Parsifal. 20 years later we revisit the worst tragedy in Italian sailing


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03_photo_ParsifalExactly 20 years have passed since that evening of November 2, 1995, when the Parsifal, a sixteen-foot cutter, sank in the Gulf of Lion as a storm with gusts around seventy knots raged. Of the nine crew members, only three survived the long hours in the water waiting for rescue. Is the worst tragedy in Italian sailing. In these pages we decided to remember her, tracing what happened in those moments and the long judicial aftermath. We also interviewed Giordano Rao Torres, who was the owner of the Parsifal.


On Wednesday, November 1, 1995, the “Millemiglia Trophy,” a race/transfer of the Transat des Alizés, is kicked off. The fleet that is in the Mediterranean is to reach Casablanca, Morocco, to rejoin the fleet that left Brest and set course for Point-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe. Twenty-nine boats departed from San Remo in low wind and calm sea conditions. But already a worsening of conditions has been announced for the following hours, which punctually occurs as early as toward evening. Sixteen competitors decided to withdraw, aiming for the ports of the French Riviera. Thirteen crews chose instead to continue: among them the Parsifal. It is a cutter designed by Carlo Sciarrelli and built by Cantiere Navale Carlini. Sixteen meters long and 3.60 meters wide, it is constructed of mahogany, sipo, and teak with cold-formed laminated workmanship and madieri and currents structure. It displaces 12600 kg and has a sail area of 152 square meters.

parsifal 1

Throughout Thursday, November 2, the wind increases in intensity. At 9 p.m., while sailing in the first positions only with genoa 4 and with 40 knots of wind, the Parsifal was swept away by a rogue wave of almost ten meters. The crisscrossing wave slammed into the deck, carrying away the life raft, breaking the mast into three parts, unhinging the rudder column and throwing Carlo Lazzari, who was at that very moment at the helm, overboard. Incredibly, Lazzari is recovered, but the wave has created such a breach that the Parsifal sinks in about four minutes. The nine crew members (Giordano Rao Torres, Daniele Tosato, Luciano Pedulli, Mattia De Carolis, Carlo Lazzari, Francesco Zanaboni, Ezio Belotti, Andrea Dal Piaz, and Giorgio Luzzi), have only time to recover a fender and some canisters to make a makeshift raft. At the same time, Epirb comes into operation, which launches the SOS and the coordinates of the incident (40°39′.8N – 005°20’E). The Parsifal is not the only boat to have to deal with a rogue wave: the Rejavi Aybela, Vincenzo Onorato’s Swan 58, also suffered severe damage, but the hull structure held
parsifal 3

The nine crew members huddle around the makeshift raft, but the cold and the many hours in the water are starting to get the better of them. They thus slide into the sea, one after the other, Luciano Pedulli, historical contributor to the Giornale della Vela, Daniele Tosato, who of the Parsifal is the skipper, Mattia De Carolis, Giorgio Luzzi, Francesco Zanaboni and Ezio Belotti. The search for the Parsifal began late Friday morning, Nov. 3, essentially due to the insistence of the Italian Navy. It was not until 1 p.m. that a French Coast Guard plane located the shipwrecked people at 40°30’N – 005°18’E, about ten miles from the point of the Parsifal’s sinking. Despite two attempts, they fail to reach them by throwing a raft at them. Intervention is then requested from the Spanish, who have a helicopter take off from Menorca. At 3:00 p.m., eighteen hours after the sinking, the only three survivors of the crew, Dal Piaz, Lazzari and Rao Torres, are hoisted aboard, and they also manage to hook the lifeless body of Daniele Tosato, who died at 5:00 a.m., the last to have stopped struggling. The next few hours are tense: survivors are on the edge of survival, with severely altered values. Rumors abound in Italy, such as the possibility that other crew members may be aboard a raft. Vain hopes.
parsifal 4

In the years that followed, controversy ensued: was the raft in the right place? Did they really have to take off with those forecasts? Was the boat solid? Why did the rescue efforts start so late? All questions that arise naturally in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude. Giordano Rao Torres faces a lengthy trial process in the following years, from which he emerges completely exonerated, thanks in part to opinions such as those of designer Giovanni Ceccarelli or navigator Matteo Plazzi; the court finds all the charges unfounded: from the “inadequacy of the structures” to the “lack of ulteirori safety equipment” to the “reckless and erroneous choice of route.” What remains is the memory of the Parsifal and its crew.

