Sailor Giovanni Soldini became officially a hero during the 1998-99 Around Alone round-the-world race when, during a storm, stopped racing and made a 133 miles detour to (almost incredibly) find his friend and competitor – French navigator Isabelle Autissier – who had capsized and sent an SOS. He found her under her overturned yacht, saved her life, went back to racing, and won. He was later awarded with the Legion D’honneur in Paris and the Medal of Honor in Rome.
When I asked him about that episode, he quickly dismissed me by saying that “every person in his or her right mind would have done exactly the same”.
Soldini is a man of contrasts. He can happily live one month with brown rice and onions to set a new sailing record, but he also lead a gourmet/environmentalist/political cruise from Genoa to New York with a changing crew of Michelin-starred chefs, artists and entrepreneurs….and 280 bottles of Barolo wine!
He is a solitary sailor and a team player; he has a confident fashion style and claims he doesn’t have a clue about fashion; he was called a failure at school (he was later diagnosed with dyslexia) and became an international success both as a sportsman and as an entrepreneur.
Only in the last two years, Soldini has set a new world record for monohulls (with the beautiful boat Maserati) on the legendary Gold Route – from New York to San Francisco , which twists and turns for over 13 thousands miles across two oceans and rounds Cape Horn – and has won the Cape2Rio Cross-Atlantic Regatta, also setting a new record.
I chose a Rocky paraphrases as a title of this interview because I felt that Soldini described his races and victories in a similar way to me. Do you remember the original quote? It says: “it ain’t how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
Here is how Soldini talks about his experiences.
Beatrice – Chicoverdose: let’s start from fashion! You have a signature style with mostly white, blue and red tops and sport jackets over jeans or sporty trousers, and the occasional black especially for more formal events. You also like white shirts with rolled sleeves and wear them regularly over casual trousers. The epitome of the modern sailor.
Giovanni Soldini: do I? I don’t know. Well, for racing I always work with a partner, a brand that makes clothes especially for us. We tend to work together and develop a line. It’s not only about technical items, it’s always a mixture of racing gear and everyday stuff. Pure technical brands are maybe 3 or 4 in the world, and usually very small. So I am lucky because I get all sort of clothes; Diesel and Zegna, for example. Personally I am not into luxury brands; this is nothing I need.
Beatrice: you wear a tiny gold ring in your left ear.
Giovanni: it’s a marine tradition, a kind of diploma in ocean navigation. Only sailors who have rounded Cape Horn, the southern-most tip of America, are entitled to wear it. I was given it by the organiser of the first regatta during which I made it, and everybody else arriving in Punta del Este got it too.
Beatrice: you mean that everybody knows this tradition, apart from me?
Giovanni: (laughs) yes. At least all sailors.
Beatrice: ok, let’s leave fashion and go into family matters. You and your two brothers have been quite successful in three completely different fields (Emanuele is the director of the IED, European Institute of Design, and Silvio is a popular film director – author of Pane e Tulipani/ Bread and Tulips among others), so you three all found your element. How can parents help children to find their true calling?
Giovanni: for sure there are different ways. In my case, my father was the key. He was a very strict, tough man. He came from another generation and did things that would be unthinkable today – he wasn’t even on first name terms with his own father. The fact that he was so tough and old school finally made us break off with him; we had to find our own way. It was out of rebellion that we chose different paths from him. His parental style is totally different from mine; I am different and times are different. But as a general rule, I find that parents today are often overprotective, and that doesn’t help children to find themselves. This excess of protection and guidance brings to another problem: often the children try to please their parents (for example by studying a certain subject at university) without having any passion for what they are doing. On top of that, some fathers try to please their wives just to have some peace and quiet, and again that doesn’t help children to find out what they really like in life. In my opinion a father (or the person who takes care of the kid in the absence of the father) should find his way to give autonomy and responsibility to his offsprings, to trust them and let them free even when something might be dangerous. Life is dangerous.
My personal experience is that I found school hard (nobody knew what dyslexia was, at the time) and family life hard. So at 15 I run away from home and sold earrings for 3 months. I met someone who offered me a job to build a boat, and it all started from there. I later went back to school, but it was during those months away from home that I learnt to count on myself only.
Beatrice: so the passion for sailing wasn’t born yet?
Giovanni: well… I simply wanted to travel and see the world. I thought that sailing was the coolest way to do it: you need the least and you are mostly independent.
Beatrice: at age 16 you sailed solo across the Atlantic for the first time. What are the main skills to succeed in such an endeavor, and to avoid big mistakes?
