Skip to main content
Original Issue

The New Bella Of The Ball

Italy is making its America's Cup debut with a 12-meter named Azzurra and an attitude best described as romantically realistic

Whenever a country enters a boat in the America's Cup for the first time, it's as if a pretty new face has arrived at a rather boring party. Everyone perks up. The Australians had that effect in 1962, the French in 1970 and the Swedes, with their beautiful Sverige, in 1977. Throughout the early weeks of summer the newcomer is a welcome distraction. Her wardrobe is discussed. Her style is assessed. Her dance card is full. For a while, at least, she is the belle of the nautical ball.

This America's Cup year, the new girl in Newport is a stunner. Her name is Azzurra, she's from Italy, and when she's put in the water at Newport this week, the old town will find it has never seen anything like her. She has style, she has grace, and her credentials are strictly Almanach de Gotha. She was conceived on the Costa Smeralda, the Aga Khan's resort empire on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, designed in the fashionable Rome studio of the young naval architect Andrea Vallicelli and built in a shipyard in Pesaro on Italy's Adriatic coast. When she was christened last July, it was the Begum Aga Khan who swung the bottle of Cinzano Principe de Piemonte Blanc de Blancs against Azzurra's shining blue hull while two of her 17 proud godfathers—the Aga Khan, direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and Gianni Agnelli, head of Fiat—looked on and applauded.

At first glance, the Azzurra challenge looks like a very slick and barely disguised advertising campaign for the 17 giants of Italian commerce and industry who have provided her financial underpinnings. That lineup, sufficient to ensure the prosperity of a small country, includes not only the Aga Khan's Costa Smeralda and Iveco, Fiat's truck subsidiary, but also an airline (Alitalia), a bank (Banco di Roma), an insurance company (Levante), a fashion designer (Valentino), a mineral-water bottler (San Pellegrino), the state telephone and telegraph company (ItalCable) and the makers of aperitifs (Cinzano), wine (Florio), helicopters (Agusta), menswear (SanRemo), marine paints (Veneziani), nautical clothing (Starpoint), plastics (Alfatherm Industriale), power boats (Posillipo) and pasta (Barilla).

Some very expensive promotional paraphernalia is already in place. An elegant hardcover brochure, with dozens of high-quality photographs printed on heavy silver paper, has been distributed to the press. A poster by painter Ugo Nespolo has begun to appear in shop windows and public places around Italy. A half-hour film about the challenge with sound track by Beethoven has been shown several times on Italian television and to civic groups over the length and breadth of the Italian boot. Regattas featuring Azzurra (Italian for sky blue) have been organized for the benefit of press and sponsors; banquets celebrating her have been held on the slightest pretexts and orchestrated on a scale that makes a press lunch at New York's "21" look like potluck in a church basement.

"Italians put sentiment into everything," says Chantal Skibinska, the beautiful, chic and multilingual young woman who mobilized the Azzurra syndicate's resources in Italy for such events. "You can ask these people to give you anything, because they want to do it the best."

On this side of the Atlantic, Casa Italia, the mansion formerly known as Seaward, is being spruced up for a summer social schedule that promises to knock the socks off the hostesses of Newport.

But all the promotional pizzazz aside, the fact remains that the Italian challenge rose from the same motives that America's Cup challenges always do—the irresistible urge of wealthy yachtsmen to join the world's smallest sailing fraternity, the 12-meter class. In spite of highly unfavorable odds, the challengers risk everything—fortune and face—in pursuit of an ornate silver ewer, which, if it were a wedding present, you'd trade in for a vacuum cleaner. Since 1851, untold millions of dollars, pounds, francs and kronor have been spent in the so far futile pursuit of that useless ewer. But still it sits in its glass case at the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street. It has been said that the Cup will be replaced by the head of the American skipper who loses it.

This year the Italians are preparing to add seven billion lire ($5 million) to the pot. And why? To paraphrase J.P. Morgan, a former commodore of the NYYC, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." Being able and willing to afford the luxury of an America's Cup adventure buys membership in perhaps the most exclusive club in the world, and exclusivity, my dears, like virtue, is its own reward.

