Alessandro Di Benedetto, how did you become a skipper?
My parents weren’t very young when they started sailing. One day, they decided to sign me up for sailing lessons on Optimist boats and I started competing in regattas. I did some windsurf and laser, too, but I stopped competition because it was starting to interfere with my studies. I studied science in High School and then in College and I eventually became a geologist. I kept sailing, though, sometimes on cruise yachts. My father once bought a boat we sailed from Rimini ton Sicily. At the age of 14, I found myself at the helm, standing night watch with my father. In 1992, during the Sevilla World Fair, we wanted to do something unique so we sailed from Sicily to Martinique on a hobie-cat, conveying a message of peace to fight against war and racism and to protect the environment. That’s why we called out boat United States of the World. Then I sailed across the Atlantic some more times but I was still working full-time by then, I was sailing on my vacation days. I also taught at University level and I was asked to talk at conferences because a Professor had read my book (editor’s note: Solo, l’incroyable traversée). And then I sailed around the world on my 6.5-metre yacht.
« The Vendée Globe is the ultimate single-handed experience »
What made you want to compete in the Vendée Globe?
I think the idea was born when I finished my circumnavigation on a 6.5-metre boat. I had it in mind already, which is why I had chosen Les Sables d’Olonne as a start and finish race for that adventure. The Vendée Globe is an epic race, the ultimate experience for a single-handed skipper. I chose Les Sables as a challenge and also because I felt ready to sail around the word on a yacht that is three times as small as the 60-foot monohulls. When I came back, people like Arnaud Boissières, Yves Parlier or Jean-Luc Van Den Heede told me: « Now you have to do the Vendée Globe! » Arnaud said: « Take my boat! » I was very lucky, I met Team Plastique CEO Didier Elin after my circumnavigation, he bought champagne for our table and left but I called him on the next day and invited him to visit my boat in La Rochelle. I was also launching my book back then and I was looking for sponsors for the Vendée Globe and Didier and I started talking about that. He ended up investing his own money and get involved in the Vendée Globe when he could have bought a Ferrari instead. He had always wanted to to help a yachtsman with such a project and he told me: « I have saved money so instead of buying a house, I’ll buy you a yacht. » And he did! He even added money right afterward so we could start working on the boat with him and his friends. I had my sponsor actually working with me on the boat, which was amazing. And he still does!
After what you did on a 6.5-metre boat, the Vendée Globe is going to be easy, right?
No, no! The boat will be more difficult to operate and there will be skippers with awesome boats and a huge budget out there, fighting for the win. As for me, I’ll try to stay in the race knowing that, if everything goes right, I’ll still be in the Indian Ocean when the leader rounds Cape Horn…
What is your best memory at sea?
Seeing dolphins south of Australia is among my best memories. They came and touched my arm and I have videos of them hitting the camera with their noses. I held their fins and touched their bellies… It was magical and it happened only once in my life. I didn’t know it was possible, they’re actually the ones who came to me.
« J’ai vécu des situations dantesques »
And what is your worst memory?
I would say stormy days, in the Southern Ocean at night; I was so afraid of potential iceberg in front of me and I had two days of 50-knot wind and 12 to 14-metre waves… Being alone in such conditions is really difficult. There are extreme situations that I’ve experienced but in the end, the boat surfed at 20 knots so it was awesome! But scary, too…
Does that mean you’re ready to go back to the Southern Ocean?
It still makes me nervous but you have to face those fears and make sure the boat is well-prepared for that.
Are you worried about possible icebergs?
Thanks to the Vendée Globe organisation team, there is a very good study currently being worked on. They’re going to do everything that has to be done to keep us safe. That’s why you have ice gates and I’m all for that because they make us feel more relaxed in the Southern Ocean. But no one is ever totally safe.
« Cape Horn? A relief »
How does rounding Cape Horn feel?
It’s a relief. You know, Cape Horn is like a graveyard for boats, I think there are about 10,000 of them at the bottom of the sea there. It’s a legendary cape and a tough one too because you get there at the end of your circumnavigation so both the skipper and the yacht are tired. That’s what makes Cape Horn dangerous, in addition to the water going up, huge waves and a wind that is statistically one of the strongest in the world.
Are you superstitious?
No… But still, I’ll put a coin at the bottom of the mast because that’s what sailors used to do in the past. It’s supposed to be a lucky charm. So I do it and, when on board, I never say Rabbit out of respect for other people on the boat.
And when you’re alone?
Well, when I’m alone, I don’t say it either (he laughs).
How do you manage to sleep in such difficult conditions?
No idea, I’ll find out! (he laughs) No, I’m just kidding. Ours are boats that are very demanding, physically, and you can get tired quickly. That’s why you have to be careful and make sure you get rest whenever it’s possible. There’s no rule to me. I know some skippers have gone through training sessions and studies of their sleep patterns. Me, I just sleep when I can.
Some say the end of the world is scheduled for December 21, 2012. What do you think?
That’s why the boat is loaded with food! I dry land disappears, I’ll just keep sailing and I’ll fish to survive. (he laughs)