BEST OF 2015 – “Adventure is Adventure.”


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My adventure in discovering Ambrogio Fogar begins as I least expected. “My father was an ordinary man and he made mistakes.” This was said by Francesca, the daughter of the great Milanese explorer, on a late January afternoon. Sitting like old friends on the couch at home, Francesca is a flood of anecdotes, stories, behind-the-scenes of an even private Fogar, far from the spotlight. He who, for those like me who were elementary school kids in the 1980s, was more of a showman than a traveler. We would sit in front of the TV waiting for the unmistakable music of “Jonathan,” the program he conceived and hosted, which pioneered a new way of reporting on nature. And the adventure.

02_Fogar_daughter“You almost thought he was a Piero Angela, a presenter,” Francesca smiles. “But he had an adventurous spirit inherent in him.” Of course, though, going from being an insurance agent to sailing around the world alone is quite a leap…. “It was actually more something used by the press than actual. My dad had adventure in his DNA, kind of like all kids do. He did not quell this instinct as he grew up, because it was what he loved to do, it was how he wanted to live life, both from a point of view of excitement, adrenaline, guasiness, and courage, but also because of the confrontation with nature. That confrontation that leads you to carry out real soul-searching. it is true that he studied political science, but his insurance career began more at the behest of his father. He did not feel like it: he went to the office once a week, picked up and left to ride everywhere. He kind of cared. His fixation was to be able to make a living and work from what he loved to do.”

Adventure in DNA, then. Pursued from a young age: at eighteen he crossed the Alps on skis, made dozens of parachute jumps. Few people know this, but it was during one of these launches, just after completing his military service, that he came close to death for the first time: “The parachute opened badly and he went down at 100 mph. In the crash he broke practically every bone in his body, his teeth…. He was alive by a miracle. And this perhaps somehow instilled in him the unhealthy idea that he was immortal. When he woke up in the hospital, the first thing he did was to try to get up and walk, because he was terrified at the idea of being paralyzed, of not being able to move out of bed.” I remain speechless for a moment, thinking about what he would then experience 30 years later….

13_FogarIt occurred late in his encounter with the sea, around the age of twenty-four to twenty-five, then grew over time into his thirties. It always makes me smile this memory of Nicolò Puccinelli, a shipowner from Castiglione della Pescaia, who told me ‘I saw this guy coming in a suit and tie, loafer, waving a wad of money saying he wanted to buy the boat to go around the world…’ And one down to laugh, because he was not quite the prototypical sailor.”

A belated encounter, that with the sea, for a man who up to that point had been more “hillbilly.” “He encountered the sea in 1966 and began to realize that it was an element he liked, that it could be the means of realizing his dream of making adventure his job. Gradually he became good at it, all self-taught. He was not someone who frequented sailing clubs, he was not an emblazoned sailor. Sailing began to take notice of him after the Ostar.”

Already, Fogar participated in the legendary 1972 transatlantic regatta. Not only that, he managed to complete it despite a rudder failure for much of the race, which forced him to steer with sails only. From there, then, here is the big leap of going around the world. Aboard the Surprise, a sloop not even twelve meters long, he decided to circumnavigate the globe solo and upwind (that is, in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds and currents). “Giorgio Falck had proposed to him to crew around the world. But he decided to tackle it alone, completely in his own way, as no one in Italy had ever done it before.”

In fact, when I think of Ambrogio Fogar, I think of a forerunner, one who always wanted to be first. “In my opinion he wanted to go around the world because it was priceless, one of those things you dream about as a child. The fact that he was the first Italian to do so had to do with his intelligence as a man who was turning what he loved to do into his work. So he had to make sure to find the funds, and primacy always pulls.”


It departed November 1, 1973, from Castiglione della Pescaia and returned to the Tuscan port on December 7, 1974. Attending his departure, there were nine people on the Castiglione pier. On the way back, more than 10,000.
The great journalist Lello Pratella beautifully described the epic of that circumnavigation against the wind: “Ambrose and his boat did everything upside down, and in this voyage of thirty-seven thousand miles and three hundred and forty-five days of navigation, in which dramatic moments of more than one capsize, of the encounter with a cetacean that breaks through the hull and of many dramatic and painful days are interwoven, is contained one of the best known and perhaps the first important oceanic adventure of a lone Italian. Around this voyage and this new character who breaks into the world of the quiet Italians of coastal yachting at the time, much is spoken and discussed, and Ambrose, unfortunately, even for what he will do later, until the end will never be forgiven.”


