'I am no better than any other sailor. Sometimes you can win a race for many reasons... your boat is well prepared, you have good luck in the moment you have the right tactics for the right race. But I think what makes me different is the fact that I am an old style sailor. I started many years ago with no money, and I had to do everything by myself. I am always with my boat from the beginning... I like to fix everything, I know how to do all the tasks on deck. 360 degrees. Many sailors just walk on board with everything done for them. This is not me.'
Out on the water, with nothing but the elements; the wind against your face, the sea spray in your hair. I have a romantic impression of sailing. It represents the ultimate freedom. It’s just you and mother nature battling it out to get to a place of incredible peace. And I have so much respect for anyone that takes on that challenge. An expression of true grit. The ultimate hero.
But it’s not until I sit down with multi-awarded Italian sailor, Giovanni Soldini, that I begin to understand the true nature of competitive sailing. It’s beyond tough. It’s life and death. And it takes a very special person to get out there and continue to battle the waters of the world.
The first thing I notice about Giovanni, other than his cheeky big laugh, is the simple outline of a whale tattooed on his arm.
Giovanni: “I love sperm whales. They are so majestic. Back in 94 I was racing in my first around the world single-handed. It was going very well until I met a sperm whale between Charleston and Cape Town. I was four thousand miles from Cape Town. The whale surfaced just near the boat and then disappeared for about 20 minutes. When it resurfaced it did so with such force, it hit my boat. I was inside when it happened and just heard a terrible noise. It did a lot of damage and I was 20 hours late into Cape Town. Devastating. This tattoo reminds me who the true masters of the sea are.”
Giovanni Soldini grew up in Milan but ran away to the seaside as soon as he could. As a child of eleven years old Giovanni’s father took the family on a sea voyage. Giovanni fell in love with the ocean on this trip and decided then and there that he wanted to sail around the world. At age fifteen in Milan one of Giovanni’s friends was building a boat with his family and asked Giovanni to join them. This was just the beginning. He helped build the boat in Ferno as a summer job, and throughout the process he had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. Giovanni began to help do deliveries on boats and at age seventeen he made his first crossing.
Giovanni: “I went to the Caribbean and Jamaica. I was hitch-hiking on boats. I was getting a ride for free but I had to help out on the trips, looking after the goods on the boat. This was my schooling.”
When Giovanni returned to Europe he began to work as a deckhand. He travelled everywhere and anywhere the job would take him. At eighteen he spent a year in Cuba, sailing tourists around the island. He was then offered to skipper this same boat.
Giovanni: “I started competing at that time, but more seriously in 1991. I was working for a Roman man who was very rich and he had three boats. One of the boats was a competition boat. I convinced my boss to then buy a single handed boat. He was an elderly man and couldn’t continue to compete. So this is what we did, we bought a fifty foot beautiful boat and then we looked for a sponsor.”
Giovanni made a deal with his boss. He would compete in the around the world single-handed yacht race, Vendée Globe, and when he finished he would sell Giovanni the boat. The search for sponsors was a challenge. They had to do the race without a sponsor but with real cheek they named the boat ‘Looking for a sponsor.’ It worked.
Three months later they had their first sponsor, an office supply company. Post the race Giovanni received a great deal of publicity. Every sailing magazine wanted to know about this new kid.
Giovanni continued to race on this boat until 1993 when he lost the boat.
Giovanni: “It was a huge disaster. I capsized in the middle of the Pacific. I am lucky to be alive. A German liner came to my rescue and then I made my way back to Milan. When I returned home I was very dark, I fell into depression. After a couple of months I picked myself up and began to work with people in the industry to create an association with the focus on raising money to build a new boat. We started building in December and the boat was in the water by February. I helped build this boat from scratch. I was back.”
Giovanni was launched into stardom when in 1998-99 he was competing in the Around Alone race on his yacht called Fila. One of his competitors, French Sailor Isabelle Autissier (famous for being the first woman to complete a solo world navigation) capsized approximately 1,900 miles west of Cape Horn. Giovanni rescued her and then went on to win the race. Rescuing Isabelle was no easy feat. It was an almost impossible task ahead of him. With the help of emergency radio beacons and high-tech signals of a satellite-tracking system known as Comstat-C, Soldini miraculously located Isabelle. His message via satellite phone is now so famous “Hello, this is Fila. I have Isa onboard with me. Isa and I are going back to the race. Gio.” With a beyond human determination Giovanni had one goal in mind, to rescue a friend and fellow competitor at sea. Giovanni Soldini became a hero.
