Kalymnos Island is perhaps best known for the ancient, literally breathtaking art of sponge diving. For centuries, the brave men and their fathers and forefathers on “Sponge Diver’s Island” have descended up to 30 meters, free diving for three to five minutes without air to gather then sell natural sponges from the warm waters of the Aegean Sea.

As we slowly entered the what I initially considered the too-narrow-to-moor inlet of Vathis, a small fishing village on Kalymnos Island, Manolis appeared on the dock with his skipper hat, long grey beard, and remarkably large moustache ready to assist. In addition to serving as dock master, we learned later that this impressive, kind man was a descendant of sponge divers and made his living selling beautiful sponges that he gathered from very deep in the ocean.

“Are you staying,” he called out, watching us contemplate the situation. Mediterranean mooring wasn’t new to us as we’d sailed in Croatia and Italy, but this would be the first time we used an anchor in the process, and to say I was nervous about this task wouldn’t do my fretting and anxiety justice. Knowing that we really didn’t have other good options, my husband called out “Yes”, and we were committed.

Fortunately, Manolis never intended for us to moor our 38-foot sailboat in such a tight spot, but rather directed us to the end of a dock that served as the side of a public swimming area. The good news was we had plenty of space to execute our maneuver of mooring with an anchor for the first time. The bad news was that we had an audience of 40 or so swimmers, many of whom had arrived on day boats from Kos, taking stock of our effort.

Even though I’d researched and watched countless YouTube videos before the trip, I still felt unprepared and it showed. Manolis asked if I was ok as I stood at the bow ready to deploy the anchor. I called back that I hadn’t done it before and he said he would help. So as my husband skillfully backed toward the dock, Manolis yelled, “release the anchor” which I did. But I didn’t do it soon enough, and by the time we were at the dock, it was clear that we were not in fact anchored. This didn’t bother Manolis who smiled and said, “first times doing things are hard, just try again”. Which we did successfully.

When we were secure, Charles asked Manolis if he needed to see our boat papers and how much we owed. The answer was “no” and “nothing”. We asked again, certain that a free night on a jetty was not possible. He said again there was no charge, but then mentioned the kiosk on the dock where his wife was selling the sponges he had gathered. We immediately went sponge shopping. We learned from Manolis’ wife that the deeper sponges are gathered, the tighter and more valuable they are. Some of the sponges she shared with us – those shaped like elephant ears and some very large sponges – were apparently quite rare. She also told us how to identify fresh fish for dinner (clear eyes, red gills) as some of the locals could spot and take advantage of novice diners.

We walked around the charming village of Vathis with its small hotels, restaurants, and more sponge shops. We found the fresh-water canal teaming with fish, a waterway that eventually meets the ocean. We climbed up a short trail to look down on the dock and through the opening to the inlet with its high rocky cliffs on either side.

Later, we learned that Kalymnos is considered a world-class rock-climbing destination for those who are brave enough and skilled enough to traverse the many sport routes along the abundant, top quality limestone rock offered by the Island.

Skill, though, isn’t a prerequisite, and on a spot about 40 feet up the rocky cliff just across from where we had docked was where local kids and courageous tourists could high dive into the water below.

Soon after we moored, our boat was joined by the Albatross, a slightly larger sailboat with a German skipper and his crew who didn’t previously know each other but had each paid for a cabin on the boat to be skillfully transported from island to island for a week of adventurous vacation. The skipper told us about the diving spot as we watched five young men, possibly in their early 20’s, climbing toward it.

The first two jumped, one right after the other. From the water below they yelled up to their companions to join them, but the next young man hesitated, clearly afraid. Several minutes passed and he still didn’t jump. His friends from below yelled, and the two remaining young men on the rocks offered encouragement.

The German skipper on the Albatross explained that from the vantage point where the young men were standing, it wasn’t easy to see the water below. You had to leap out and trust that you would clear the land. You had to ignore the inner voice telling you that you were leaping onto the side of a cliff and certain death.

Eventually the third young man jumped into the water to join his friends.

The next young man tentatively stepped down and to the position where his friends had just jumped, but he was terrified. Ten minutes went by, then another ten. For more than 30 minutes he contemplated the jump. At times you could see him hyperventilating, wiping his eyes. He was larger than the other young men and even the people below were concerned that he wouldn’t be able to jump out far enough.

His friends, now on the dock, were yelling and taunting loudly. Everyone below was watching and waiting.

After a long time, he and his other friend began climbing back up to the trail. They had decided not to jump. We were relieved. But just as we thought this drama had ended, his friends accelerated their ridicule, loudly humiliating their friends for all to hear. The pressure was too much. The young men on the cliff went back to try to muster the courage to jump.

So much time had passed. The young man again contemplated his fate. Tens of minutes ticked by. Two local kids paddled out and shouted up encouragement and tips on how to make the jump. They helped him to find a better, lower spot to launch. They countered the mockery of his friends with supportive assistance.

At least an hour had passed and by this time a man had scolded the cruel friends and made them leave the dock. The friends were silent now, finally taking stock of the seriousness with which everyone else evaluated the situation.

Then finally, he jumped. He made it. Everyone cheered.

But his friend was still left on the cliff’s edge. While the young man who had just jumped was the heaviest, the one left alone on the cliff was thin and smaller than the others. He was scared too.

We collectively held our breath for him, knowing that now he was at a vantage point where he couldn’t see a successful conclusion if he were to leap. He climbed down to the preferred area where his friend had jumped. Time passed.

And then he turned around, and he walked out. Just like that. The bravest move of all.

In the Disney movie “Brave”, young Merida makes a choice for herself that isn’t what others wanted. There were consequences but she did what was right for her. Granted, she accidentally turned her mom into a bear in the process which wasn’t ideal, but the point is, she stayed true to herself.

Of all the courage on Vathis that day – the sponge divers, the rock climbers, the sailor trying a new skill with an audience – it was the young man who stuck up for himself against the crushing weight of peer pressure who was perhaps the bravest.

As we set sail for our next destination the following morning, I looked up at the cliff and considered the prior day’s drama. How much courage it took for the one young man to finally jump. How much courage it took for his friend not to.

How sometimes not jumping is the boldest choice of all.

Lea Maxwell

Lea Maxwell is the sailor and scribe behind Escape Under Sail, a web|blog project that connects new and future bareboat sailors with the resources, information, and motivation they need to competently and confidently sail beautiful destinations around the world.

Web: escapeundersail  |   Instagram: @escape_under_sail   |   Facebook: www.facebook.com/escapeundersail/

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