For it is true that the world tour was a triumph that put Fogar on everyone’s lips. The Surprise was even displayed in major Italian squares. The Italian navigator published the logbook of his round-the-world voyage. The book became a best-seller, but it ignited jealousies and controversy, which brought him to court on charges of plagiarism: six pages of the book were found to have been copied from that of another navigator, John Guzzwell. This raised the suspicion that the trip was also a fake. Fogar admitted plagiarism, but defended the veracity of his circumnavigation. “A photograph taken from a ship was found, showing him passing Cape Horn,” Francesca tells me again, “which exonerated him. But by then there was a shadow over him.”

Fogar_1972A shadow that stayed with him over the years and perhaps helped to understand the further attacks he received later (this was 1978), on the occasion of the sinking of the Surprise and the death of Mauro Mancini. Fogar and Mancini were sailing off the Falkland Islands, in the middle of the South Atlantic, when the boat was hit by some killer whales and sank in a short time. The two barely managed to shelter on the life raft, carrying very little food and no water. They survived for seventy-four days adrift at sea, drinking rainwater and feeding on a species of tellin that had attached itself to the bottom of the raft.

On April 2, when by then they had been declared presumed dead, they were spotted and rescued by a Greek merchant ship, the Master Stefanos. Their condition immediately appeared very serious: both had lost over forty pounds of weight. Mancini, too debilitated, died of pneumonia after two days. The attacks on Fogar were extremely violent. “You know, if you have a hero that you put on a pedestal and that hero errs, no matter how little or how much, the pedestal is destroyed and the hero falls. So many, who may have considered him a hero, were just journalists, and this shadow he carried with him every time he embarked on a venture. He thinks my father didn’t even want Mancini to leave with him.”

A controversy that died down only forty years later, when in 2009 Corriere della Sera published two unpublished letters written by Mancini during the long shipwreck that exonerated Fogar. As in these lines written by the journalist to his wife, “My darling, I have lived these very long days of agony with your name, always repeated and thought of. Sorry for the pain I give you. But it was not due to human error. We were indeed turning back because the boat had suffered some minor breakdown. We were 4 days sailing from Rio de la Plata when a pod of orcas or whales attacked us sinking the Surprise in 4 minutes. We threw ourselves onto the rubber boat and self-inflating raft with very little food. It was the morning of Thursday, January 19, and we have now been wandering the ocean for 3 weeks with no one able and willing to look for us. Today we are about 270 miles south of Rio de la Plata! Ambrogio Fogar is brave, balanced, good man. We have kept each other company with great steadfastness of spirit, and that is something.”

ambrose005_enlargedAfter Mancini’s death, Fogar left the sea and set out in the 1980s to conquer the North Pole with Armaduk, a Siberian Husky he later brought to Italy. He discovered TV, the desert and rallies, and, during the very Paris-Moscow-Beijing, the off-road vehicle in which he was traveling overturned. It was 1992. A fracture of the second cervical vertebrae rendered him almost completely paralyzed. “It sounds like Dante’s law of counterpoise, for a man who has lived more lives than anyone else and never managed to stand still, doesn’t it?” Francesca almost asks me.

Despite his paralysis, in 1997 Fogar was able to start Operation Hope, sailing around Italy to promote, in the ports it was stopping at, a campaign to raise awareness of people with disabilities who are destined to live in a wheelchair. “After the first few years, which were really difficult and during which, I won’t hide it from you, he even thought that dying was the best solution, then something clicked. Perhaps he also realized that the true adventure he had always pursued had found it at that moment. And that he had to show that he had the strength to stand his ground even though he could no longer stand.” Perhaps Ambrogio Fogar’s spirit is encapsulated in a sentence he wrote in the last of his books, “The Force to Live”: “it is the force of life that teaches you to never give up, even when you are on the verge of saying enough.”
Taken from the March 2015 GdV



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