I was at anchor next to Beef Island in the British Virgin Islands when I decided to
return to Trieste. It was after nearly five months of sailing around the Lesser
Antilles. I was piloting my family boat. VENTO FRESCO was a 38 foot sloop that had
sailed with me across the Atlantic Ocean thru the years, and she was ready to face her
sixth transatlantic voyage. In the days before the departure I was peaceful and
confident since I had already sailed a similar route a few years before with a friend of
mine. Back then, I had set sail from the same bay in the British Virgin Islands aboard
VENTO FRESCO with Massimo Fonda. We went across the six thousand miles that separated us
from Trieste in 52 days without stopping. In the light of that experience, I had
arranged the galley in a rational manner. For about 60 days we would be self-sufficient
with food and water, together with a well-balanced and variegated diet. This time on
board with me was Andrea Pribaz, a 27 year old friend with good sea experience. He had
sailed with me throughout this journey since July 10, 1992, the day we left
We pulled the anchor from Beef Island bay on April 21st at 17:10 GMT. After the first
three days of sailing, and with good mileage, we found ourselves in the lower side of a
high pressure condition that forced us to the hood or, at best, to sail very few useful
miles. The wind, mostly on the nose, was blowing alternately from the first and second
quadrant, often exceeding 30-35 knots, with a swell difficult to date back. This weather
situation was now on for about a week. It eventually left us with no wind and more than
two thousand miles to go to reach the Strait of Gibraltar. On the morning of May 8th the
wind gradually resumed blowing from East-South-East, and therefore, always in the
opposite direction in respect to our course. The barometer began a slow gradual descent.
Weather conditions were worsening. On the evening of the 11th, we were facing a gale
from the South East with winds blowing at 50-55 knots and the sea swell was increasing
by size. We decided to put the hood racy for the approaching night. Before practicing
this pace, we avoided by a few yards a couple of large whales that proceeded to cross
(traverse compared to) our bow. Then a piece of wood the size of a telegraph pole came
upon us, too. The situation was getting worse by the hour. The barometric data was even
more worrying, with a decline of more than 20 points in the last 36 hours, with a
partial drop of at least 10 millibars during the same night, up to a minimum value of
990 millibars on the morning of the 12th of May.
Our concern for this storm was intensified by the spine-chilling news we tapped on SSB
radio of an Italian sailing boat a few hundred miles behind us, that was crewed by good
and skilled friends of ours. It had capsized during the night, resulting in the loss at
sea of one of the crew members.
The cold front, together with its consequent change of wind direction, occurred that
morning. We were hit by a very violent blow from the North West with peaks up to 95
knots (US Coast Guard source). The situation became more and more difficult with the
formation of an impressive wave motion that made us decide to lower all sails as our
smallest six square meters storm jib was giving us a speed greater than the boat, or us,
could manage. We were gliding on the waves easily reaching 16-18 knots. In the meanwhile
the barometer was speeding up at 5 millibars per hour.
Our situation was not improving. Soon we were hit by a wave on the port side. We
sustained structural damage to the deckhouse between the two central portholes. We
decided to stream the genoa 2 from the stern with long mooring lines in order to reduce
the boat speed. We were hoping to keep the course and maneuverability using only the
engine idling. After less than an hour, however, the engine stopped when air bubbles
shorted the diesel circuit due to the strong rolling of the waves. With great difficulty
we again hoisted the storm jib. And now with the genoa hauled and trailing astern, we
experienced better results. The wind decreased to 55-60 knots, but unfortunately it
swung West, overlapping the waves that were now reaching heights of 15 meters and more,
with absolutely dangerous breaking surfs.
Andrea was below deck working on the bilge pump in order to empty as much water from the
bildges as he could. The boat was taking water, especially from the damaged deckhouse.
Andrea also made emergency repairs, adapting and nailing pieces of dunnage.I was at the
helm. A huge wave surf literally lifted our stern while the bow was falling in the wave
slope. I was still grabbing the helm, but totally underwater, as the wave overwhelmed
us. In front of me the ocean was becoming darker and darker as we were swallowed up by
tons of sea water. I was dragged toward the abyss. Seconds later, my safety harness was
my only connection to the boat. Then I suddenly flew away. Flipping in the deep waters,
the eyebolt my harness was fastened to had broken loose. I was lost in the sea.
