People | Carlo De Benedetti
An ocean-going captain
The sea is never far from his thoughts. Not even here, in his office in downtown Milan, can 72-year-old Carlo De Benedetti, President of the L'Espresso Publishing Group, do without it. Even the screensaver on his computer is made up of a slideshow of photographs of the sea collected over eight years of sailing adventures around the world. Between 1998 and 2006, in fact, De Benedetti spent at least 90 days a year at sea (40 in summer and 50 in stages of five 10s in winter), clocking up a staggering 157,122 miles aboard Itasca, his 52-metre navy and white ice-breaker. He had spent a lifetime heading companies before his friend Piero Ottone took him to task for not having a hobby, something to take his mind off his work. De Benedetti took his friend's advice seriously. And literally. That was in 1992. The same year that De Benedetti remarried. He then decided to buy Moro di Venezia II, formerly owned by Raul Gardini. Then came Adesso, a 35-metre German Frers-designed sloop. No sooner had De Benedetti done a few trips then he decided that he would cast off to explore the world aboard Itasca. The rest has been an idyllic communing with the sea shared with his wife Silvia.
"They were very happy years. But if my wife hadn't been with me, they would have been much less exciting," he says.
A new beginning then?
A new part of my life that lasted eight years. With my captain Dale Winlow who also worked with Gardini on the America's Cup. But now another new era is starting for me. I've toured the world with Itasca, a motoryacht. But now it's time to return to sailing with Adesso. I've completed a cycle and I want to start a new one: this time I'll only sail the Mediterranean. That's why I've called her Adesso (Now): now I'll do this, now I'll change my life.
Is that why you've sold Itasca?
Yes, sailing is a very different way to experience the sea than aboard a motoryacht. It's all about the wind. But on a motoryacht the wind is almost an annoyance. But sailing gives a contact with the sea that nothing else can match. Sailing is nature. Itasca was about exploring the world, about a desire to travel as comfortably as possible. I was comfortable wherever I went and my friends were too. Now we have a Friends of Itasca Club. But motorboats take away the whole sporty, romantic side of the sea. However, they let you go anywhere. We bought Itasca in San Diego and had her completely refit in Genoa. Her interiors were a little too like an American motel for us.
What are your favourite memories of Itasca?
There are just so many. But the Antarctic first and foremost. I have photos from that voyage that I'll never tire of looking at. Then there was the time we were given permission to anchor under the Statue of Liberty. I've been to New York more times than I can remember but nothing could match coming into the harbour in my own boat. I spent 10 days anchored at the 68 in Manhattan. We'd go shopping and then come back to the boat rather than going to a hotel. Going down the Panama Canal was very exciting too.
You travelled a lot in the Pacific too.
It's a fantastic ocean. New Caledonia, the Tuamotu Islands, Hong Kong, the China Sea, Papua New Guinea. I saw two giant turtles mating for the first time in New Caledonia. Then at Tonga, I saw two whales swimming with three new born calves. The Pacific is enormous and full of islands populated by people who live a very simple life, fishing for a living. A very different life from ours, they've a very different idea of happiness from ours too.
Could you describe any of those encounters?
They gave us the opportunity to rediscover the pleasure of simple things, a world in which other things apart from money matter, such as human relationships, bartering. Every time we came ashore one of those islands we realised the value of a sack of rice or sugar.
The sea also gives you a chance to reflect. I often asked myself whether those people weren't happier than I even though they have very little. In those places you realise that everything is relative, even happiness. From that point of view, sailing yachts are more in harmony with everything because in the end Itasca had everything I needed to work, to get back to my everyday life.
Weren't you ever tempted to compete?
I've never done a regatta in my life. They do nothing for me. There's enough competition in my life and work as it is. I like the sea because there is no rival to beat and no positive or negative outcome. Your relationship with the sea is an entirely emotional one that you carry inside you. It's fantastic.
Do you prefer to take the helm or relax in the sun?
I couldn't image sunbathing on a sailing yacht. So I'd take the helm. I've occasionally taken night watches with the crew. If the sails are up, I take the wheel. I'll hand it over to go and have a bowl of spaghetti but that's all.
Anchored offshore or in a marina?
We've never berthed in port. Not with Itasca and not with Adesso. So we've never owned a berth. I hate docksides. I can't stand when people just stand there staring at you. Even when we were in Sardinia in August, the hands used to go ashore in the inflatables to do the shopping. But I would never tie up in port. Never.
Apart from your wife, who would you take with you aboard?
Piero Ottone, of course. I love talking about the sea with him. He's 82 now and still spends every Christmas aboard.
You say Adesso is a new starting point for you. Where to?
Our own sea. The Mediterranean. I want to return to the real sea, to sailing, and cast off with just one rule: never to go beyond Gibraltar. There are so many beautiful places to see and revisit in the Mediterranean, and Adesso is one of the most beautiful boats around right now, thanks to Gae Aulenti and German Frers' great taste. We've just got her right. So she's ready to unfurl her sails.
(Yacht Capital, n.6/2007)