The sixth biannual international Rebreather Meeting took place 1-5 May 2019 on Ponza Island in Italy. Peter Symes reports.
Usually, when going to conferences, I would go the airport, jump on a plane, fly to some other country, go through customs and immigration, then hop in a taxi and check into some business hotel close to a conference or expo facility, usually placed in some nondescript business district some distance from a city centre and certainly not close to any water or diving. The next morning, I would then make my way to some conference centre where I would sit and listen to presentations all morning, have lunch and then listen to more presentations in the afternoon.
After a long day, I would typically go back to my hotel room for a change of clothes and then attend a dinner or some other business event. The next day (or days), I would repeat the cycle until the end, after which I would check out of the hotel and go home. That is how the vast majority of the events and conferences I have attended over the past 25 years have unfolded—the same scheme, with some variations. But this one was pleasantly different.
First of all, the biannual rebreather meeting on the little and slightly remote but very picturesque Italian island of Ponza takes a little bit more effort to reach, but it is all very much worth the extra bother, which will become apparent in the following essay.
It was one fine day in May when fellow colleague Michael Menduno and I flew down to Rome from our headquarters in Copenhagen on an early morning flight. The flight was uneventful, which was a positive. Once on the ground, we spent some residual time on an early lunch, comprising fresh salads, cheese and olives. Even in the airport, the snacks were made of fresh produce, unlike the mass-produced and factory-processed fast food from global brands you see in most other places. Welcome to a classic foodie culture. That was a reassuring omen.
Soon enough, we easily found the train to the city centre, as the train station is connected to the terminal via some passageways. Once at Rome’s main station, changing to the regional express train to Formia was quick and easy, as we just had to go around to another platform. No problemo.
After about an hour’s train ride through the beautiful Italian countryside, we got off at Formia and made it from the station to the ferry terminal with all our bags in tow. The crossing took just about 1.5 hours before we set foot on the island of Ponza where we got accommodated in a small apartment in one of the narrow streets just above Ponza Diving Centre.
Ponza is simply beautiful and classic. The island just oozes of laid-back enjoyment of life, and a different and more meaningful pulse is almost tangible. The Mediterranean lifestyle, being firmly rooted in tradition and a very long history, is what seems to set the rhythm, at least to an outsider’s point of view. Already in antiquity, some better-off Romans retreated to the island during summer.
Out here, we were pleasantly far from the frenzy and hustle and bustle of our everyday big city lives as well as the constant pressure of deadlines and expectations. Time seemed to flow differently here, in some undefined effortless and unhurried manner.
It is as if the island itself urges you to take a deep breath, reset your perspectives and reconsider your priorities in life. It is a place where you cannot help just enjoying your espresso, taking in its full flavour, there on the sunny terrace, or the whole meal, which easily takes all evening, without ever looking at your watch.
True to Italian form, Ponza Diving Centre’s biannual rebreather meeting was unlike any other dive conference or event in which I have participated—and always one I thoroughly enjoy each time, for many good reasons. Let me explain.
First of all, on the agenda each morning was a boat dive, so the attendees get to dive together for a nice change, or at least enjoy some relaxed conversations on the spacious upper deck while travelling to and from the dive spots around the islands. Out on the boat, gastronomic specialities—tasters, snacks and dishes—are somehow continually being created in the diminutive galley and brought up on the sun deck where we tuck in while enjoying the vista over Mare Nostrum, or “our sea,” as the old Romans called the Mediterranean Sea.
During the transports to and from the dive locations, I found plenty of opportunities to have some proper and more in-depth conversations with various leading presenters. Many of them I already knew quite well from seeing them quite regularly at a number of other events—mostly technical diving conferences in the United States, Europe or Asia. But on these other occasions, there never seemed to be any proper opportunities for decent conversation, due to the packed schedules of these events and the flurry of other people competing for each tiny sliver of attention.
Once the dive boat was docked in the port of Ponza, we usually had an hour or more to relax or just walk about in the labyrinthine maze of pathways between the buildings of Ponza town—a village that seems smeared across the steep hillsides, with winding walkways and narrow passages akin to a maze in a computer game. It was great fun just to walk around, and great exercise too, as going up and down inclines and steep stairs surely burnt off some calories.
Each afternoon, some three or four presentations were conducted in what I believe was the civic centre. We sat in a hall that was mostly underground, which is not all that unusual on Ponza. Even our own little apartment was largely windowless, as it appeared to be dug halfway into a cliff. It was a bit strange, but no matter. The beds were comfy enough, and we did not really spend much time there, as there was a lot of socialising—mostly around great food—to be done.
The long and timeless evenings in good company were one of the highlights of this event. Every evening, the whole bunch of us were taken to some great restaurant, every night a new one, to dine together and enjoy some fine Italian cooking. An image says more than a thousand words, as the old and quite overused saying goes, but I will let the accompanying photographs speak for themselves.
I have been to many places across the globe during my extensive tenure in the dive industry and attended literally hundreds of business events, but almost all of them are stiff and formal in comparison, and you never quite enjoy them. The relaxed dinners on Ponza, on the other hand, was a different matter altogether, because they were unpretentious and focused on socialising over some excellent food in the stimulating company of good colleagues.
Could other events elsewhere replicate this pleasant combination of diving, presentations and socialising? Not quite, because it is so tied to this specific locale and culture, which can never be transplanted. It would probably not be possible either to conduct any large events according to this overall framework. Firstly, there is obviously a limit to how many people a dive boat can carry, even a spacious one, but I suppose more than one vessel could be used. Secondly, the Ponza event is relatively small in size and somewhat exclusive in attendance, which makes it possible to socialise in the described manner. But I would like to see other gatherings take the idea to heart. ■
For more information, visit: ponzadiving.com