Giovanni Soldini, Master of the Sea

Giovanni Soldini turns his weathered face to the Pacific and squints at millions of square miles of cobalt water. What the 51-year-old Italian is pondering is anyone’s guess, but there’s a good chance he’s thinking about the upcoming Transpacific Yacht Race, the storied competition that challenges billionaires, thrill seekers, and bucket-list romantics to traverse 2,225 nautical miles from San Pedro, California’s Point Fermin buoy to the Diamond Head Lighthouse in Honolulu, Hawaii, relying solely on wind power. A legend in the world of long-distance sailing and a national hero in Italy, Soldini looks more like a puckish fisherman compared to the coiffed locals in Southern California’s tony coastal enclave of Marina del Rey. There may be buckets of seafaring adventures swimming in the memory banks behind his hazel eyes, but Soldini gives off a disarming aura of quietude before he gently returns to reality.

The Transpac, as it is commonly referred to, is a 111-year-old race that covers some of the largest, deepest, and most dangerous expanses of water on the planet. This year Soldini will be sailing the Maserati Multi70 trimaran, the first foiling ship of its type to compete in a major open-ocean race. Painstakingly constructed from carbon fiber and titanium, this multimillion-dollar craft was built for the sole purpose of open-water racing. From one-off daggers and cassettes to countless bespoke components, the hardware is dizzying in its specificity, applying Formula 1 levels of engineering to hydrodynamics and weight reduction. In addition to collaborating on the ship’s overall design, Soldini developed flexible solar panels that power the ship’s electronics.

But the Multi70’s X-factor is its ability to “fly,” thanks to a foil that lifts the hull several feet out of the water, thereby dramatically reducing drag and enabling speeds of up to 44 knots—just about 50 mph. The concept is so efficient that the ship can actually exceed the speed of the wind, a party trick that makes for fantastic spectacle at closed-water events like the America’s Cup. But flying ships are unproven on open water, especially along the stretch between California and Hawaii, where a massive vortex of aquatic garbage can threaten the ship’s delicate rudders and foils. Despite a lifetime of sailing experience, the meteorological vagaries of the vast geography and the black art of strategizing a course that capitalizes on the velocity-amplifying power of the wind mean Soldini has his work cut out for him.

Giovanni Soldini became drawn to the ocean in his early teens, but the bond was cemented at 17 when he convinced a 75-year-old American captain to take him sailing across the Atlantic. The route from Palma de Mallorca in the Mediterranean to Antigua in the Caribbean forged an extreme level of adaptability at an age when most kids were getting their kicks playing video games. Soldini didn’t speak English until he picked up the language from the captain. After several months in the Caribbean, he returned home on a Spanish boat, learning Spanish from the crew. “It was fantastic,” he says with a laugh, like a lover reminiscing on the fling that triggered an affair.

“Giovanni’s personality and way of getting his hands dirty and being involved 100 percent reminded John Elkann of the Maserati brothers.”

As his professional sailing career took off, Soldini developed a knack for dominating grueling long-distance ocean races, including the Transat Jacques Vabre (France to Brazil), the San Francisco to Shanghai Tea Clipper Route, the Original Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, and the Transat Québec to Saint-Malo (Canada to France). The relationship with Maserati developed when John Elkann, the Fiat scion who also happens to be the chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, started sailing with Soldini in 2009. Although Soldini originally sought financial support to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race, the relationship with Maserati eventually led to the design and construction of the Multi70 as a way to showcase the brand on a different global stage. The ship also enables would-be Maserati buyers to experience an aspect of the brand’s nonautomotive ventures, acting as a sort of aquatic halo vehicle that could eventually convert sailing experiences into sales.

“By getting to know Giovanni’s personality and passion, somehow [Elkann’s] intuition associated him with Maserati, which a few years ago was still a smaller brand,” says Matteo Sardi, the brand’s North American rep. That plucky marketplace position gave Maserati a unique angle against more household nameplates. “We think of Maserati like a fancy popcorn. It’s not Ferrari. It’s not Lamborghini. Yes, it’s expensive and luxurious, but it’s also made by hand. The people are simpler there. Giovanni’s personality and way of getting his hands dirty and being involved 100 percent reminded [Elkann] a little bit of what he thought about the Maserati brothers.”

Soldini recalls epic oceangoing experiences with the casualness of someone describing a weekend in Napa. “It was a great trip with Maserati,” he says, reminiscing about the adventure when he broke the record from New York to San Francisco along the Gold Route course, a 13,225-mile route that circumnavigates Cape Horn. A previous record stood for 135 years, recorded by the Flying Cloud, a massive clipper ship that completed the journey in 89 days. That achievement was finally beat by a French team that completed the route in 57 days, 3 hours in 2008. Soldini and his crew obliterated that record five years later, finishing in 47 days, 42 minutes.

Then there was the notorious 1998/1999 Around Alone race, a global circumnavigation that requires competitors to sail solo. The leg across the South Pacific from Auckland, New Zealand, to Punta del Este, Uruguay, is particularly daunting because of its massive waves, freezing temperatures, and up to 4,000-mile isolation from landmass. At 59 degrees latitude south, some 2,000 miles west of Chile, friend and competitor Isabelle Autissier capsized. When her 60-foot sailboat flipped upside down in sub-40-degree water (surrounded by even colder ambient temperatures), Autissier donned a thick survival suit and huddled in an air pocket within the hull. Soldini, alerted of the capsizing, diverted his route more than 200 miles for the faint possibility of rescuing his competitor. But with only an emergency radio beacon and a single Comsat-C satellite-tracking signal, the margin of error for locating the distressed ship was approximately seven miles. The odds of contact were even lower because inclement weather visually blended the water into the sky and massive swells offered only fleeting glimpses of the distressed ship.