Giordano Rau Torres

How did the idea for Parsifal come about?
“From an early age, I had been able to sail on Lake Maggiore and ended up loving the sport more and more. My connection to the Caprera Sailing Center later contributed in no small part to this. After witnessing the launching in Trieste of the Valentina of my then close friends notai Enrico and Pinetti Masini (an excellent design by Carlo Sciarrelli), and after several years of enormous and stressful professional and university commitments that had severely bent me, I was helped in my convalescence by the idea of having the wooden boat built that I had always pursued in my dreams and with which I intended to sail to the Pacific. My wife Silvana suggested naming it Parsifal. And such a name appealed greatly to Sciarrelli.

What kind of boat was it?
It was a mahogany and teak copy of a design by Sciarrelli already made as a cruising boat by Stefano Carlini‘s shipyard in Rimini. Given that initial plans included racing in the Mediterranean and then plying the Oceans until reaching Fiji, by the same Shipyard it was built in almost two years and obviously improved, strengthened and equipped for such possible future engagements. Sciarrelli described it on page 439 of his book The Yacht as ” .a boat idea that came out of me (Sciarrelli) and Eduardo Austoni after sailing with the two Chica Boba’s (in the various oceans) … from the idea that is, of the traditional slender cutter, short and deep buoyancy in the middle, … to that of the hull pulled all the way through, clear of the water with long buoyancy and no slop … Since they were both very good and beautiful, the boat that is the average of the two (the Parsifal precisely) will perhaps be perfect … Reduced (therefore) the two designs to 16 meters and averaged … the result is not yet tested but I already swear by it. Asterisk.” (synonymous precisely for Sciarrelli with quality and elegance). And as such Sciarrelli and Stefano Carlini in 1992 presented Parsifal at the Genoa Boat Show.

What about the crew, how was it formed? Rereading and reviewing the photos from that time, it looks like a group of true friends.
We were. It had composed itself over the years with a number of very good even young sailors who from time to time accepted or offered to participate in the various regattas in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean (various Rimini/Corfu/Rimini, Corsica for two, Rome for two, La Giraglia, Saint Tropez Weeks, etc.). Among the last to propose were Daniele Tosato, the only true professional skipper, and Andrea Dal Piaz. With my dear friend and usually departed skipper Mattia De Carolis we had faced them as opponents in various regattas, and always we had been complimented on how the Parsifal managed with the wind in her stern not to be overtaken by their exclusively racing boats.

Was participating in the Transat des Alizés for you, more than a regatta, a way to fulfill the dream of sailing in the Caribbean?
So it was felt and appeared also for my dear departed friends Ezio Belotti, Luciano Pedulli, Francesco Zanaboni and Giorgio Luzzi, who asked and obtained that he be entrusted with the boat for the entire winter, having it moored in Miami until the following spring when still all united we would face the Panam Canala to appear one evening or morning at dawn before the Pacific. The idea of having the Parsifal participate in such a long and demanding ocean race had actually come from Daniele Tosato, fresh winner of the Tour of the World for Cruising Boats, during the Rimini/Corfu/ Rimini awards ceremony. My sail was, yes, elegant, but it was also very fast for him in carrying swells, and he therefore believed that in the Atlantic with a steady wind even downwind the Parsifal could make an excellent crossing, even a winning one for him. Bayer, with its C.E.O. Francesco Bergomi (who after the shipwreck became a dearest friend), espoused and financed the entire program of our boat, which with the Aspirina inscription on the mainsail became an ambassador for it in the world.