The Italians have a proud maritime tradition, but only in recent years have their boats and crews begun to rise to the top ranks of international offshore yacht racing. The greatest impetus has come from the creation, 16 years ago, of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, the centerpiece of the Aga Khan's vast Sardinian enterprise. To give its membership something to do and at the same time to attract the attention of yachting's elite, the club has created several major regattas, including the biennial Sardinia Cup, a national team event modeled on England's Admiral's Cup. From its beginning in 1978 the Sardinia Cup, as well as the club's two other notable regattas, the Maxi-Yacht World Championship and the Swan World Cup, have been successes. The Sardinia Cup now ranks along-side the Admiral's Cup, the SORC and Australia's Southern Cross series. Last year it drew 57 boats from 20 countries.

But that isn't 12-meter racing. The America's Cup is a match-race event, one boat and crew pitted against another, nearly identical, boat and crew over a triangular course of approximately 24 nautical miles. A combination of tactics and technology decides the issue, and the experience of the designer, the sailmaker and the crew, especially the helmsman, is crucial. The Italians are excellent seamen and experienced ocean racers, but they are entirely new to match racing. Not until last July, with the launching of Azzurra, were they able even to begin the learning process.

"Our problem is not of the helmsman, but of all the Italian helmsmen," says Cino Ricci, who, as Azzurra's team manager, is the man who will make the final crew choices. "We must teach match racing to many helmsmen. If all the helmsmen learn match racing, then we can choose the best. The Americans can do that because they began many years ago. We must work for that."

The Americans also have had many years of experience in designing Twelves. Azzurra's architect, Vallicelli, has designed Brava, a 44-foot-class competitor in the 1982 Sardinia Cup; Filo da Torcere, a one-ton champion in 1980; and several other successful ocean racers. Using Enterprise, a former America's Cup contender purchased from Dennis Conner's Freedom syndicate in 1981, for study, and the facilities of the University of Rome's naval testing tank, Vallicelli and a staff of seven worked steadily for five months to produce Azzurra. She is 65 feet long, with an aluminum hull and a displacement of 61,600 pounds. She has a "knuckle" bow, a broad reverse transom and a slight sheer. Her sails, designed in the Genoa loft of the U.S. firm North Sails, are the latest thing in Kevlar with Mylar laminate.

"I'm very happy with the hull," says Vallicelli. "I think it's correct. It's fast. Enterprise is good, but Azzurra is a little faster to windward and, I think, a little faster running. But for me it is very important to make another design. Five months is enough time for people like the Americans, who are experienced in building and tank testing, but for the first time it is too short."

All winter long at their temporary quarters in Formia, an ancient seaside resort between Rome and Naples, the 28 Italians from whom the America's Cup crew of 11 will be drawn, practiced match racing. Every morning at 11 Azzurra and Enterprise left the ferries and the fishing boats of Formia behind and headed out into the Gulf of Gaeta. The Aurunci Mountains rose abruptly from the sea behind them; to the south on clear mornings you could see the cone of Vesuvius. On the shore a group of interested Formians leaned on the railing of a highway overpass to watch their departure, and in the afternoon when the two boats with the towering masts returned, the Formians were there again, pointing, talking and curious.

Explaining the America's Cup, not only to Formia but to all of Italy, has been the full-time occupation of Comandante Gianfranco Alberini, the tall, slim, 52-year-old retired navy officer who is secretary-general of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda and head of the Azzurra syndicate. Alberini has been in almost constant motion, traveling between the syndicate's headquarters in Milan, a branch office on the Piazza Adriana in Rome and the training center in Formia, with side trips to Naples, Turin, Venice, Sardinia and wherever else Italians want to hear the Azzurra message or view the Azzurra film. With patience, courtesy and patrician charm, bowing correctly over the outstretched hands of the ladies, Alberini explains again and again that the America's Cup is to sailing what the World Cup is to soccer. But he's always careful to point out that the America's Cup probably cannot be won on the first try, or maybe even the second; that the difficulties of mounting a 12-meter challenge for the first time are too great and the time too short. "But," the comandante says, "Azzurra is the beginning of a long-term commitment to America's Cup competition.

