Our captain was Salvatore. There were 9 of us on his fishing boat, that had been slightly remodelled for the purposes of water tourism, a young couple, a middle-aged couple, two pairs of middle-aged women and me, and the water around Marettimo was distinctly choppy.
Marettimo is the smallest and most remote of the Egadi islands, about 30 minutes my aliscafo from my base, Favignana. It’s basically a bloody great lump of rock stuck in an azure sea. The port is a cluster of square-topped, white and blue cubes, and that’s it as far as habitation goes. I guess it’s a miracle that anyone lives there at all full time, but they do, and they’re all fishermen and their families. The fishermen of Marettimo are famous.
However, for a few short weeks, a good many of them desert their traditional vocation for the more productive catch of tourists who come over to oo and ah at the islands many grottos ad swim in it’s unspoiled waters. So far so good.
Like my fellow sailors, I was snared as I got off the ferry, and, to be honest, I was happy to be snared. Pietro, the urbane Sicilian I had met while swimming one afternoon on Favignana, had said it was the best way to see the island. So we were bundled on board with little ceremony, and after a certain amount of careering about the harbour, headed for the open sea.
Salvatore had already explained that it was too rough to go all the way round the island. He did an eloquent mime with his hands. However, he was determined to give us our money’s worth, and that meant taking us to the two nearest grottos.
The practicality of which became dubious as we hit the open water, alongside several other former fishing boats heading in the same direction. It was a power boat race without the power, and Salvatore was going to win it. The sea wasn’t flat. There were long, slow rolls interspersed with a lot of short, sharp stuff. It made for exhilarating, if not exactly comfortable, travel.
We didn’t really have time to assess the situation properly before we were actually inside the first grotto. Salvatore had out-manoeuvred his arch-rival in a manner that would suited an America’s Cup race, and the other boat had to sit outside, pitching and rolling, while we had first dibs.
It was beautiful. The part of the ceiling had fallen down, so that sunlight lit up the inside of the grotto, casting delicious patterns on the underside of the sides of the grotto. Salvatore was eloquent in his appreciation of thid marvel of nature. We ooed and ahed and snapped away. And then Salvatore began a multiple-point turn inside the grotto to get us out. This brought us within millimetres of the rocky sides, and involved a good deal of pushing off – ‘ Look out for your hands,’ Salvatore roared – before we were pitching and yawing outside one more.
We headed up the coast. The sea became increasingly choppy. One of the middle-aged ladies was clearly not a happy traveller.
‘I don’t want to go into the grotto,’ she said.
‘No, no, Signora, we have to,’ said Salvatore. ‘You’ve paid for it.’
‘I’d pay not to go there,’ said the lady.
‘But the others have paid, too, and they want go.’
We looked at each other blankly.
By the time we actually got to the grotto, we were bouncing around quite a bit. The grotto was not a large one, and was impressively dark within. I couldn’t actually believe that Salvatore was actually going to take us into it, but he did. It was a tight fit, but it was calm and we could admire the various side grottos and the darkness. And then it was time to back out from the calm of the grotto into the well, not exactly pounding, but agitated sea.
I might have questioned his sanity in taking us into the grotto in the first place, but to his credit, Salvatore got us out again with aplomb and a stream of reassurance. The eyes of the lady who didn’t want to go to the grotto in the first place, were firmly shut throughout, and most of my fellow passengers looked apprehensive. There was a look of relief all round when Salvatore announced that we’d now go to a nice quiet cover where we could swim to our heart’s content. Which we did, along with the human cargo or about 15 other boats.