And there it is, all the magic of the Barcolana. We are told about it by a reader, Roberto Veronese, who with his Grand Soleil 40 Pagnotta was on his first experience at the world’s most famous and crowded regatta. When he sent us the story, we read it without catching our breath. Do it too, it is really worth it: we offer it to you in its entirety, with its sometimes colorful and sometimes lyrical language (we only took the liberty to divide it into 10 “chapters”).
PART 1 – THE WAITING
I’m trying to get to sleep but the boat is restless tonight, it’s shaken by a continuous shivering under the bora wind that is whistling between the boats’ rigging on deck. It is a familiar noise that comforts my sleep when I am quiet in the dock with the lines tightly tied, Marina by my side and Sunny snoring on the brown carpet in the square. But tonight I am alone here in the bow, the boys are sleeping in the stern, and tomorrow will not be just any day.
Tomorrow will be a day that will make my, our history. I am trying to get to sleep but have a kaleidoscope of today’s images replaying themselves projected by who knows who on the inner wall of my eyelids: the arrival in Monfalcone with the first cold, our clumsy attempts to coordinate on maneuvers, the unconvinced first hand of reefing, the gybe called instead of the tack, the gennaker tack line slipping out and catching on the fly who knows how, the sail bag filled askew, Luca’s roe and the Ferrari going down, Trieste in the evening being a crazy mess, the briefing alerting about tomorrow’s weather, dinner with friends from Biella, and that moment of cheerful conviviality amplified by Serena’s serene smile.
I am trying to get to sleep despite the autumn chill that gets into my bones, cold from detachment from Marina’s warm body when we sleep next to each other, here in the bow, cold entering the tunnels opened by my mind whose wind brings me images of collisions and sinkings, head-butts against the boom on a gybe, sails exploding under pressure, gennaker stretching the boat in the water and us falling overboard. All my fears as a sailor on the edge of my sea come timely to the roll call on this night of bora in Monfalcone, night before exams, night before our first Barcolana, number 48 “O muorto che pparla,” mizzica even the Neapolitan cabala plays its part tonight that the boat shudders and trembles and doesn’t stand still for a second.
PART 2 – THE CREW
I wake up in the morning with the same awareness of unpreparedness that I felt before the Greek test in high school and the urge to pick up the remote control in my hand and change the program, zapping quickly to take me quickly to Keple in Asiago for breakfast in the morning or to Fontana in Piran for dinner in the evening. Instead, Franco and Luca emerge smiling from their aft bunks and greet me: screw zapping.
Then comes Riki. He carries his bag and the confidence of the expert, drinks coffee between the tambourine and the square, goes out to light his Camel, already talking tightly with the kids: informing, telling, warning, explaining. He takes a puff of smoke squinting his eyes as if it were a joint that if he spoke Trasteverino would be identical to Verdone doing the Manuel Fantoni vers e (“One fine day, without saying anything to anyone, I left for GGenova and embarked on a freighter flying the Libberian b flag…”). Instead, no, he speaks Vicenza, we relive with him live real anecdotes of regattas that were, he instills confidence by managing to immediately create that necessary fellowship that is needed in the boat and in life, that we already feel like experienced racers and we share the uniforms Luca has prepared for us, red jackets, long-sleeved polo shirts and stretch jeans. Time for a selfie and we are all ready to set sail.
PART 3 – AT SEA (AND WHAT TENSION)
Upon exiting the inlets, we are advised on 9 that the departure is delayed by one hour. That’s a bad sign, it means the bora is too strong to put 1,756 boats of all kinds at risk but we are already on our way and all we have left to do is to give it two coats of reefing and face the 20/25 knots of wind that blow us upwind to Miramare. It is our only pre-race training, everyone has figured out their roles without much preamble, Riki at the genie, Luca at the mainsail, and Franco as tactician. To me, on the other hand, the privilege of skipper-owner but with the full weight of responsibility for this boat of mine for so many years loved and suffered and desired and dreamed of but above all for these three friends who did not know each other only a few minutes ago but who have represented, all in their own way, important moments in my life.
We arrive at the starting buoy about half an hour early, the boys eat a crudo sandwich but nothing goes in me, not even a drop of natural mineral water, the tension closes my stomach with a double lock, I am so cold both because it is objectively cold and because the excitement and emotion of the moment do the rest. I get dressed quickly in oilskin pants and a thicker fleece, gloves, and a mountain cap because the Milanese pussycat Slam one doesn’t hold a damn thing. We assess what to do, move around to figure out where to start and begin those 360-degree turns that I used to see on television on nights following Azzurra, Moro di Venezia, Luna Rossa, we see parading crazy racing boats with badass people on board as well as normal cruising boats with normal cruising people on board, we even greet each other with a wave of the hand, solidarity between sailors in the moments before departure that will later be replaced by shouting and cursing once we cross that imaginary line that is there in front of us against the light.
