I always get excited when about to leave on a trip…
Passing unnoticed through the pack of tourists of a cheap Ryanair flight is like when you find a group of perch or black seabream when spearfishing… threy’re not interested in you, and you’re not interested in them: you only have to share that brief moment during the breath hold. Upon arrival in Athens I discover that someone is waiting for me whom I care very much about. He is metaphorically speaking like a big grouper with plenty of experience, who which for the moment of my arrival leaves deep waters in order to come and welcome me: he is Vassilis a.k.a. The Grouper Fisherman/Grouperino.
His stealth fishing technique involves going to depths that overlook the abyss, as he welcomes me with a homely warmth and his classic “Welcome my friend”.
It’s a meeting that brings together different levels: deep in regard to what we ourselves do in our lives (Freediving and spearfishing) and light carefree and ironic by the way in which he affectionately teases me. Lined up for me is a night out in Athens where my new friend makes me feel like the most important person in the world, showing me around all the various hot spots in the centre of Athens and introducing me to his Freediving and spearfishing friends. Meeting them in between the chaos and confusion of the stubborn drinkers and smokers is like finding precious stones hidden within a jewellery shop… As the evening comes to a halt I am tired, and after a well earned rest we are ready to leave the following morning.
Athens to Volos requires a journey of around 3 hours by car, and as soon as the right side window is down you start to get the idea that your destination has got something to do with paradise…
We finally see the boat moored at the port. It’s a 49 foot Ocean built in Greece, about 15 meters worth of sailing boat, with 4 cabins, 4 bathrooms, a very large cockpit and ample space to put all the equipment that we need. It already carries 600 liters of water and 400 liters of diesel which bodes well for complete freedom during the travelling between islands that we will be doing; it’s time to pack our luggage, equipment, choose a cabin, check in, and not forgetting to load up the pantry, which for any aliens out there means do the shopping.
Ok it’s 6pm…We’re ready to embark on our first trip that will take us to the Island of Trikery where we will spend the night with fixed anchor.
The crew quickly start to interact and so here’s a brief description so you too can get to know them!
CARLO that’s me, the skipper, a sailing and navigation expert with spearfishing experience.
VASSILIS exceptional fisherman, knows the islands like the back of his hands(!), shows us the most appropriate places, with promising sea floors.
CLEOPAS: originally from Saloniky, manages a transport company, fishing enthusiast, neither too tall nor too thin but with an explosive friendliness, a sort of Greek comic that speaks a mix of Greek/English and German.
ALEX: the most experienced of all the sailing crew, lawyer by profession, with a quick witted and cheerful view of things. Really nice guy, always game and up for nice chats about his love for his Phantom 75 speargun…
CRISTOFOS: The youngest of the crew, 18 year old with the look of a rock star and the subtle movements of a shy but curious teenager. Loves fishing, and in his eyes you can see what you could call a sacred flame keeping his will to learn alive.
KATERINA: a burning flame of passion for fishing in the sea that surrounds her. Always lively and willing and ready to throw herself in the sea armed with her speargun and all her top-notch equipment. A tour operator by profession, who besides interacting with the crew has had a rather intense relationship with her mobile for work purposes, whilst nevertheless always finding time to dedicate herself to the rest.
And so after the first night anchored in a bay we sail all morning and arrive in Skopelos for the first fishing session. Watching the crew preparing themselves getting dressed is like listening to a prelude that comes before a piece of hard rock music; there’s no agitation, only a subtle excitement, a bit like an uncontrallable desire. Beneath us we get a glimpse of groups of small fish signalling that there are signs of life underneath. We set out in pairs for the first session and our expectations do not disappoint. Saraghi, brown meagres, barracudas and every now and again a sighting of snappers and groupers that for the moment aren’t getting too close.
Personally I like to amuse myself with a couple of breath holds by waiting on the seabed, not too deep, around the 20 meter mark,. I soon realize that an ambush technique at the same depth is much more rewarding than stealth.
