BEST OF 2014 Cino Ricci: “I hated sailors.”


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thumb_900x60021Italy’s most beloved sailor tells his story, from his childhood days with the fishermen of Cervia to the legendary challenge of Azzurra, passing through the terrible Fastnet of 1979, to revealing his relationship with today’s boats. Fifty years of sailing told in a Romagnolo accent. And that day in Malta with Tabarly…

If you ask “normal” people, those who don’t go to sea, to be clear, who the most famous Italian sailor is, even today a great many will tell you Cino Ricci. It may be that he was the leader of Azzurra, the first mythical Italian challenge to the America’s Cup; it may be that his Romagna accent filled the nights of the Moro di Venezia; it may be that he was the first to become a television face as well. It will be all these things together and more. Trying to understand him, tracing his life, was Fabio Pozzo, a great journalist, who together with Cino wrote the book “Odiavo i velisti” (Longanesi, pp. 240, euro 16.40).

28850002-198x300Impossible not to start precisely from Azzurra, to begin to fully understand Cino Ricci. From that day in February 1981, in a cold Turin, when Cino stepped out of an anonymous gray apartment building at 10 Corso Marconi and got behind the wheel, heading toward Forli. In the offices he left, a decision was made that will change his life. Because that is where he just met the most powerful man in Italy, Gianni Agnelli. “I think back to the words of the lawyer. Ricci, he convinced me…(…) I believe it, but it still seems impossible. I review the scene. At first the Advocate is a bit skeptical, but then he begins to believe. Yes, Ricci, I believe you, it is a good project…. We make it… But we have to find sponsors… Who are we going to put in? He picks up the phone, which remains in midair, looks at me, and almost guesses my thought…. No, no, Fiat no… And he gets Barilla, Cinzano… He tells everyone that the America’s Cup is being made. (…) I am surprised. He doesn’t say we’ll see, let me think…. No, he really says: it is done…. With only one recommendation, though… Ricci, let’s not go looking like chocolatiers…”

Thus began the trips to Newport, site of the American challenge, but more importantly, the search for a team. It is not yet the era of today’s super-professional (and well-paid) America’s Cup sailors. Many are students, railroaders, basketball players. In Sardinia, selections begin, thanks in part to a sort of competition with our Sailing Newspaper. But there are also some thoroughbred sailors. Among them is a helmsman from Monfalcone, who has already won several Italian titles and participated in two Olympics with the Finn before switching to offshore boats. His name is Mauro Pelaschier. “I’m going to pick him up in Boston. Long hair, beard, strange dress, he looks like the Christ from Jesus Christ Superstar. He is put on like the last time I had seen him, four months earlier at a regatta in Ancona. I think he is tired from the journey. He tells me that he flew with a dead … Like with a dead one? Yes, yes, a dead… The passenger sitting next to him died during the flight, possibly a heart attack. The cabin crew asked Mauro if they could leave it there…. Lasséla, that so much no disturb….”

Cino has his own method for evaluating candidates. “I stay and observe them, among others. I hear how they talk, watch how they act. I get them on the boat, I change their duties: to the steering wheels, to the grinders, to the halyards…. Some I discard immediately, others after four or five days. I put character and man before technique and sailor. I am convinced that sailors you can become, for what you need on a 12 Metre, while to be the right elements of a team you have to have the characteristics. (…) They arrive, I put them together with the others and watch them…. I watch them, try to see if they can blend in with the others, if they can fit into the group…. I also often use rather empirical methods to figure out what they are made of. At the table, when the courses arrive, whoever jumps in first and chooses is almost out.”

