So I made my passion a job (and almost won the Sydney Hobart).

sydney hobart
Today we tell you the beautiful life and sailing story of Massimiliano Fonzo, an Italian sailor who specializes in skiffs (the 49er-type acrobatic dinghies) and moved to Australia in order to fulfill his dream: to make a living from sailing. From the “apprenticeship” as an instructor to the “near goal” of the 2019 Sydney Hobart, where he came close to success on the Tp52 Gweilo. Happy reading.

Young Massimiliano Fonzo in the days of Velamare

The spark

My family has always been fond of the sea, so that for as long as I can remember, summer was symbolic of the sea, beaches and new adventures.
One summer many years ago, I was 9 years old, we went to Sardinia, to the Emerald Coast. During the vacation we meet Enz, a longtime friend of my parents, a sailor, and the boss of the Velamare Club sailing school, once located in Golfo Saline. On a nice mistral day Enz asked me if I wanted to go out with him on a drift, just to try it out.

From that day the love of the sea began. For the following summer, I booked my first sailing course, the adventure that changed the rest of my life. After finishing the two-week course Enz proposed, after my parents’ consent of course, that I stay and help in the school for the rest of the season. Immediately, having become the school mascot, I was renamed Bonzo; everyone, once they joined the Velamare family, was renamed.

So began a long series of seasons in Sardinia at Velamare, as a gavetta, assistant instructor, eventually teaching on cabin cruisers in itinerant weeks and on skiffs, 29er and 49er.

In 49er

Desire to become a real sailor

I was 20 years old when I decided it was time to enter the racing world. With my venture friend Sandro, aka Sandrella, we purchased a 49er. At that time I was working in the family business to pay the expenses of the regattas: finding a sponsor was really difficult. I was spending winters in the company and summers in Sardinia, not a bad life but, after a few years of self-sponsorship, and little money in the account, I decided I had to look to the future. I wanted to sail the maxis, the 100-footers, as a professional sailor, begin the road to international patents.

International also means having a second language, in this case English. I then decided that a full immersion in an Anglo-Saxon country was mandatory to have good English. Said and done. Bought ticket to the U.S., 3 months in California, Venice Beach, adult English school and return to Italy with good English ready for the next adventures. Back to work to save money for Yacht Master and Stcw 95 courses. Within 6/7 months I had the basic qualifications to get on a super yacht as a deckhand. Two weeks later, I find boarding on an Australian-flagged sailboat that has just left the shipyard. The owner, an Australian, had purchased the yacht with the intention of sailing halfway around the world and arriving in Melbourne. I was 24 years old.

There is an Italian, an Australian, a British…

An Italian, an Australian, an Englishman, an American, a German, this was the crew. All seemed to have different experiences, on paper, all good. Finally, I would be able to learn from those who had more experience in the open sea. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and in fact it turned exactly into adventure/joke. Departing Koper Koper, Slovenia, January, we prepare the boat with all safety equipment and food but the owner and the Englishman have different ideas and we immediately lose a crew member. We set off and the owner, already from the first night, became ill with a high fever and we decided to stop in Rimini.

After these first few miles of sailing, I realize that no one had the experience to assume the responsibilities of command. So I decided to take the reins. Having disembarked the shipowner, we set off again in the direction of southern Italy. Between snowfall and a grecalata in the Ionian Sea, we stop in Brindisi, tour Sicily and stop in Palermo where we rejoin the shipowner and then arrive in Rome by crossing the flat Tyrrhenian Sea: zero air.

The journey lingers on and the rest of the crew cannot continue the adventure. The owner decides to ship the boat to the U.S., visas made. Boat loaded on the ship, ready for the new adventure, heading for Florida…Caribbean. In between trips up and down Italy the shipowner loses his passport, result: me alone on the plane to Miami Beach. To make a long story short, the shipowner did not pay the balance of the freight and the boat remained at Miami customs.

How hard the adventure is

With my last few pennies, I decide to leave for the Caribbean to find a job/boarding. Arriving in Sint Maarten, late spring, end of season, few yachts and no work. I can only find on the Internet an ad for a lone person heading to the Mediterranean from Antigua. From the email exchange, it seemed that the boat was super-equipped and prepared for the crossing, and I agreed to accompany him. Arriving on the boat, I make sure about the veracity of all the equipment for the long journey.

Ready, set, go! After a day and a half of sailing north, I wake up early to make coffee, get out of bed and land on 5cm of water. There is something serious, we are sinking, slowly, taking on water. I go outside and ask the owner how long it had been since he had gone downstairs. Obviously he had not noticed anything. The hunt for the leak begins…

Finally after hours we find the aft bulkhead broken through, where on the other side, in the outer aft cockpit was the respect anchor that had caused the break. I then found out that the owner, a few weeks earlier, had hit the dock with the stern, damaging the hull. He had used “do-it-yourself repair,” which obviously did not stand up to the anchor being tossed around by the Atlantic waves. We immediately decided to head to the nearest island, here I am again in Sint Maarten.

