In 1985 ago Sergio Testa set out from Australia with a three-and-a-half-meter boat, built with his own hands by shaping hundreds of pounds of aluminum, for one of the most incredible forgotten feats in sailing history.
The forgotten enterprise of Sergio Testa
In a boat that looked more like a tank than a sailing yacht, with no special nautical knowledge, he sailed for 500 days without ever being able to stretch his legs across four continents and three oceans, stopping in the most remote places on earth.
Sergio Testa in the Guinness Book of World Records
This sailing of his was inscribed in the Guinness Book of World Records by becoming the man who soloed around the world in the smallest boat in modern history. The account of his adventure is collected in a valuable book, published in 1988 by the Journal of Sailing, which has been a great companion on my summer boating vacations, an excellent source of insights and nightly dreams.
We were so struck in imagination by Sergio Testa’s story because the adventurous Around the World with the Smallest Boat Ever made back in 1985, is not the usual, often boring story of the classic sailor grappling with wild elements who expresses philosophical doubts in moments of becalmed weather. Rather, it is an exciting tale of adventure and travel. That you drink it all in one go. A story from nearly four decades ago that deserves to be remembered.
“What is this contraption?”
Sergio Testa was 34 years old when he left in late 1984 from Brisbane, the seaside capital of the Australian state of Queensland. Of Italian descent, he lived in Brazil as a child and, after a stint in France, his family stopped on the other side of the world and he became a citizen of Australia. It is here, knowing how to do everything but nothing in particular that he and his brothers set up a small repair yard for pleasure yachts. Watch over the family the great Italian mother.
And it’s her, when he sees that little eight-foot canary-yellow boat that Sergio built himself, that “junk” he says he wants to go around the world with, exclaiming in Italian, “What is this junk?” The son likes that onomatopoeic sound, he mispronounces it and Englishizes it, so the strange little boat takes the name of Acrohc Australis.
The floating bathtub
Let’s describe this little monster of just over three meters that the Brisbane newspapers called “a floating bathtub,” claiming, wrongly, that with such an object that Italian would not have been able to put his nose out of the bay, let alone go around the world.
Two hundred kilos of aluminum unloaded from a truck on the yard of their modest construction site was the basis around which Acrohc Australis was born. As many steel plates were needed to finish the construction of a hull with as many as four edges, easier to build than a round hull.
After hundreds of hours of work welding sheet metal-as the certificate issued on Oct. 18, 1984, by the Brisbane Harbour Master’s Office states-the barge turns out to be 3.55 meters long, 1.50 meters wide. is sloop-rigged, with a displacement of 800 kilograms, equipped with a deep torpedo bulb with 120 kilograms of lead – innovative for the time – connected to a sheet metal drift fin. As he writes after initial tests, “Acrohc Australis’ maximum speed in displacement trim is 5 knots.”
Testa had very clear ideas about safety; he had managed in that tiny space to create as many as six watertight compartments so that it was virtually unsinkable. Equipped with a small mainsail and a large jib with a furling jib walled on the bowsprit, it was maneuvered exclusively from below deck, with all maneuvering deferred to the seat, the only place where Sergio would live for 500 days of sailing since it was impossible to live on deck.
In the open air, there was not enough space to accommodate a man except in a standing position. The wind rudder-even that-had obviously built it himself, and in truth it was one of the things that always worked perfectly. Testa had built his boat to go around the world-not even a meter longer than an Optimist-as safe and solid as a tank.
He had a sextant but did not know how to use it
Of course, as he recounts in his book, sailing performance was not his forte. But he was certainly not inspired in his undertaking by ocean navigators on the hunt for speed records like a Paul Cayard, but rather by Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world in three years, from 1895 to 1898. Those same three years it took Sergio to complete his circumnavigation of the globe, from 1984 to 1988.
The navigational instruments he had on board were not much different from Slocum’s. To make ship’s point he had a sextant, which by the way he did not know how to use well, a VHF and a radio. Only halfway through the journey did he equip himself with a Sat Nav, financed by his brother, the forerunner of today’s GPS. For food and water supplies, no freeze-dried but fresh food, enough water to survive while waiting to be supplied with providential rainwater during navigation.
The real enemies of Sergio Testa
Testa’s enemy in his endeavor was not the cyclones he encountered in the Caribbean area-he didn’t even realize he had passed through four in a row-but the fouling that, despite antifouling, haunted Acrohc Australis’ hull throughout the voyage.
The forward speed was so low that fouling, seaweed and hounds’ teeth attached themselves to the live work with surprising rapidity, immobilizing the boat, even in favorable winds. The Italian-born adventurer risked more in his frequent dives to clean his hull than in the terrible storm that caught him in the Pacific. The greatest danger, however, was the fire that developed on board, caused by the alcohol stove. He had to throw himself overboard to avoid being roasted to death. And this was also the greatest risk taken by the boat’s structures with the interior half-destroyed by flames.
From Italian wacko to Australian hero
Sergio Testa cannot be called a great navigator for this exceptional feat of his, rather an adventurer with the necessary recklessness. A normal man who did not have to prove anything to anyone, with no mental disorders, who just wanted to experience something outside the norm. At his first cover-up, of the many he had in his three years around the world, he found himself shouting for no reason, “I am a free man, I am a free man!”
And it is this desire for freedom, independence, but also for exploration and knowledge of new horizons, that is the mainspring that drove him to realize this venture. And you can tell by the joy with which, often neglecting the description of storms and bonanzas, he dwells mostly on recounting the encounters he had landing in the most remote places in the world.
Sergio Testa when he left Brisbane in 1985 was just an Italian-born crackpot; when he returned in 1987 he was an Australian hero.