We start our first sightings with some saraghi. In the sea where I come from they are much more hesitant to get close to, and so soon enough my pneumantic MARES HF 110 speargun starts to leave its mark. A couple of corvine and a barracuda complete my catch for the day: I feel satisfied and after 3 hours head back towards the boat which I had always kept within my sights to find the rest of the crew smiling and busy getting undressed.
Loading our equipment, cleaning the fish and changing course towards a safe port all takes time and always needs to be taken into consideration as an integral part of our day which ends with yet another fantastic night anchored in a bay. Tomorrow we will set course towards the island that remains within everyone’s heart: Skyros, where as legend has it, the Goddess Teti hid her much loved Achille to protect him from the Troia war; but it didn’t take long before the sly Ulisse discovered his whereabouts and used this to open the door to his destiny… Being able to recite a sea of stories touches me making me almost feel under the effect of Stendhal. 7 hours of sailing, well, by motor really due to the lack of wind and we’re there. Skyros gives us a magnificent welcome, green amongst blue outlines of the sky and the sea, silent, untouched and promising…
Anchoring in the right places for fishing is probably what is I best take care of as a skipper, seeing as often the anchor isn’t lowered in a bay that is well sheltered (routine procedure for any yachtsman) but instead on some shallow seabeds on the edges of rocky spurs… But that’s the reason I’m here and with the assistance of all the crew (thanks in particluar to Alexander, a real anchor-man) I always manage to find a compromise between a 15 meter sailing boat and the needs of those who go spearfishing in depths of up to 30 meters:
Vassilis quickly heads off with Katerina towards some demanding seafloors whereas Alex, Cristof and Cleopas, go into the medium/shallow beds, whilst I push against the sea currents…the battle has begun.
I start by catching a few saraghi by stealth and freefalling within the limits of 25 meters. I feel great and even smile when I see pretty corvine, calm and seemingly friendly. But at a certain stretch of the way some magic happens: a slab of granite appears beneath me and I decide to get ready for an ambush. I head down silently to a depth of 16 meters which I comfortably reach. To my surprise I discover that underneath there lies not just a simple hole but a real-life underwater cave, 15 meters wide and at least 10 meters deep. As soon as my eyes get used to the light I catch sight of some Saraghi on my left, all over 500 grams in weight, a pair of corvine, but then I notice a grouper weighing at a guess around 3-4 kilos looking at me with that all too often fatal inquisitiveness. I gently glide forward, and thensuccessfully spear it. Whilst I smile thinking “Fish caught”, little do I know that the best has yet to come. Behind her, her big sister… 8-9 kilos of grouper, this time in a diagonal position was standing out to me between the sand and the final part of this unexpected underwater room. I have learnt that every choice has a sacrifice, and so I decide to let go of the fish that I have already caught and attempt another hit. I move closer, slowly, like Sylvester the cat if you know what I mean, managing to keep the situation under control but is such a way as not to end up being too close to the first grouper which calmly glides away to the right, implicitly encouraging the beast behind her to do the same. I try a long shot…too long…and see the spear fall parallel to the sand (every spearfisherman’s worst knightmare). Every choice has a sacrifice, I knew that, and knowdays I am proud to be a spearfisher that is selective and aware of his catch. I come out of the cave, reload, breathe, go down and check: not even a shadow of the two sisters…what a shame! I have to comfort myself with a nice 600 gram sarago that took part in the action to my right.
I decide to return to the boat proud of having caught two nice saraghi and two big corvine, and find Vassilis and Katerina with a smile lighting up the forthcoming sunset.
