While many places in the Mediterranean lay conflicting claims as the location of the adventures of the Odyssey, there is no doubt about the position of Scylla and Charybdis. These twin perils of the Straits of Messina still exist, although the lethal force of the whirlpool of Charybdis, off the Sicily coast, has since been tamed by an 18th century earthquake. The whereabouts of the six-headed monster, on the mainland opposite, is unknown, but her home in the cliffs of Scylla remains to this day. It was here that Odysseus, in his anxiety to avoid his ship being sucked into the vortex of Charybdis, sailed instead too close to the mainland, where Scylla emerged from her cave and plucked six of his men off the deck – one in each of her jaws.

Even after the earthquake, the severe eddies and overfalls of a strong tidal streams still give an indication of how fearsome the passage must have been to the open boats of the ancient Greeks. But now, in settled weather, a different sort of creature emerges from the ports and harbours around the Messina Straits: the local swordfishing fleet.

When the seas are calm, these extraordinary boats venture out in search of the migrating fish which swim south in the spring and return northwards in summer. But rather than the modern hi-tech, long-line fishing boats, the only new technology used by these wooden boats is that of the tower crane.

The fishermen’s technique has been practised here for hundreds of years. The skipper, sitting on top of a tower set in the middle of the boat, patrols the Straits and controls the boat with duplicate rudder and engine controls led up from the deck. In anything other than calm seas, such a position becomes too precarious. As the fish swim lazily along the surface, enjoying the sun’s warmth, they splash about happily, unaware of the boats stalking them. When the skipper sees the movement, he turns the boat to approach the fish from behind. As he does so, one of the men takes a harpoon and walks out along the walkway projecting from the bows. The skipper slows the boat, leaving the swordfish unaware of the approaching danger and as the tip of the bowsprit arrives overhead, the unsuspecting fish is harpooned and pulled aboard. Why does this sound sneaky?

Although most of these boats are based in Bagnara, further up the coast, I hoped that we might also find one in Scylla where we had planned an overnight stop on our way to the Adriatic. The main town has a commanding position overlooking the Straits, and its castle was a strategic fortification during the Napoleonic wars. To the west, a tourist development surrounds a small beach, while to the east, protected by the castle’s cliffs, lies the old fishing village’s tiny harbour. As we turned into it, the half-a-dozen boats moored back to the walls made it seem already overcrowded. There was, however, a gap which we approached cautiously. If it belonged to a swordfishing boat, we judged that there would still be just enough room for us both. We moored carefully fore and aft, leaving enough space alongside, and went off to explore the nooks and crannies of this ancient settlement.

It wasn’t until early evening that our 30 metre long neighbour returned. Her hull was little bigger than ours, but the “bowsprit” walkway extended at least sixteen metres out over the water, suspended by a web of shrouds from a lattice steel tower of some 20 metres above the deck. It was a truly remarkable vessel.

The crew were very friendly; they only had a few fish to unload, and were taking things quite easily and were happy to talk, even though my Italian was so limited. The young skipper explained that the boat had originally been built for the family in the 1930s, but the steel lattice tower, using a section from a crane, had been added some time later. Before that it had a wooden mast with steps, rather like stilts, where the skipper stood, calling out his instructions to the helmsman on the deck below. He was clearly very proud of his vessel, and told us that today’s outing hadn’t been too serious, more like a family get-together, with three generations on board. His father, who had skippered the boat before him, was now more interested in looking after his five-year-old grandson, who’d come along for the ride, and was now wrestling with the hose in an attempt to wash down the decks.

After they’d tidied up and left, we went back to a restaurant we’d seen earlier that day, with tables set on a platform built just above the water. There was little discussion about what to eat. Swordfish, the “King of the Straits”, is the local dish of Sicily and the Calabrian region of the boot of Italy and is served simply, grilled with herbs and copious amounts of olive oil.

We prepared to leave early the next morning. The ungainly boat, now crewed for a serious sortie, manoeuvred carefully out of its berth and set off majestically out of the harbour into the breaking dawn. Spada would be on the menu again that night.