One man in a boat: facing wind, wave and sleeping upright

«I hope I did something not so bad;» this is hardly the expansive summation you might expect from someone who has just circled the globe (and then some) alone and under sail, including the howling gales and treacherous tides of the Magellan Strait. Then again, Piero Pieroni is hardly your typical world-beater. He made his penultimate landfall last Thursday in Lavrion, on Attica’s southeast coast, met by a small but noisy local flotilla. His boat, the single-hulled and masted Quo Vadis, now sports brown stains, peeling paint and a tattered Cypriot flag fluttering astern – worlds away from the spiffy white trimarans that grace nautical magazine covers. But it was clearly built for anything and is now proven for everything. And it is spacious: 16 meters (53 feet) in length, 4.87 meters wide, and a generous 2.80 meters deep, which created problems in some shallow harbors. In deference to the intense attachment formed between a solo voyager and his vessel, he continually began sentences with «we.» Inside too, the boat reflected the man: no-nonsense, exhaustively equipped, and properly aged, including the biggest stash of rope you have ever seen. «Even with all that,» he insisted, «you can run out of them.» I felt a curious kinship with him, not least because of a shared distaste for what he eloquently termed «blah, blah, blah.» Pieroni retains remarkable agility for a man pushing 70. Laconic to the point of shyness, he has the small, observant eyes of an Ernest Hemingway and an unpretentious Italianate elegance, along with a classic seafarer’s white beard and deeply tanned face. It took over two hours before I found out that he had rounded the globe with a balloon in his chest, installed after a serious heart operation. His voyage defies easy romanticizing. He knew precisely what he wanted to do, saying without a trace of arrogance: «I never thought I would be lost. I was very confident.» He is a sea warrior, but a quiet rather than swashbuckling one, direct but not gruff, one for whom actions speak louder than words and results count most of all. He went looking for adventure, not trouble; he was canny enough to wait out the foul weather and return in one piece, guided by an unfailing inner compass. What his story may lack in the gruesome or titillating (there was no living on seaweed, getting washed aboard or fending off sharks with a paddle), it more than compensates for in various mishaps, lonely times, interesting characters and island paradises experienced. ‘I always liked adventure’ Traveling with purpose but without deadline, Pieroni opted for the western, more difficult route: First heading across the Atlantic, he also chose to forgo the Panama Canal in favor of rounding the dangerous tip of South America, then tracking northward again, crossing the Pacific to the South Seas and Antipodes, across the Indian Ocean to Africa, around South Africa and angling across the southern Atlantic to Brazil – his official crossover point – before a second transatlantic crossing brought him homeward. All this meant he actually did far more than circumscribe the globe; his trip from Greece across the Atlantic, and back again, amounted to extra mileage. Unlike Slocum, his 19th century guide, Piero did not have to rely on sextant and gut instinct alone. He managed with the help of GPS (global positioning system), accessible via his laptop, and frequent weather faxes. But lacking enough charts and maps at the start, he obtained some from fellow sailors, along with a needed computer connection bought in mid-Pacific. He also secured a 3-CD sea map covering most of the world, which he updated anew in South Africa. «So, by the time I arrived back here, I had everything!» Wild and woolly Pieroni anticipated the rough South Pacific seas, in some cases (as in New Zealand) waiting out the worst for an entire cyclone season. The Quo Vadis «withstood them very well. She did fantastic.» Was he ever in danger of capsizing? «No, no, never.» Extreme conditions arose elsewhere too. Off South Africa, for example, the wind often runs against the current, which «plays a real bad, terrible, dangerous sea, with freak waves, a danger to big ships too. So you just don’t move.» This frequently requires infinite patience leavened by awareness: «You wait, wait, wait, wait, and then you find 15 boats all leaving at the same time.» «Maybe you’ve heard,» he related, «that [the tip of South Africa] was once called the «Cape of the Storms.» Then they changed it to Cape of Good Hope, hoping!» A similar cat-and-mouse game with the elements was required while threading through the Magellan Strait, half a world away: «The wind here (Punta Arenas, which lacks a decent harbor) is normally southwest or northwest. If it’s south, you cannot stay. There is a lot of movement, a lot of going up and down, as the wind changed.» Following this venture into the bone-chilling «screaming fifties» (south latitude) he was hit by the biggest storm of his trip west of South America: «I was heaving to. Very big waves, say 8-10 meters, wind 50-55 knots, lots of wind, for roughly 36 hours.» Later, though, came the sailor’s dream, the trade winds, blowing reliably at 25-40 knots, 17-19 degrees south of the equator, «and I went really fast.» Difficult sailing actually came right in the Mediterranean. On his outward journey, heavy traffic and fear of collision kept him in the cockpit for two days running, while on the return leg he made it through Gibraltar with great difficulty. «When we arrived, we had the wind against us, from the east. It was just impossible. I tried two times to go through, and finally I decided to follow the instructions! No chance, so finally I gave up,» anchoring at Cadiz. Once through, «we had three days of gale, the wind against us all the time, always from the northeast. During the night, we sailed to Africa, going up and down, up and down.» Nature finally relented for his last kilometers. His longest single sail, without seeing another human, was 44 days, from Cape Verde to Mar del Plata in Argentina; many other legs took 30-35 days. Life aboard How did he pass the time on board? «There is quite a lot of work. Especially in the tropics, you have the trade winds, sometimes you fish but forget about pulling in the line, and a big fish got the other fish, then maybe a shark came, and you don’t have anything!» Plotting his progress was not taxing, and studying «the Admiralty,» a nautical reference work, saved him grief; his eastward Atlantic crossing took 33 days, while another yacht, leaving the same day but on a different route, took 43. What about the psychological challenge of facing long stretches alone? Piero, a stoic by the book, was already inured to solitude while working in the desert.«Yeah, it’s nice to have somebody, but sometimes you don’t. But, of course, you feel alone, sometimes you wish you had a companion.» The matter of sleep without a co-pilot is always a dicey proposition. Piero managed on little: «During the day sometimes I would sleep sitting here, 15 minutes, 30 minutes. During the night, I put an alarm clock; I slept one hour; I woke up, have a look around, check the sails, this and that, and then I set the alarm again, sleep another hour. But then after the third time you don’t sleep any more, you stay awake, read something, make a tea. It’s what you have to do.» However, he never felt pushed to the wall. «You keep going and you don’t feel tired, but when you arrive somewhere you have a good meal, and then you have a good sleep, 12, 15 hours.» During the 36-hour storm west of South America, he «was exhausted and slept over there [on the cabin couch, not in Chile] sitting down. No anchor there!» An admitted non-gourmet, Piero subsisted when at sea on spaghetti, lentils, canned goods, and other basics, and occasionally fresh fish. He carried a 700-liter tank of fresh water, which never once ran out. He missed fresh fruit most of all when at sea. New landfalls, of course, brought local treats; thick Argentinean steaks are still recalled with gusto.

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