Words and images courtesy of Guy Nowell
He is the Godfather of Italian sailing, with a track record second to none, an honours list that includes the BOC Challenge, OSTAR, Cape2Rio, Transat Jaques Vabre, Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and many, many more of the big, world-class singlehanded races, and a trophy cabinet full of the classic Mediterranean and north European races. In 1988, he hit the world’s headlines when he rescued fellow competitor Isabelle Autissier from her capsized and crippled boat in the remotest wastes of the southern Pacific Ocean during the Around Alone race. In Italy, “Gio” is a household name and a national hero.
Soldini’s principal concern right now is speed. He’s won all the races that matter to him, and now it’s a question of ticking off the sea miles against the clock. In 2012, he joined forces with Maserati, taking a VO70 class boat and rewriting the New York-San Francisco record (13,200nm, 47 days), and following up with a reference time for the San Francisco-Shanghai Clipper route (7,300nm, 21 days).
His current boat is a 70ft trimaran, Maserati Multi70. Step on board and you find a man with a disarmingly happy grin, and a tousled mop of hair that hasn’t seen a comb in a month (or has cost a lot of money to make it look that way). Add a raffish and sailorly sort of a beard, and a gold ring in his left ear, and you have the very picture of an adventurous solo sailor who has been there and got all the t-shirts.
Maserati Multi70, Soldini proudly tells us, is the “very first ocean-going foiling multihull.” Lifting a boat out of the water on hydrofoils and thereby increasing its speed, has been very much in the news lately, particularly in connection with the America’s Cup which earlier this year was contested in 60ft foiling catamarans. But that was on flat, sheltered, water in Bermuda’s Great Sound. Soldini is interested in the speed enhancing possibilities of a foiling boat that is capable of crossing oceans, and Maserati Multi70 has been modified by designer Guillaume Verdier with the addition of foils.
“The America’s Cup boats ride on one forward foil at a time, plus the two rudders,” explains Soldini. “We need much greater stability for ocean conditions, so the geometry is reversed – two forward foils and one on a rudder. With this arrangement we have crossed the Atlantic, and the Pacific to Hawaii, and we have recorded a top speed of 46 kts. It works perfectly, and we do indeed now have an offshore-capable foiling boat!”
There’s only one snag: UFOs (Unidentified Floating Objects), rubbish, plastic waste, discarded fishing nets, buoys, even shipping containers and all manner of refuse. “The Pacific is crazy. Just crazy.
Really crazy. You can’t sail 30 seconds without seeing something in the water. Sometimes you don’t see it at all – things get lost in the troughs between waves – and anyway you are moving so fast that when you see something it’s already gone and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Approaching Hawaii during the Transpac Race, “we were sailing at 40 kts and we hit something. It tore off the rudder, and destroyed everything around it, the attachment points, the bearings, everything.”
So now there’s a new design item on the agenda: a flip-up rudder, but that comes with its own problem too. “The bottom of the rudder is a foil, 1.4m wide. If the rudder swings up from vertical to horizontal, then suddenly you are towing a huge brake – so the Maserati designers are creating an airbag system to float the rudder, and we’ll have that ready by April or May.
In January, Maserati Multi70 set sail out of Hong Kong and would try to break the record for the Clipper route to London. It would sail south through the China Sea, out past Indonesia by way of the Sunda Strait and Krakatau, turn right for Cape Town, and then north up the Atlantic. The present record is held by Gitana 13, a 120-ft catamaran that made the run in 2008, taking 43 days to cover the 14,000nm.
“We are a much smaller boat,” muses Soldini, “but we are very tough. We want to beat the big boys! We can do it!” To keep the boat as light – and therefore as fast – as possible, Maserati Multi70 will sail with only five crew. Solar panels, not diesel, will power up the navigational and electrical systems. “A boat is a little world. All the problems you have in the world, you have on a boat. Energy, water, rubbish. You consume everything else, but you collect rubbish, right?”
For the run to London Maserati Multi70 will revert to her original non-foiling configuration. “It’s a long way, and the most important thing is not to damage the boat. Such a long distance using the foils would be like playing Russian roulette… eventually something would go wrong, or we would hit something. Maybe we’ll have to try it again when we have our new rudder system installed!” Meanwhile, says Soldini, “we are very well prepared, but we need some luck.
In sailing, you always need some luck – with the weather. There’s never much wind down by Indonesia, which is a problem, but it will be summer when we pass the Cape of Good Hope, which is good. Winter in the North Atlantic and the English Channel will be much tougher.” If you do see a 70ft trimaran heading out of Hong Kong at high speed in the middle of January 2018, cross your fingers and wish Giovanni Soldini a little bit of luck. He’ll thank you for it.