Exotica, mishaps, and good will at sea

Pieroni may have missed Hawaii, Galapagos, and Christmas Island, but still took in scores of exotic places, some all but unknown to outsiders. Drawn to the desolate, he raved about Patagonia – «beautiful, really beautiful. It’s wild. For 15 days, I didn’t see anybody else.» Favorite visitations included Argentina and northern Australia, the latter being «a little different… there is still wide-open country, like it could have been the United States 200 years ago,» and «where you still have human feeling with the other person.» In Tahiti, the scene was different: On the ferry to Papeete «there was a lot of confusion, a lot of noise, a lot of cars, and I went in the morning and came back in the afternoon… I think all French Polynesia is a paradise, but ruined by the tourism.» Murea, however, was ringed by exquisite reefs; beyond them waves crashed «but inside it’s as calm as can be. Palm trees down by the water. You can see everything. It’s so clean.» Robinson Crusoe Island was one memorable stop, though no longer desolate as in the days of Alexander Selkirk, who inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel. Another was Niue, near Bora Bora, where «people were very nice… a really beautiful island,» little known even to sailors but now sadly being depleted by people leaving for New Zealand. On that tiny outpost, he even managed to renew his driving license. «I paid $10, they put me against a wall, took a picture, and said ‘come back in five minutes.’ That was the driver’s test!» Fiji provided an appealing tropical anchorage, again «very nice, a lot of boats, very good yacht club, big bar, a lot of activity, and because mine (boat) was bigger than the others – they were organizing things – (they) all came to my boat. It was fantastic, I had a beautiful time.» On Thursday Island, in Australia’s northern territories, there was more reverie: «When I arrived I was alone, then other sailors came. We had some social life together, which usually means drinking! And an English boat, Australians, boats from Finland, from Norway, from Sweden.» Mishaps and miscues The tippling sailor is a die-hard cliche, but those alone at sea had best resist indulging their loneliness, and Piero disciplined his intake to one or two glasses of wine in the evening, in the cockpit while watching the sunset. Ashore again after a long sail, the guard dropped. And on special occasions, like in Brazil after crossing his global path, he celebrated with a fellow circumnavigating Swiss friend by downing 15 rum-and-limes. He did not set sail the following day. Remarkably, the Quo Vadis suffered no structural breakdowns, only minor leakages. From time to time, his computer crashed – viruses can attack even mid-ocean – but with such thorough preparation he was quite confident of finding his way even without GPS. Steady power was supplied by an ingenious, jerry-rigged solar panel in the stern. Problems are inevitable, however, and when it rains, it pours. On a single day between New Zealand and Australia, he lost both his mainsail and the rudder for his automatic pilot, finally limping into port days later, exhausted. He avoided serious injury all the way through, though a strong wave once knocked him across the bow. In Africa, his left leg was infected with a virus, and his homespun remedy (strips of clothing boiled in fresh water, removing the pus and discarding the bandages) made for a chilling aside. A vivid scar remains. Even in skirting peril, sometimes it pursued him. An out-of-season cyclone north of Darwin chased him north, south, and north again, forcing three course changes in two days until finally he said: «OK, that’s it. I’m going south, and I don’t care what happens.» And all of a sudden, the storm disappeared. Australia, naturally, also brought crocodiles, as on Thursday Island and in Darwin’s three rivers. «I wanted to go over and clean (underneath) my boat, and they said ‘Absolutely not! Because you will not come back.» Others often fared worse, sometimes in dramatic circumstances. Once, in the eastern Pacific, he heard via radio of a distressed catamaran in strong wind. «I changed route to intercept them, and I was close to the point of intercept, and stopped the boat, heaving to. In the evening [the operator] told me I was 10 miles away. And I said, ‘Tell them to put a light on, a bright light, top of the mast,’ and two hours later I saw them. I sailed with them for two days.» Then there was the bad-luck boat. In Mauritius, he saw one being towed back to port after its captain died suddenly of a heart attack, 200 miles from land. The sailor’s wife, also aboard, knew nothing about sailing, got on the radio in a panic, and a ferry from Rodrigues braved heavy seas to pick her up. Piero later saw the same boat in South Africa, newly sold to a Swiss man – who was rushed to hospital the day after buying it, again with a heart attack. A Belgian friend of Piero’s said, «I will never buy this boat.» What did he learn about being afraid? «It is difficult to know what is fear,» he said, before venturing that the real problem is anticipating fear, not living it. Waiting for expected bad weather was a good example, especially «at night, at anchor, when you have to leave, with no place to go.» But «in the storm,» he added, you are «too busy to think of fear.» The human element All that time on his own heightened his appreciation of others, reinforced by the unique cosmopolitanism of international sea travel. He spoke with feeling about a kindly Greek consul in New Zealand, to whom he had gone to execute a legal document. The consul went out of his way to pick him up, was delighted at Piero’s basic Greek, and embraced him after the work was done. Did the trip alter his perspective? «If I’ve changed,» he ventured, «I love people more than I used to.» Everywhere, he insists, «people are nice. That’s my experience. They may speak differently from you, but they try to help you.» Only at tourist spots did the picture dim; there «they have dollar signs in their eyes.» Yet realistically, he says, «I think at this age you don’t change much,» even after an epic tour. But «I think I have gained a lot of experience, human experience and not just sailing experience.» It’s hard to argue with that.

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