in Australia where there are very real creatures in the water waiting to feast on humans. After swimming half a kilometre, and imagining every shark in the world was beneath us, Gessi was ready to get out. The creatures, imagined and real, were playing with his head.
As it turned out, this was an exciting development. Gessi could now drive the boat while Vera sunbathed, and I could swim. I was going to miss my partner, but at least we wouldn’t end up in the propeller of a hydrofoil.
I can’t find the words to tell you just how boring it is to swim long distances. You are completely isolated, entertaining the most random thoughts in your head as a form of entertainment. Stroke, stroke, stroke. I would think about my business, what I would like to eat for lunch, the first girl I ever kissed, why I have so much lint in my belly button. As soon as a thought ran its’ course, another would pop into my head. At one point, when I was in what could only be described as a trance, Vera jumped off the boat to cool down and swim beside me. It was the equivalent of slapping someone while they’re sleepwalking. This probably also explains why it took me 2.5 hours to complete the swim.
It was of course physically challenging. I had excruciating cramps in my left calf at several points along the way. When I finally emerged from the water in Lingua my tongue and mouth were swollen from the salt water. I had jellyfish stings, and I was utterly drained. But none of that mattered. Two wonderful friends, Rachel and Lori, had driven from the other end of the island to watch the final approach. Livy had prepared scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on brown toast with prosecco for the victory meal on arrival. Gessi made the attempt and stepped in to drive the boat (thankfully), and without Vera, we would never have left the dock in Santa Marina. It was, in the end, a swim for the ages.