Tucked behind the village of Ganzirri, overlooking a narrow beach on the shore of the Strait of Messina, is a single row of modest fishermen’s cottages. Moored in the narrow harbour below them are several very strange wooden boats. Each has a metal tower, 30 metres tall, with a cage on top, and protruding from every prow is a narrow metal walkway or passerella, some 30 or more metres long. The boats are known as felucca, and they use a method of fishing for swordfish that has its origin in Phoenician times.

The fishermen are waiting for me outside one of the houses, each one wearing sunglasses with a pair of playing cards slotted along the arms. When I ask the captain, Nino, why, he tells me that the cards help block out the sun and allow the fishermen to focus better.

When we get on board, four of the fishermen scale the tower and squeeze into the cage at the top. Their job is to watch for swordfish, and to steer the boat. As the boat pulls out into the Strait I sit in the shade of an awning and watch as Nino and his nephew slot together the evil-looking spikes of multi-pronged harpoons with shafts twice the height of a man, and position them, ready for action, on the passerella. Then they join us in the shade and we chat, about fishing, EC fishing quotas, and how the Strait would have been narrower in the time of Odysseus, and so the whirlpools would have been fiercer. Nevertheless, says Nino, they recently had to rescue a rowing boat from one of the whirlpools, or gorgi. ‘It can be the calmest day on earth, but if the tides are extreme, those currents can pull like a Force 9 gale.’

Lulled by the heat and the hum of the engine, I feel myself drifting off into sleep, when Nino leaps to his feet, and flies, easy as aerial dancer along the passerella. A harpoon leaps like magic into his hands. The boat is still, the engines calmed, and as I watch, Nino slides the harpoon into the water in a single movement. It moves as easily as a knife through soft butter, so I think he must have missed the fish. But no, he nephew is beside him on the passerella, and they are walking along together, looking down into the water, pulling the harpoon on a rope behind them. When he reaches the deck of the boat, Nino stands alone, holding a rope, and I look down into the water, expecting to see blood, or a swordfish thrashing for its life, but there is nothing. 

‘We leave it for a while to tire,’ explains Nino’s nephew.

Nino has not moved his eyes from the water. It’s as if nothing exists except he and the swordfish. After what seems an age, he begins to draw the rope up, metre after metre, until at last, the shaft of the harpoon appears. Then in a single improbably graceful movement, Nino hauls the swordfish to the surface, holds it to let it tire some more, then swings it on deck. We stand and watch as life leaves the swordfish, then Nino squats down and makes the sign of the cross on the swordfish’s cheek. I cannot believe that I have seen no blood.

Witnessing a death is never nothing, but I had expected a more gung-ho attitude from these men whose lives and livelihoods revolve around hunting swordfish. They were happy, yes, to have caught a fish, and felt lucky, because we were fishing right at the end of the season, but there was no macho exuberance. In an era when vast trawlers scour the Mediterranean for swordfish and tuna with helicopters and radar, there remains something humbling about this ancient way of fishing. Caught like this, fish seems again what it should be, something rare and precious, to be cooked and eaten with love and attention.

Written by Julia Bellhouse