Then the improbable happened: Soldini spotted the bobbing hull of Autissier’s boat in the distance. He approached and made two passes, screaming her name in hopes of capturing her attention. When no one emerged, Soldini took a third pass and threw a hammer at the hull, triggering her to crawl out of a hatch. Autissier eventually climbed aboard his boat and joined him for 15 days until he reached Uruguay. “She ate all my food,” he jokes, “but it was OK because Isabelle is a very nice person.”

A race spokesman later told The New York Times, “He’s a very determined person. He’s also got one of the best boats in the fleet, and he knows how to sail it quickly to get where he wants to go.” Despite the diversion, Soldini completed the 26,000-mile journey in 116 days, 20 hours, a new world record that beat the previous title by almost five days.

Despite facing the hazards of a life racing on the open sea for three decades, Soldini remains unfazed, seeking ever-greater challenges both on water and on land.

Soldini’s racing recollections tend to follow a distinct format with two oppositional forces at play: the unrelenting rigor of science, logistics, and planning and the sting of nature’s entropy. The former includes his close working relationship with Guillaume Verdier, the renowned nautical designer known for authoring Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup ship. With Soldini’s countless hours at the helm in some of the most extreme oceangoing conditions and Verdier’s engineering problem solving, the two collaborate on the design of crucial components such as the rudders (the Multi70 has three) and the foil, which has a profile that resembles an airplane wing in order to create the lifting force that makes the ship “fly.” Another key collaborator is meteorological guru Pierre Lasnier, with whom Soldini has worked for more than two decades. His prerace ritual includes one or two full days discussing weather possibilities and contingency plans. “Obviously when you’ve [been doing that] for 20 years,” Soldini says, “you speak the same language and you understand. Each time you know a little bit more, [but] it’s not like mathematics. It’s never sure.”

When considering gut instincts versus scientific data, Soldini recalls his second round-the-world race. He had the instinct on the first leg (from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cape Town, South Africa) to stay on a northerly route before heading east because the Caribbean’s trade winds to the south would have slowed his progress. By remaining in the north’s low-pressure zone, he took the lead and felt confident about his route. However, ten days later, a tropical low-pressure system developed and inverted the conditions, completely reversing the standings. “[The competitors] just killed me,” he recalls. “But if I could do it again, I would do it the same because meteorology is not stable. You need to accept that. That’s life. You try, but you are not God.”

Acceptance might be an essential part of Soldini’s constitution, but it also comes from decades of battling some of nature’s mightiest forces. He has tasted the sweetest of victories, but he has also capsized and crashed. Despite some severe personal nadirs, the deepest cut might have been the loss of longtime friend Andrea Romanelli, a yacht designer who was swept into the ocean during a North Atlantic storm. Romanelli’s body was never recovered. The tragedy almost led Soldini to skip the Around Alone race where he rescued Isabelle Autissier.

“It’s like car racing. You have plenty of high and low moments,” he explains, “but one day you will have an accident. You can have 80-, 90-knot winds or 100-foot waves that can sink even a cargo ship. But it’s like anything, I think. The important thing is to have luck and be prepared, to be able to start again.” Not surprisingly, that element of danger doesn’t diminish much on the rare occasion he returns home to Sarzana, a small medieval town in Italy near Pisa. “I love driving cars and motorcycles,” he says, referring to his Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Honda Hornet 600. And, of course, he also keeps several boats on hand—a small multihull catamaran for local journeys, a cruising boat for family and friends, and a small racing boat he’s loaning out for a competition.

Soldini’s three decades of exposure to the world’s oceans have made him a firsthand witness to the realities of a changing planet. Whereas in 1995, during his first around-the-world circumnavigation, he was able to travel at a latitude of 62 degrees south, now he can’t make the journey below 45 degrees due to ice masses that have separated, or calved, from Antarctica. “It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s scary.”

During the 2017 Transpac race, Soldini and his seven-man crew were about 1,500 miles from Los Angeles when the ship struck an unidentified object at night, dislocating one of the rudders. “You cannot believe how many things are floating around this part of the sea,” he says, suspecting the object that was a propane tank. After assessing the extent of the damage, it appeared the carbon housing around the rudder (known as a cassette) disintegrated, and on-the-spot repairs were not possible. Although they were able to recover the rudder, a particularly expensive part, their inability to maintain full stability during the actual race resulted in a 3- to 4-knot speed reduction that led them to cross the finish line in third place.

In the aftermath of the loss, Soldini employs his usual problem-solving resolve. He is already collaborating with Verdier on a cassette design that would work as a fuse, bending along an axis so it can absorb impact without breaking.

When asked about his attraction to ocean racing, Soldini pauses in search of an explanation. “I don’t know,” he says. “What I really love is the fact that the boat is like a world. You never learn enough. You have everything, but you cannot be good at everything.”

In the years since Soldini started sailing, advances in shipbuilding and onboard electronics have changed the game. Now, his transocean ships contain three satellite-linked computers using 16 IP addresses that enable all the trappings of social-media capture required to compete on the global stage. Despite the technology creep, Soldini’s joy of sailing remains.

“It’s just my life,” he says simply. “I adore it.”


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