I came up from the abyss and reached the sea surface. The boat was still upside down
with its keel facing the sky, not less than 80 feet away. I began swimming with all my
strength toward the hull while the mast was slowly rising from the water amazingly still
in its place. The boat slowly righted itself, and then began to sail away, pushed on by
the terrible winds.
I was swimming wildly. With all my breath I called to Andrea as loud as I could. I felt
immensely relieved when I saw him coming out of the cabin and reaching the cockpit. His
face was covered with blood. Luckily, he had only sustained a small wound on his
forehead. I eventually reached the very end of one of the mooring lines the boat was
trailing. With another big effort I reached the boat's stern. With Andrea's help, I
climbed back on board, vests and boots full of water and totally exhausted.
The deckhouse was completely torn on the starboard side and almost full of water that
had flooded in during the capsizing. The vessel's waterline was almost at deck level.
During the capsize the life raft was almost lost overboard. Miraculously, however, it
had gotten stuck on a deck stanchion. Andrea and I had almost no time to organize,
collect, and prepare a few things that could help us while in the life raft.
Below deck was total chaos. Everything was out of place, floating, or sunk in bilge
water mixed with oil, gasoline, battery acid, etc... We managed to rescue a couple of
food cans, one water jerry can, the logbook, a portable GPS, a flashlight, some flares,
the bearing compass, some clothing and the emergency radio.
We boarded the life raft, leaving the sinking VENTO FRESCO at 14:20 GMT on May the 12th
Every minute of each day we spent on the raft was extremely slow. We spotted a few
ships, but not one of them noticed us in our tiny raft. We were floating so deeply
inside the swells of the open ocean waves, we were barely visible from a distance. Our
emergency flares were no help in our attempts. We were not noticed by anyone. We
rationed food and water for a virtual autonomy of about a month, but that was not the
major survival problem. Sea water was continuously permeating into the raft, forcing us
to always be wet. The inflation pump was partially damaged. The air chambers kept losing
pressure. Our flashlight batteries were soon discharged. And the raft's cover seal was
failing, allowing more and more water to enter. Twice at sunset, a shark, the same one
perhaps, was wandering nearby, lazily circling a few dozen feet around us.
Among these, and other discomforts due to repeated and irregular movements of the soft,
wet and cold raft bottom floor, the weather was slowly improving, but with lowering air
temperatures. Our perpetually soaked clothing made us even colder, especially at night.
At the time of the abandonment of VENTO FRESCO the batteries for the emergency radio
could not be found. So in the meantime, we were trying to devise ways to activate the
emergency radio. These operations kept us engaged for most of the time. We had to
connect to the radio the batteries that we had available for the GPS and the second
May the 18th
We recovered a piece of electrical wire from a self-inflatable life vest which connected
the bulb of the vest to its battery. It was the same type vest as one supplied by the
aircraft companies. We had taken it with us before abandoning the boat. Thanks to this
wire, we were finally able to devise an improvised electrical bridge using few little
things contained in the first aid kit as bandages and band aids. When everything was
ready we attempted a first radio contact as soon as we sighted a cargo ship. Although it
was sailing quite close to us, it did not noticed our raft. We winced as we heard a
voice from our radio loudspeaker, not from the ship, but from the pilot of Air France
flight 510 from Paris Charles de Gaulle to St. Maarten that was flying at more than
30,000 feet above us. That aircraft pilot had just picked up our Mayday. He was
notifying S. Maria Island in the Azores and the American Coast Guard in New York. We
were beginning to awaken from our nightmare.
00.00 GMT May 19th
Another radio contact with an Air Mexico flight pilot a few hours later confirmed to us
that our Mayday was correctly forwarded. We were eagerly waiting for our rescuers when,
after nearly seven days from the sinking of VENTO FRESCO, we heard the roar of a
reconnaissance aircraft flying low around us. Our joy was endless.
Thanks to the great skill of the pilot and crew of U.S. Coast Guard patrol aircraft C130
“Oscar 1504” and the accuracy of the ship's commander, Hermann Eickholt, of Dutch cargo
ship “Alidon”, we climbed the ship rope ladder provided for us on its starboard side at
on the same night in Latitude 39° 00' North and Longitude 40° 32' West.
We were tired, almost in disbelief but tremendously happy.
I will never forget VENTO FRESCO, my family boat, that had been my home for thousands of
miles. This very strong boat, although severely damaged, had withstood the strongest
wind and the worst waves for several days, allowing us to overcome the most difficult
part of the storm.
Thanks to her strength we will continue to live.