Ricci is a born leader in character and mindset. “The ideal for me is to command. In the beginning, I’m also fine with being at the helm, because I want to prove myself at the tiller, but then I don’t see anything but command. After all, as a child I dreamed of commanding a warship, not of being a gunner.” Even at the cost of clashing with those who resent his choices. “Deciding and doing is stronger than me. I’ve always done it, I’ve never had masters, no one has ever given me orders. And I know what I have to do and how to do it. I feel I am leading the platoon that has to conquer 88 altitude, and I demand that others think only of supplying me with rifles and bayonets. The America’s Cup is me, you have to provide me with the necessary resources and materials, and that’s it… The goal, just the goal.” Among those in that adventure who resented Ricci’s way of doing things was Gianfranco Alberini, secretary of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda and future president of the Consortium. Matter of ways of doing things. Alberini former Navy officer, dressed in white. Ricci walks around barefoot, diplomacy he does not know. And when Alberini surprises the entire crew in the yacht club’s swimming pool washing up (some clothed, some naked) after a workout, he blurts out in a hiss, “You peasants….”

Australia vs. Azure
Australia vs. Azure


The first Italian challenge to the America’s Cup would then be a great success, with Azzurra managing to reach the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup. But Cino Ricci was not only Azzurra. His relationship with the sea and boats comes from much further back. From when he was a child he had Cervia’s canal port as his playground and fishermen as his friends. Studying was not his forte and after finishing his studies, between a daring motorcycle trip to the North Cape and hunting trips, he began working in the family construction company. Little by little he approaches the world of competitive sailing, in years when the Adriatic was far behind the circles of the Tyrrhenian, not to mention those of France and England. Cino decides that in order to learn he must go abroad, to take the Glénans’ courses. And he is thunderstruck. “This sail has the value of revelation for me. I believe it, I identify. (…) On board they can do anything, repair anything, sew any sail. And that’s right: they are aware that away from the ground if something happens to them they certainly can’t call the tow truck…. They know they have to fend for themselves. (…) it’s like looking out into the sun after being locked in a dark room for years.”

“The sea makes its voice heard and is for me an irresistible call. I have it in me, I can’t help it. And when, for some reason, I drift away, I have to stop and return to my element. Like dolphins.” Regattas are multiplying, especially abroad, even in the United States. “In Chicago I race with a French boat. It’s the launch days of the movie Jaws (Jaws, it’s 1975) and we have one of the crew sleeping on board. We all go to the movies and the next morning we can’t find anyone on the boat. We set out to look and eventually discover our man in the Circle warehouse sleeping on a bench…. Tonight I heard rubbing under the hull and…”.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 at 3:38:36 p.m.Ricci also participated in the legendary and tragic 1979 Fastnet, the one of the perfect storm, the nineteen deaths, the twenty-four boats abandoned in the waves, the other 194 retired out of 303 starts; he was aboard Vanina 2, the First Class designed by Australian Scott Kaufman. And already at the start, the crew is preparing for the worst. “And the worst as expected comes as we are sailing in the cold, gray waters of the Ocean, south of Ireland. Moments that remain branded in the memory…. (…) We advance towards the infamous reef in safety: we have removed the spinnaker, reduced the mainsail surface with a coat of reefing and, at the bow, the jib. (…) It gets dark quickly and the gusts strengthen: 35, 50 knots. We are forced to reduce the mainsail to a handkerchief. I’ll send a couple of men to the bow, to put on the torment, the small, strong gale sail… When we catch sight of the lighthouse light, we are upwind enough to pass it easily. it’s gone! Which, on the other hand, many other boats will fail to do, as they will not have the same shrewdness as us to keep to a windward course when it still would have been possible. But the regatta is not over, and the worst is yet to come. Having passed the cliff, we are hit by the bulk of the storm. The rain falls horizontally and mixes with the salt water that travels dusty, creating a dust that makes it impossible to see upwind. There are no other boats around, our radio is silent…. In the end we make it all the way through safely and into the top 10.” The only toll of the storm is paid by Cino himself, who breaks the bones in his left hand between the spokes of the rudder wheel when a wave traps the boat.