Back to the Mediterranean

It was time to return to the Mediterranean, the season was in its infancy, and I couldn’t waste any time. I find a boarding as commander on a beautiful GS 56 for the summer season that takes me back to my beloved Sardinia and Tyrrhenian islands. Finally what I was looking for, but I wanted more. I disembarked from the GS and got on S&S 81 in Tuscany, where after a couple of months of maintenance, air of sailing was not in sight. Looking around and trying to get my mind right I decide to go on a vacation, Australia. I was 25 years old.

Australia, I’m here!

Arrive in Sydney, capital of New South Wales, famous for the huge bay, where the Sydney Hobart race starts every year on Boxing Day, December 26. After a few days, the idea of staying and finding work materialized.

Having arrived on a tourist visa I had to apply for the Working Holiday Visa, a visa that allows you to work in Australia for one year. Having to call him back from abroad, I couldn’t resist flying to New Zealand, another famous sailing country, which happened to be hosting the Volvo Ocean Race in those days. I arrive just in time to see the Volvo start in Auckland Bay, and I realize from the amount of spectators how important the sport is in these southern hemisphere countries.

New visa arrived and it’s back to Sydney ready for job search, cv in hand, marina after marina, arrival at CYCA, home of Sydney Hobart, where Pacific Sailing School is based. After a few days of sea trials with instructors, they confirm the work. In the meantime, I get to know other Italians with more experience of Australian life and realize that I could have accessed an additional second year of my visa by working in specific areas of Australia, the famous Farms.

From sailor to cowboy on horseback

So many jobs in the list, from fruit picking to fishing boat. I have always had a passion for horses, and for a few years I had my beautiful Maremmano, kept in Abruzzo in the Altopiano delle Rocche. I then decide to look for work on horse farms, ending up in the Northen Territories, where we moved cow herds on horseback, living on the edge of the world, far from civilization, camped along crocodile-infested rivers, among pythons and kangaroos.

An experience that changed my life, living with the minimum imaginable, where there is no trace of technology except for the satellite phone for emergencies, where steak is breakfast, lunch and dinner, where at night our guard dogs kept us safe from the Dingo, Australian coyote, where there was no day off. After 3 months, 4 days off and 88 days worked, I have the papers to stay the second year in Australia and work legally.

The Farr 40 Komodo

My First Sydney Hobart

You start off with sailing school in Sydney, meet new people and begin contacts with experienced sailors, go sailing 7 days a week, between more or less important regattas in Sydney Harbour. It was time to get out of the harbor. With the help of Gardo, head instructor at the school, I find boarding with him on a Farr 40, Komodo. One month into the 2015 Sydney Hobart race, I join the team. I couldn’t believe it, I was going to do the Sydney Hobart!

Ready, set, go! Weather conditions on the first night were very bad, 50 knots from the south, upwind, waves like buildings on a Farr 40. But we are out of our minds–never again, I thought to myself, but the preparation of the boat and the team was top notch, and between exploding life preservers and getting wet from feet to head we spend the bad night. How cool was last night, already looking forward to doing the Sydney Hobart next year, and we weren’t even halfway through the 628-mile race.

Upon arrival, arriving overwrought, the audience, friends and family at Constitution Dock greeted us with endless applause and cheers of welcome. The emotion one has at that moment is indescribable, all the moments of the regatta pass in the mind as you thank and greet fans on dry land.
Once ashore, the party begins in the famous Custom House, which remains open 24h for sailors as they arrive in Hobart. I stay for New Year’s Eve, in the midst of the festivities I meet Giovanni Soldini, my myth since childhood, who completed his last race in that year on a Maserati Volvo70.

I transfer Komodo to Sydney and it’s back to teaching school, I manage to snare a few second jobs as a bartender, to be able to save some money in the bill and to be able to make it back home to Italy a couple of times a year. During an outing with students from the sailing school, the unbelievable happens, I see the Australian flag boat I had sent to the U.S. sailing out of the yacht club. Of course, I couldn’t stop myself from going to check out who was on board, and fortunately the owner changed, we get into sympathy, and I start sailing with the new owner until we are still great friends.

The regattas, in winter, move north to Queensland. First stop Sydney to Southport race, I find boarding on “Love & War,” beautiful S&S 47, multi-winner boat. Very slow regatta, very little wind, but allowing us to enjoy the many migrating whales that come all the way under the hull. Upon arrival, the idea was to continue north, the owner of “Love & War” introduced me to Matt Allen and I was able to find boarding on “Ichi Ban” Tp52, which in that year was the blue hull, the old “Azzurra” in the Tp52 Super Series, which had arrived in Australia as “Shogun V” a few years earlier.