I saw the groupers, they caught them. Two fine specimens of 10 and 6 kilos make a fine reward for the strains of these two tireless spearfishers. We all remain very safìtisfied with the whole day and set off yet again in our floating home. How fantastic it is to be alive in this world coloured by the blue sea…
We let out the anchor, eat, sleep under the stars, wake up early in the morning feeling open-minded, and then jump back into the sea for more fishing: time takes on another dimension, becoming as if it were a breathhold, where inside you find your past and your future, aware of being exclusively in the present. The seagulls and the dolphins that frequently join us during our voyage make us feel part of an equilibrium that goes beyond our thoughts, that goes beyond our time living, that in a way makes us belong to a rhythm that has neither beginning nor end, that is if I may take that the liberty of speaking about immortality…
The Meltemi, a strong local wind gets forecast on the weather bulletin and so we decide to stay nearbyt and spend a whole day in Agonondas, a small port hardly changed since the 70s.
Children go in the sea, fishermen tell their stories and us, who on the beach taste freshly caught fish at a Taverna by the port… what else can one say when nice cold white wine waters our sentiments making laughter blossom from the anecdotes that are inevitably hidden within our adventure..
As the boat’s skipper I bring the crew back together and consider how long it may take for a calm return towards the port of Volos, making allowances for the last few sessions of fishing. It’s a bit like telling children that shortly they have to stop playing!
But the Greek Sea has yet many other nice suprises in store: in the last session of fishing, another magical setting awaits me during a dive at 20 meters using the stealth technique. At one stretch I notice groups of small fish madly scappering in all directions, something which made me remember when fishing in the waters of ‘my’ Island of Elba I saw a tuna..
I looked up and saw a reflection standing out in the blue and tried to work out and immagine its shape whilst something unexpected magnificently presented itself: a huge mantaray with a wing span of at least 3 meters passed by about 10 meters above me. It arched itself whilst its silenly beating wings made it quickly glide. I felt small and vulnerable, whilst alive in the presence of an immense spectacle I experienced the feeling of deep emotion during a dive which has become more of a cinematic viewing than a freedive. I slowly went back up, unknowingky inspired by what I had just seen, and once I resurfaced shouted out for joy towards the plummeting mountains that surrounded me… my echo returned and gradually disappeared, like the sight in my eyes that gradually becomes substituted by the surrounding world.
I’m yet again in the boat, navigating, and as I dream I hear Greek being spoken by the crew in the background. “Everything okay Carlo??!, they ask…”Yeah guys thanks, everything’s okay really, don’t worry, I’m fine just listening to you, sensing the undertones of your rhythmic and musical language.”
The moment finally arrives to set sail and ask our boat, which I would define as a lady with lots of make-up and jewellery, to take her formal clothes off and put her tracksuit on in order to do some gymnastics.
Wind strength 5/6 Beaufort from the Northwest on the open sea between Skopelos and Skyatos. I set out leaving the crew to sleep but soon enough as the boat begins to swerve, one by one their sleepy faces appear from their respective cabins. The racket of some plates ending up on the floor makes for the final wake up call. I am heavily excited, the mainsail particially rolled up just like a jib and we continue tightly close hauled ahead with a speed of 5/6 knots. Yet again it’s a complete delight, being surrounded by the frothing peaks of the waves in a cobalt blue sea, the overlooking clouds running fast. As always the elements take over, and there’s no time to think about anything else besides this excact moment of our existence where an entire time space is contained, just like being underwater: a sort of time machine… Great, right?
We’re almost there, last day of sailing and finally the port of Volos is close on our bow. We spent the last night under the stars with no wind, listening to the uninterrupted silence, the faint lapping of the waves, the persistent singing of the cicadas and the sometimes agonising cry of a wild goat. I begin thinking: so much for the internet and television…
We arrive yet again at the port of Volos, unload the boat, check out and after some warm goodbyes I travel again with Alexandros towards Vassilis’ house in Athens, this time with the window on the left which reveals islands and sea.
I spend the last night with my friend Vassilis sleeping in his room, which he kindly left available for me and which tells me much about him and his vast passion for the sea.
At Athens airport we say goodbye, happy to have met up and we arrange to meet each other in September on the Island of Elba to celebrate the occasion of my wedding. I check in for my Ryanair flight, and whilst waiting take out my notebook. I’ve got a story to tell that speaks about the sea, the wind, fish and many wonderful people…