PART 4 – FIRST AMONG THE FIRST
Five minutes to go, I’m too close to the line, I veer off and bring myself back so by the way I’m not in the middle of the slaughter and let the others go ahead and get slaughtered, I also feel like I’m being a bit of a coward because I think I would have done maybe the same thing as soon as I opened the Normandy landing craft on D-day, so I reconsider because I want to do my part, not be a coward, at least with myself and probably the guys expect that of me, even if they don’t tell me, and so I bring myself back determinedly with the bow toward the line. “Go like this,” Riki tells me softly.
And I go like this. Toward the starting line from Miramare to Trieste. The one between the big red buoy with the tug alongside and the other small yellow ones. Franco yells Three Two One, I see smoke in the distance, then comes the cannonball. And we are perfectly on the line!!! First among the first!!!
“Go Robi, hold 180 degrees, Luca las mainsail, okay like this, we’re running guys, go Robi, hold it like this, 180 degrees, we’re off to a great fucking start!” Riki is a constant cheer, I look to the side and see a wall of white sails and open gennakers and a foaming wake of sea abaft that is heading where we are heading: the first buoy! Goosebumps begin to rise on my back and from there it stays there for two and a half hours without leaving me for a minute.
PART 5 – DAD, I’M LIVING MY LIFE
I am thrilled: I turn to the left to enjoy the spectacle of which I am, of which we are the protagonists, and I realize, despite all my assumptions and promises to be cautious and defenseless, that instead we are in front of the world, I am so excited that from behind the dark lenses of my glasses a couple of tears come down (but it’s the pollen in the air…), I think of Marina who cannot enjoy this wonder with me, I think of my father who has given me the opportunity to be able to live what I am living now, I rely on him in heaven because something like this I have never experienced, I am aware of the dangers I am in but I am aware that I am living now, right now, in this moment, my life.
Riki asks me for the course every three minutes, Luke is careful not to let go of the mainsail an inch, he lets go when he has to let go, he dicks when he has to dick, Franco warns me of the gusts, he is attentive to what is going on around, a racing boat raises the gennaker and immediately bends, the sail is half in the water but then he regains control, we parade them quietly with the sails still reefed but that’s okay because then I’ll need them for the windward mark and I maneuver better, I try to do my part even though my heart is in my throat choking, we are with the wind at the little garden and it seems to have calmed down, the classic calm before the storm but the Pagnotta spins at 7 1/2 knots. The wind is there. We simply do not hear it from aft.
PART 6 – “BARCOLANA SANDWICH”
Meanwhile, ahead of me the buoy comes into view, a red dot overlooked by a helicopter, also red, but there is something I would never have imagined even in my blackest nightmares: a good portion of the sails that I could see to the left and that seemed to me to be behind, as a matter of trivial geographic perspective are actually aligned with me and all 1,756 departing boats are heading toward a single point: the first goddamn badass red buoy.
There in front of us there will already be at least two three hundred boats trying to pass where I’m heading at 7 1/2 knots of speed while on my stern I’ve got the world and on my port side I’ve got the world and on my starboard side I’ve got the world coming at me at the same insane speed. Panic!
“Poggia, poggia poggiaaa, eye to the boom, eye to the boomaa, Sbammm, orza, orzaaaa, vira viraaaa, eye to the left, to the left, go straight go straightoo, orza orzaaaa, cazza randa cazza randa, don’t gybe, don’t gybe, Sbammm” while on the left I’m closed by a cockerel with starboard tack, he yells WATERAA, I have to move to starboard that I’m in collision and they have right of way, WATERAA, I go to starboard even though Riki yells at me not to, “go straight go straight screw it.” but I have no choice, fuck the Barcolana mica I have millions coming out of my ass, but on the starboard side there’s another one yelling, I have the right of way or maybe not, which way is the boom?, we all shout WATERAAA but he doesn’t let go and I let go then, I pass him aft that’s inches jibing again, bangmm, there in front I don’t pass, they’re all piled up, one against the other, a wall of boats banging into each other, going like this I end up against it on the bow, then I turn around and there’s no one very close to the stern, I turn back, do I start the engine? Fuck do I!!!? do a 360 degree with the boom jibing again, sbammm, at the buoy at a regatta I think you’ve never seen it done, but luck assists me and in that 20-second turn a gap opens up, a crack, a crevice in the compact wall of boats, just enough space to slip the Loaf into it and God send me good luck. We pass. I don’t know how, but we pass.
PART 7 – “I MAY NOT BE CAYARD BUT…”
Goosebumps pierce my cotton shirt, if nothing else we are all heading in the same direction now, very close to each other but same tack, we start the first short tack toward the second mark, I have boats all over the place but by now the worst is over, I try to keep the 20 degrees Riki yells at me all the time, Franco yells “gustaaa” so I can keep the tiller clashed downwind and not be fooled by the heave, Luca keeps quiet, he’s focused on not letting go of the mainsail fillets, I see boats going into overbrake but with two hands of reefing I manage to manage the rudder which feels like marble anyway, with half a canvas ashore we manage to pull off other boats, one by one we gain positions, cross
Gragg who I see struggling to keep the boat on course because he has a full mainsail, overtakes us but then ends up on someone else’s yard finishing his race early, I may not be a Paul Cayard without a mustache, but whatever., we are in a good position and we are doing well, I start to believe it too as the television helicopter frames us from above, we are the protagonists of a great event and we are in a good position even if there is still a lot of water separating us at the finish line.