Giovanni: You don’t avoid them, you accept them and learn from them. My best teacher has been the sea. When you go alone around the world twice, you make so many mistakes you end up winning simply because you make less mistakes than others. Being alone with yourself you spend your time thinking: I am such a fool! Look at the stupid mistake I just made! You even say it loud. Often the problems are something you haven’t experienced before and you don’t have a solution for. You need to use creativity. If it is an extreme situation where you are risking your life, your brain starts working very well! Provided you remain mentally positive, of course. Mental attitude is very important – if you are negative, you stop reacting to things and you won’t survive. When you are alone you can’t ask for help to anybody, so weaknesses totally disappear. You can’t afford to think you can’t make it. Remaining humble is good, but you have to stay positive too. It’s life over death. You just can’t afford weakness.
Beatrice: you sail both alone and in a team. Do you feel weaker when alone?
Giovanni: no. The style of navigation is different, the boats are different, the experiences are different, but I love them both. When you are alone you develop a relationship with the boat, you “feel” the boat constantly. With a team you don’t have that.
The first thing to be able to race alone is loving what you are doing. You are on a beautiful boat and you are doing something great. If your goal is winning, you will probably fail. Winning takes more than that. Being alone you can’t compare yourself to anybody, assess well or discuss anything, so you’ll make huge mistakes. If you are tired on top of that, you will make too many of them. You need to have a good balance with your inner self and your energy, almost zen-like: pacing yourself well, being strong without exaggerating, being alert but resting enough. Only then you reach the condition to make less mistakes, and therefore you have the chance to win.
Beatrice: on a boat you live on very little. Does that make you critical against consumerism?
Giovanni: Society imposes us needs we don’t have. We are slaves of needs we don’t have and which have been created to support the economy. I always thought that the least you are a slave of all this, the happier you are. Ok, from my position it’s easy to preach; I am a privileged man. But on a boat you learn that with 10 kg of brown rice and 40 onions you can go around the world, you don’t need absolutely anything else and you are happy. You need no alcohol or cigarettes or anything else on top of that, you are in peace with yourself and enjoy life to the full. It is a great perspective to look at things, and I believe it’s the real one.
Beatrice: maybe for you, but not for everybody.
Giovanni: everybody would feel the same in that condition. Being in nature is our true dimension. On a boat in the middle of the sea we are smaller men. If a storm comes we are in great danger. We think we are so cool because we can go to the moon or build nuclear power stations…the truth is: if nature gets upset, there’s nothing we can do. In everyday life, we are reminded of that with every natural catastrophe. Alone in the sea, we are reminded of it more or less every 2 hours.
Beatrice: You and the Maserati crew are waiting for favourable weather conditions to leave and attempt the record between New York and Lizard Point. Maserati has been in New York, waiting to go, since early June. Is this wait wearing you out?
Giovanni: Yes. This summer has been very unusual in terms of the major meteorological systems and now we are starting to run short of time. I would really love to leave; this is the most important record we are missing and I know Maserati can make it…if the weather allows it.
Beatrice: do you and the crew follow a special diet while sailing?
Giovanni: not really. I used to eat what I wished during my solo navigation, and as I said my diet mainly consisted of biological brown rice, which is very rich and complete from a nutritional point of view. Now we have a partner, Eataly, that made a detailed study about nutrition and our needs. They came up with biological brown rice (laughs). We eat much better now, though. They created lyophilised sauces for pasta and rice, and they are delicious. That improved the quality of our diet dramatically.
Beatrice: does the crew ever fight or argue?
Giovanni: never. They are professional and we all have a common goal. It’s not a good idea to stat discussions when aiming at a record and living in such a tiny space. But as soon as we moor…better to separate everybody immediately! (laughs)
Beatrice: You helped to develop a new type of solar panels, flexible and suitable for boats, that have been adopted also by some of your competitors. What are their advantages?
Giovanni: Normally solar panels are made of glass, so they are heavy – about 30 kg – and unsuitable for a boat, because you can’t walk on them. I always wanted to find a way of being less dependent on gas oil. In 1997 I met a very innovative and passionate researcher. Together we developed flexible, lightweight, walkable and extremely resistant panels for Solbian. They allow a transoceanic trip without any need of fuel oil.
Beatrice: Do you ever feel lazy?
Giovanni: Yes! There are some things I hate and keep postponing, like mowing the grass.
Beatrice: do you feel the pressure of your role and your medals of honour?
Giovanni: not really. Popularity comes in waves. When I saved Isabelle I became a sort of Prince Charming for some media, but I know that they are also the same who harshly criticise you if you take a third place in a sailing regatta. I try to put everything into perspective. I am simply a man who has the privilege to do what he really loves.