My passion for sailing, despite everything, has nothing at all to do with either the America’s Cup or racing in general… it is, rather, a feeling that is lost in time, going back to my daydreams when I was a child… The pirate epic, the clipper era (…) is, rather, a passion that comes from the books I read… Cook, Nelson, Conrad, Slocum, Dumas…. French loners, Moitessier… That comes from the stories I was told, from my having the sea inside since I was a little boy playing in the squero in Borgo Marina in Cervia.” Strange to hear this (and imagine his Romagnolo accent as you read these words) from someone who has become famous thanks to the most famous of regattas. Yet. “Can one be passionate about sailing even without having the disease of competition? Yes, you can. At least, for me it was and still is. You can be a sailor even without doing regattas…. Sailors you are also simply when you get on board and can’t help but tune the sails if you hear them flapping… (…) I still like sailing, but without the obligation of having to go exactly somewhere and without the hassle of having to beat someone. Of course, I didn’t mind winning either, showing that I knew my stuff…. But I never wanted it at all cost“. Kind of like when he enjoyed boating in Vigo, Spain with Gianni Agnelli…. “The Lawyer likes to launch the boat at full speed and aim the bow at ships in the roadstead to dodge them at the last moment…. Taking big risks. And pissing off the local harbormaster…. On one occasion they even chase us with a patrol boat…. The military catches up with us, having ordered us to stop; they pull up and order us something in a threatening tone. I do not hear them, but I catch a glimpse of their faces when they identify the boat and evidently someone on the radio warns them that Agnelli is at the helm…. They wish us a pleasant stay and turn their heels…. A hoot!”

Over many years by sea Cino Ricci has met all the greats. Like that time in Malta, at a Middle Sea Race, when he saw Eric Tabarly climb to the masthead of the Pen Duick 3 with only the strength of his arms. “Once (…) I ask him what his ideal of a sportsman is…. I expect the name of a sailor, perhaps one of his compatriots, but instead he replies Walter Bonattì. Bonatti, the one from K2?, I ask him somewhat astonished. Yes, Bonattí. Imagine, he says that to me, who always followed and admired Bonatti, so much so that I wanted to be a mountaineer.” Staying on the subject of oceans, his relationship with Giorgio Falck stands out. “Giorgetto,” as his mother used to call him, is a member of the Genoa Yacht Club, and I have long considered him a sailor with a tie, a sailor of the good salons, of the noble yacht clubs. But about him I later realize that I was wrong: when I get to know him better I discover a different man from what I thought he was he is simple in approach and dress, easygoing, he puts you at ease.”


Raul Gardini
Raul Gardini

But it was with Raul Gardini, the man who led the Moor of Venice to win the Louis Vuitton Cup, that a special relationship was formed. “Raul is a bright, proud, ambitious man. (…) A man of visions, of great challenges… We talk about Italian sailing in the Olympics, the medals we never win, and he… Cino, let’s get the Federation. You show up for elections, we campaign properly, and then we organize for the Olympics like the America’s Cup. The best coaches, medalists as hares, and you’ll see the results come…. And you will be the president! Eh no, not this one, I’ll make him…. Apart from the fact that in the Federvela you can’t do whatever you want, even if you sit at the top, because there is the Coni, there is politics, I then just couldn’t be president with the character I have….” Ricci would be in contact with Gardini until shortly before his death, “I am convinced that Raul chose to die out of pride, so as not to be seen as humiliated, so as not to give satisfaction to his enemies. (…) He tells me this the last time we see each other. Cino, me in jail an i veg….“.

The world since Ricci took his first steps in sailing has changed because of technology. “Everything has become easier… It may also be good, however, we have lost the value of myth on the way. Even on the sea. (…) I don’t want to play the part of the one who just mumbles, who thinks we were better off before, far from it…. But… But I gained experience slowly, growing up. I used to look at clouds and signs to predict weather conditions, estimate distances and speed to have an appossimated ship point… It took me years to learn how to sail. Now, however, we can rely on indestructible sheets, on sails we will never have to sew, on the Gps that always gives us the exact position, on weather patterns that come directly to handhelds, to tablets. So many more sailors, but certainly fewer sailors. And to me, who was born a sailor first, sailors are back to being on my balls“.

The texts in this article are taken from the book “Odiavo i velisti,” by Cino Ricci with Fabio Pozzo, published by Longanesi (240 pages, euro 16.40). Find the full article in the August issue of The Journal of Sailing



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