PART 8 – WHAT A BUMMER!
We also pass the second and head determinedly for the third which forces us to tighten upwind again but just before the buoy we lose the genoa sheet point. The genoa went crazy in the wind, the splicing bowline exploded, and the boat inexorably lost its buoyancy.
What a pity!
The rupture forces us to stop for repair, we lose valuable time, we lose an impressive number of positions, our unexpected magical dream of glory seems to fade. But as the mechanics at the Ferrari pit, Luca, Riki and Franco manage to fix the damage, even Luca fixes the other bowline as well so we can be assured that the same thing won’t happen again when we change walls.
PART 9 – THE “PRICK WITH DUFOUR”
We set off again loaded to the gates of the third buoy and find ourselves with even more boats than before, it’s a shambles of crossings, that prick with a Dufour if he doesn’t pivot comes into me and he doesn’t pivot, the bastard continues toward our little left garden, we yell WATERAAA at him but I am forced to change course even though Riki is yelling at me not to, I avoid the prick but I am off course, I reposition myself losing speed and meanwhile other boats are coming from everywhere, I avoided one but in return now there are a hundred and fifty coming, Riki was right not to let go, now I have to cross the stream of boats coming from the left, I have the right of way with starboard tack but no one seems to give a damn, I am inside the video game of the frog crossing the road, I already have the view from above, the Pagnotta frog starting from the bottom of the screen and with every flick of the joystick the frog makes a little leap forward, blong, while the highway is crossed by various types of vehicles spread over five lanes at various speeds and alternating directions.
Of course the player loses a frog if it gets run over and I of course lose a 9-ton boat but I have Riki yelling at me, “hold it like this, go ahead, like this, good, good, steady ahead, like this, go go goiii,” and I finally tack and set a course to pass the upwind buoy but I am still too low for fourth, suffer the loss of course from before and find myself downwind fourth, I find that prick again with the Dufour and his parading me aft as we pass him, we’re bobbing like never before, the foresail has already been in the water for a while, and Riki is there downwind looking as if he has found his natural habitat, as if he has returned home after a long journey who knows where, he is sitting downwind with the water wetting his legs, I imagine he’s enjoying the sea and the regatta from zero perspective, he’s as alert as a cat who has just seen his mouse, I read him the adrenaline that exaggerates in his blood that he has as Luca as Franco as me, we’re leaning that Luca gets out a “Madonna what a windward we’re doing” and coming from him who’s been to Caprera a thousand times it gets me while Franco yells “Bellissimoooooo” that also pisses me off a little.
PART 10 – ARRIVED!!!
At the fourth buoy I am forced into another ranasullautostrada maneuver but by now I am launched and I am no longer afraid, I make it and I don’t give a damn about the joystick and in fact it works, once again Riki was right, we pass the fourth buoy with ease and now the bow is pointing straight at the finish line that should be there in the middle of the sails ahead, I don’t see it yet but I see that we pass an Elan, a Bavaria, a Jeanneau with ease, and I realize that we still have two more hands of reefing, we pass more and I get the thought of hoisting mainsail but we are now close, now I see the two finish buoys, the committee boat, I realize that I am in Trieste, Country Italy, Planet World, that I am on my Loaf with my adventure friends, I realize that I am smiling for the first time in two and a half hours, the goose bumps have gone home, and my back is finally relaxed, I look around and wave to the helmsman of the boat on my starboard side, a 13-meter Oceanis that with concealed satisfaction I am passing practically on the line, we have made it, and as we cross the line we are shouting our joy, high-fiving each other with irrepressible happiness, Luke swiftly descends to the deck to immediately get his Ferrari Rosé without yet knowing that we are 403rd overall, 72nd in category. We left behind us as many as 1,353 boats that just counting them would take forever!
I steer the Pagnotta off the race course and see Trieste as I have never seen it before. The cranes of its Old Port, the Victory Lighthouse, Piazza Unità d’Italia, I see Alfa Romeo, I see the Moro di Venezia, there, imposing and majestic docked at the Molo Audace, I see the legends of the sea standing still on the quay, legends with whom we have just finished racing, we, so small, confronted with them, so large, on the same wonderful sea, infinite sea.
I see Trieste as I have never seen it before. Mixture of Mediterranean, Slavic and Central European characters, all there, amalgamated in a crowd of people on the quay, all there, crowded together peering against the light toward our side, toward the sea.
I instinctively turn to see what all those people there are looking at, toward the sea. And I realize for a moment, a very brief moment, that it is us, just us. Their sea.
Photos by Franco Bressan