At work on Tp52 Balance

The curriculum is enriched

We move “Ichi Ban” to Airlie beach, 10 days later competing in Hamilton Race week, a week of inshore racing in the stunning Whitsundays archipelago. When we arrive at the marina, they propose that I stay and help convert the boat from offshore to inshore. Basically the Australians buy these Formula 1s of the sea, and depending on the regattas they fit slicks, track tires, to cleated off-road tires, for the offhsore.
So I meet Billy and Davin, same age but with sailing knowledge, experience and connections that allow me to learn so much and find boarding on “Triton” Lyon 60 for Hamilton Island Race week. Early September I set off on “Ichi Ban,” Carkeek 60, to New Caledonia, preparing the boat for the race around this paradise island and then returning it back to Sydney.

Thus began the first jobs on various boats and different companies, once in Sydney, from maintenance to carbon repair and machining, I opened my Australian company so I could work as a freelancer. I then leave the sailing school, where I was an instructor, and begin to see my skills increase day by day.

Billy, after a few months, asked me to work with him on Farr 40s, Tp 52s, Etchells, in short, a little bit of everything from maintenance, to racing, to line splicing. I start racing as bowman and working on “Triton,” offshore and inshore, up and down the Australian coast all the way to Tasmania again for the Sydney Hobart, all the regattas possible. A few races on Tp52 “Ichi Ban” and “Quest, Balance” (same boat but two different owners), bowman on Farr 400 “Wind,” in the midst of top professional sailors, my skills increase.

In the meantime, my 2-year visa had almost expired, I did not want to go back to Europe, so I decide to apply for the student visa, student visa that allows you to work 20 hours a week and I start the business management course.

In between regattas on a late summer day in 2017, I meet Narelle, a sailor friend of the Farr 400 boys. So I continue my Australian adventure with Narelle by my side, we travel together to various regattas, she helps me with other contacts and finds me boarding the Tp52 Celestial as bowman for Airlie beach race week, I feel she is the one. The next week, during a training day at Hamilton island I seriously injured myself by falling on the pier from “Triton,” a few cracked ribs and left wrist apparently bruised but not broken.
Of course, I couldn’t do the bow anymore and ended up on the mainsail. The next week I was in Italy and found out that the wrist was broken, obviously the “Scaphoid,” stopped a month and a half I return to Sydney, change visas and together with Narelle I apply for the visa with the partner.

At that time I was also working on a Ker 43 GTS, with which I participated in my third Sydney Hobart, 2017, again on the bow, tougher than the year before, all on the slack, with wind peaks of 45 knots. On that occasion Comache, the maxi 100, set a new record. More steadily I began working on “Balance” Tp52, and joining the team as a bowman.

Sam Newton, former Billy’s boss makes his return to Sydney after racing in the America’s Cup on Team Oracle, now also winning the SailGP with Team Australia, and having finished winter racing, begins working for Sam at “All Marine,” Sam’s rigging company. A few months later the “All Marine” fleet was joined by “Gweilo” Tp52, which means “White Man” in Cantonese, so we begin to form the team and prepare the boat for the first offshore races. The two owners, Matt Donald and Chris Townsend, new to the sailing world are beginning to get hooked on the sport.

The crew of Gweilo

Billy, who previously won the 2015 Sydney to Hobart on the Tp52 “Balance,” is now in charge of the boat, here they call him the “boat captain,” the master who repairs and finds solutions if something goes wrong during the races, and I become his second.
The first year of racing we do well and finish third in ORCi Division 1.

Mom, I became Boat Captain!

2019 a year of new things, in January and I become “boat captain” of Gweilo, lots of high level inshore and offshore racing, we improve Gweilo with drift modifications, the boat is going strong! In June big trip to Italy, with friends and relatives, Italian and Australian, gathered in beloved Sardinia to celebrate the marriage of Narelle and me.

Back in Australia I finish preparing “Gweilo” for the Sydney to Southport race, we finish fourth; we continue with the Brisbane to Hamilton race, third place. Between September and December we confirmed our potential, with seconds, thirds and a first place in Cabbage Tree Island race, where the weather conditions were almost prohibitive with peaks of 48 knots, first on the downwind and then upwind on the way back to Sydney, finishing only 3 hours and 20 minutes behind the 100-footer “Blackjack.”

Almost good the fifth one!

Boxing Day is just a short time away and with great preparation, thanks to the professionalism of the entire All marine team we have the top offshore Tp52! Tactically difficult weather conditions, little air at the end, around Tasman island but with a very prepared crew we come in only 24 minutes behind “Ichi Ban,” thus finishing second at the 2019 Rolex Sydney to Hobart – my fifth – in IRC handicap. A great achievement, a lot of satisfaction and great excitement from everyone, with families and friends on arrival celebrating with a huge and loud welcome from the pier!!!

2020, ready for a new year full of adventures.

Maximilian Fonzo

(Cover photo: Danilo Garcia Di Meo)

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