How was the boat equipped?
It was taken care of in every detail by the two official skippers Mattia De Carolis and Daniele Tosato, who possessed the most experience. And all their helpful requests were granted. In the Port of San Remo we even managed the day before departure to have a new propeller installed, which was deemed more suitable for the various tasks. And in this I must once again deeply thank Francesco Bergomi who was sensitive and made himself available to our every need. After all, I was a sui generis shipowner, for I was simply a professional lawyer and university lecturer, and I certainly did not have the capital necessary for such a long and expensive regatta. But nothing was denied to Daniel and Matthias, and nothing was left to chance by them.

Then came that cursed wave. What stuck in your memory of those 18 hours spent at the mercy of the waves with the water temperature at 17 degrees?
Carlo Lazzari’s and my awareness of impending death. Charles, snatched from the life line when he was at the helm and thrown overboard, even thought it was now better that he did not rise to the surface and tried to let go as long as he did not suffer a long agony. In turn, passed out upon impact with the wave that destroyed the boat, with a fractured cheekbone and shaken by the dear Ezio Belotti preceding me out of my cabin, I thought as Carlo did that I would have no escape when barefoot, without a oilskin and life jacket, and shivering from the cold I was suffering, I threw myself off the deck completely swept by the wave to join the other eight companions in the water. We held on to a few feet of line supported by a fender and two small empty canisters, all that was left of the Parsifal that sank before us in five minutes, used as a float to at least replace the raft ripped apart by the force of the sea at the moment of wave impact. At that point all we had left to do was to support and encourage others to resist. A motion of common solidarity that induced everyone to devote every subsequent moment to trying to help their nearest neighbor. And so it was done to the last by Andrea Dal Piaz as well. I often think of Giorgio Luzzi who assisted Francesco Zanaboni in every painful moment before he let go in turn, and of Carlo who never spared support and words of encouragement. The discouragement that struck when they twice mistook the light of a very low star for the beacon of a helicopter that did not arrive despite the fact that each was sure that rescue vehicles should be arriving soon. And the immense grief when it was realized that one by one we were being swept away by the waves, now lifeless. The long and agonizing wait for now only Andrea, Carlo and myself, the only survivors in that stormy sea with a wind measured up to 77 knots, totally unplanned and not indicated to us at the briefing, not knowing if they would ever reach us in time. Deep gratitude for Commander Antonio Pagliettini and Admiral Lolli who were instrumental in inducing the French maritime authorities to begin the search for our boat, which at the time of the sudden shipwreck had only been able to transmit the international distress signal via the Epirb with which it was equipped, and to the pilots also of the Spanish helicopter who were able to locate and rescue us. The trepidation the three of us felt as we finally saw in the sky the reconnaissance plane that suddenly arrived in the sea above us and attempted to launch two life rafts at us. The first one did not even open, and the second one turned upside down and unserviceable. Carlo Lazzari’s ultimate despair as he could no longer swim, and mine as I struggled to hold him up, as I watched Andrea drift away attached to a ring of the overturned raft being carried away inexorably by the wind with no chance of our being able to succeed in restraining her. The great sadness we finally felt during the helicopter transport flight directly to Mahon Hospital thinking about what we would have to report to the relatives of our dear friends we had to abandon in those waters. Upon admission I was measured at 34° body temperature and 7.14 PH (bordering on death), while Andrea and Carlo had to remain a few weeks hospitalized at Rimini Hospital also because of water found in their lungs and symptoms of pneumonia. It was a test that the Lord allowed us to pass, and the gift of a second existence that we tried not to waste.

Thinking back today, what did Parsifal mean to you?
A very sad and unfortunate adventure. It was presented at ceremonies organized in October 1995 by the Italian Yacht Club in Genoa, of which I was a member, and by the cities of Milan and Rimini as a striking and important event for the sailing world. I also ended up receiving two personal silver plaques from the city of Rimini, remarkably also present at the launching of the boat in April 1992, and at the start of the regatta from San Remo the Parsifal bore special plaques also received from the cities of Milan and Rimini, the Y.C.I, by the F.I.V., the Naval League and Rotary International, to be presented in Casablanca to the King of Morocco, president of the Yacht Club that would host the boats for the first arrival, and to the Governor of Guadeloupe at Pointe à Pitre, where the final arrival of the regatta was scheduled. Many expectations, from all over a world, then. Perhaps too many.



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