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Life On the Waves

A Sailor and a Fisherman’s Unbreakable Bonds With the Sea

“[…] in the bay of Varulo, with that melody of waves and seagulls, in the middle of my sea, now I am at peace”

There’s no question that the sea, especially along Italy’s 7,500 kilometers of coastline, is an impeccable Italian holiday spot, but there are those who have chosen its waters not as a travel destination, but as the centerpiece of their lives. Living in the middle of the sea may be ideal for a (long) vacation, but those who choose to spend more time at sea than on land must make sacrifices to build that impossible-to-sever double-knot bond with the sea’s demanding waters. 

“My mom still laughs recounting the stories of when I was a child. I could not be told that we would be going by boat the next day, otherwise I would spend all my time wondering if it was already tomorrow.'” Alessandro Torresani is a young professional sailor from the Circolo della Vela Sicilia who already has ocean experience and is aiming for next year’s Mini Transat, the 4050-nautical-mile solo race, unassisted, that starts from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France and arrives in Saint-François in Guadeloupe with a single stopover in Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canary Islands.

“The sea we sail across is both active and passive with respect to elements such as wind, weather conditions and the relationship with the sailor who explores it. To take a boat sailing, there is a need for education and respect towards the sea. One must know it and understand its dynamics. This causes a much deeper relationship to take root. Sailing combines a sporting aspect with a great emotional connection with the sea. If we want to talk about optimization of time and travel, then certainly the motor is more efficient but, let’s put it this way, optimization is not necessarily a word that represents me!”

Sailing solo on the open sea, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean, is full of freedom but also danger. He takes his dreams and his challenges one wave at a time, one storm at a time. “Fear is a necessary element. It keeps you from taking risks and tells you to study the conditions in order to deal with them to the best of your ability. It allows you to separate a governable aspect of sailing from a sometimes unpredictable aspect. We prepare ourselves and the boat as best we can for potentially dangerous conditions. During our last 500-mile solo race, the Corsica Med–which saw us do Marseille, Corsica, Gorgona and return to Marseille–we encountered a force 8 wind area with gusts up to 40 knots; fortunately the sea was slack, but the boat got caught in the waves more than once. I was waiting for the end of it.”

But the sea is Alexander’s passion (he also studied naval engineering in university), and the blue of the waves and the splashes of salty foam are as necessary as air. Alexander has also started a beautiful photographic project with which to imprint his journeys on film. He knew early on that the sea would be his life, but there are others who have found the waves later in life. 

“With the 2017 earthquake, I realized that what I had to do was to go back to the sea, and I did it without thinking about it. I didn’t regret it for a minute,” Ischia native Domenico Schiano told me, “I am a self-employed fisherman. I go out to sea when the sun comes up. I go along the coast with nets and only rarely go beyond 50 miles.”

His is a family tradition: Domenico’s great-grandfather, Domenico Intartaglia, was the last Rais of the tuna fishery in Lacco Ameno, which was decommissioned after the war. Rais, meaning “chief”, were the oldest and most-experienced fisherman, in charge of coordinating all the fishermen of their site. Domenico’s grandmother, now 93 years old, taught him the prayers of fishermen and how to mend fishing nets. “Sometimes, from the sea, I see her looking out with binoculars, waving to me.” Breaking the chain of the seafaring family was his father: years ago, he lent his boat to a captain who never returned. “I used to go fishing as a kid, but when I was a boy, there was a bit of bullying for those who came from the sea, so I decided to devote myself to something else. I still didn’t quit, but I hadn’t made it my life.”

And the turning point, in this case, came from the 2017 earthquake that struck the island of Ischia. “I was at the store that day with my wife, and when I saw the damage, the closed businesses and the precariousness of certain things, I realized that my place was in the sea, every day. I began a kind of psychoanalysis between me and the sea, which allowed me to overcome old and recent traumas. Under the cemetery of Lacco Ameno, in the bay of Varulo, with that melody of waves and seagulls, in the middle of my sea, now I am at peace.”

His beard is starting to whiten, which, with the straw hat he inherited from his grandfather, makes up his look. Domenico seems older than his 39 years. “I know, the sea makes you old–always in the sun, the open air and the humidity. But I’m okay with that. I couldn’t live otherwise.”

I ask him about fear too, and he replies by reciting a poem by Eduardo De Filippo from memory:

“The sea is scary
That’s what people say
Looking at the calm sea
As calm as a tabletop
For those who find themselves
In a stormy sea
And lose their lives
It’s a pity […]
But he was not murdered.
No, he was killed by the sea
The sea does not murder
The sea is the sea
And it doesn’t know that it scares you […]”

“I have been afraid many times, but usually when I was ashore. Because as a fisherman, I have to know when it’s safe to go out or not. A few times, however, the sea surprised me. But fear must be mastered. The boat has rules, and they must be respected. Last year, I was sinking, but I managed to get everything to safety. Once we were rammed by a sailboat 30 miles out, and another time I rammed a sailboat, but we didn’t do any damage. They were French people on vacation, and to apologize for the scare, I gave them my catch of the day.”

Domenico told me a lot of stories, like when he was 17 years old and rescued a woman who got lost in the eddies of water and crashed on the rocks: “I remember perfectly the face of the child who was now convinced he had lost his mother. I ended up in the newspaper and managed to impress the family of the northern girl I liked, but the whole situation had embarrassed me too much.”

After reuniting with the sea in 2017, he lost the embarrassment he’d harbored as a kid and started spreading sea culture. “I started making videos for sea conservation: it was a way to vent anger when I saw the sea being abused. I just show my work–the everyday life of every honest fisherman. Then I started dedicating poems to the sea, as well as a few verses to the small fish I release back into the water.”

When he explains the creatures of the sea and the history of his places, he sounds more like a documentary narrator than a fisherman: “I didn’t do university studies. I am self-taught. The desire to study came to me late, and I discovered it thanks to the sea. I read a lot and am curious. I try to learn as much as I can and share what I know to make everyone love the sea and respect it.” Domenico is gifted at explaining difficult and scientific marine knowledge in a way that everyone can understand. 

Even though he’s active on platforms like TikTok and has been featured in small parts on Netflix, in L’amica geniale, and in a few TV interviews, Domenico remains down-to-earth. “I want and will always want to do my work: the sea. I like cinema and theater, but I love the sea and my island in every way.”

“I am lucky, because I can live my life as a fisherman freely thanks to my family, my wife. If she had suffered with my choice to go out to sea every day, I would not have done it. Instead, she is my first supporter.”

And this is good for him. Because the sea reconciles him with the world every day. “I can’t imagine my life without the sea. It has also reconnected me with my father, who sometimes comes to help me: in our silences, when we pull the nets, we talk. We understand each other in those long silences. We are one body. And now, in everything in my life, I try to do as I do in the sea: put in the eighth note. That is, the soul.”      

Photography by Alessandro Torresani

Black and White photography by Carlotta Vigo