Emma: “What was it like to be suddenly labelled a hero?”
Giovanni: “No this was a mistake. It’s the first rule of seamanship... you look after your fellow competitors and crew. I’ve been rescued many times and those ships that rescued me were never mentioned. It’s what you do. I’m no hero.”
Those in the sailing world would disagree.
Emma: “What makes you different as a sailor?”
Giovanni: “Well I am no better than any other sailor. Sometimes you can win a race for many reasons... your boat is well prepared, you have good luck in the moment you have the right tactics for the right race. But I think what makes me different is the fact that I am an old style sailor. I started many years ago with no money, and I had to do everything by myself. I am always with my boat from the beginning, I always participate in the build, I like to fix everything, I know how to do all the tasks on deck. 360 degrees. Many sailors just walk on board with everything done for them. This is not me.”
Giovanni has many stories to tell about his time at sea. Some triumphant, some incredibly heart-wrenching. He tells me about the time he lost his dear friend, the designer of his boat. They were racing from New York on a mission to beat the North Atlantic record when they hit a huge storm in the English Channel. Eighty five knots of wind for 24 hours. The boat capsized. His friend was out on the deck at the time. The only thing that Giovanni could do to pay his respects and to deal with his grief was to sail the boat around the world, in memory. It was a very difficult time for Giovanni. The memories will always hurt.
Today, as I get my sea legs on, Giovanni takes me on a tour of his very impressive boat, the Maserati. He and his team are preparing for the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Although only a short race Giovanni understands how treacherous the Bass Straight can be in this world famous race. He is preparing for the worst.
Giovanni: “I try to imagine what could possibly go wrong and I prepare for that scenario. You just never know what is around the corner, you are putting yourself at the mercy of mother nature.”
The Sydney to Hobart is a very big deal in Australia. In fact come Boxing Day, 26th December, it’s all anybody talks about. This year I will be holding the Italian flag as I cheer on Giovanni Soldini and his crew in the Maserati. What an honour to have this incredible man competing in the race. I really hope he wins.
Words credited to Emma Scott. Images credited to Julie Adams.
Giovanni Soldini Achievements
• 1991 in his 50-foot Looping he took 3rd place in the La Baule-Dakar single handed race before taking second class the following year in the Europe 1 Star solo race.
• After losing his boat during the Quebec-Saint Malo race, he built the 50 foot Kodak which took him to second place in the BOC Challenge. Renamed Telecom Italia, he then used the same boat to win the Europe 1 Star solo race in 1996.
• With his Open 60 Fila he took the overall win the the 1998 Atlantic Alone, folowed by the 1999 Atlantic Alone, setting record times in both regattas. In 1999 during the third stage of the Around Alone, he rescued French Sailor Isabelle Autissier.
• In 2001, Soldini began his adventures with the trimaran 60 TIM Progetto Italia which he raced in three Transat Jacques Vabre races, one Route du Rhum, one Ostar and one Quebec-Saint Malo. In 2005, during the Transit Jacques Vabrew, his trimaran capsized off the coast of Senegal and he was forced to abandon the race.
• In September 2007, he launched Telecom Italia Class 40. He took first place in the Transat Jacques Vabre together with Pietro D'Ali. In 2008 he won the Artemis Transat Jacques single-handed race and took fourth place in the Quebec-Saint Malo.
• In 2009 he won the two-handed Transmanche race and the Les Sables-Horta-Les Sables and took second place as a crew memeber in the Rolex Fastnet race as well as second place in the two-handed Solidaire du Chocolate race.
• In January 2012, he began his adventure as skipper of the Maserati VOR70. After setting the time reference for the Caide-San Salvador route, Soldini attemtped to record for the North Atlantic crossing but he was forced to withdraw due to weather conditions.
• In February 2013 he and the Maserati's team set the new world record of the Golden Route: from New York to San francisco in 47 days, 42 minutes and 29 seconds.
• In january 2013, Maserati crossed the finish line of the 14th edition of the Cape2Rio, setting a new world record.
• In June 2015 the Maserati covered the Tea Clipper Trade Route in world record time, plied between San Francisco and Shanghai in the mid-1800s.