"We're trying not to create any expectations that can later end in disillusion," says Alberini. "We try to underline that in the case of the America's Cup, the de Coubertin motto holds—participation is more important than winning. Knowing what kind of problems we are facing, we will be very, very happy to have good results even if we do not win races. That, of course, is hard to explain to people who do not know anything about this event."

The expectations of a nation that has just won the World Cup of soccer are hard to dampen. No sooner had Azzurra hit the water than auspicious parallels were being drawn between her blue hull and the blue shirts of the Forza Azzurri, the blue team of soccer. Note was also taken of the fact that a 12-meter, like a soccer team, requires a crew of 11.

"In the back of many Italians' minds," said a Roman journalist, "there is always the feeling that just because it is Italian, even the unexpected could happen."

The other facet of the Azzurra challenge that's difficult to explain is its cost. "We still have people asking us, 'How is it possible to spend seven miliardi of lire for such a little boat?' " says Skibinska. "They don't understand what it means—promotion, public relations, and further, that this is all paid for by private companies, not by the government."

For all of Azzurra's high-powered modern organization, however, an inherent Italian sense of balance humanizes its operations and occasionally a burst of native insouciance cracks its sleek facade. Team Manager Cino Ricci rides around Formia on a motorcycle, often with a passenger on the pillion behind. Children of crew members clamber over the two wonder boats when they are tied up at the town dock, spinning their wheels, popping in and out of their cubbyholes, with nobody saying "Don't touch." At an early February regatta, during which Azzurra and Enterprise were to demonstrate for the public and a number of sponsors and guests the intricacies of match racing, the wind died completely before the competition was finished. Agusta, the sponsor that makes helicopters, leapt into the breach, however illogically, sending one of its whirlybirds aloft to swoop down over the two boats and create wind where there was none. And here's the quintessentially Italian part: When the attempt failed, nobody minded. Nobody was embarrassed. Nobody pointed an accusing finger at anyone else. Instead, the gesture was gratefully acknowledged and generously interpreted as an idea that might have worked.

"In Italy," says Skibinska, "We do everything at the last minute. We invent, we improvise. Maybe it's not the professional way to act, but in the end it's better. You can accomplish anything."

Professionalism is Ricci's hallmark. He's a 48-year-old native of Rimini who earned his reputation first as a helmsman, a career that culminated in the winning of the Cowes-Dinard race in 1974 aboard Comet One. Ricci next turned his talents to organizing the international campaigns of such well-known racers as Deception, Suspense, and the two Vaninas. (Incidentally, his helmsman in each of those campaigns was Tom Blackaller, the American who will be at the helm of Defender this summer when it takes on Conner and Freedom, or whichever of his two boats Conner chooses, for the right to defend the Cup.)

Italian yachtsmen describe Ricci as "introverted," when, in fact, to an American sensibility he seems merely thoughtful and calm, the ideal leader for a disparate group of men who must live at close quarters for more than a year and produce their best efforts on call, always aware that in the end only half of them will be chosen. In a sport in which egos often run amok, Ricci is virtually egoless. "Those who know him well have the impression he's always willing to step aside with no envy anytime someone better comes along," says Riccardo Villarosa, a Milanese journalist.

Unlike Conner, the hard-driving perfectionist who was both the helmsman and the man responsible for crew selection and training on Freedom, the defender in 1980, Ricci has chosen to remove himself from consideration as helmsman on Azzurra; though he calls himself the skipper, he may or may not be aboard when the racing begins. Says Ricci, "The helmsman, if he has one-half day free, he must go for a holiday, not with the problems of the mast or the boat or the crew on his mind. Those people like Conner, it is possible they have the concentration and they can manage the two, but I think it is very hard for him. I know many American people of the Dennis Conner team, and I know he has problems."

If a happy crew were all it took to win the America's Cup, the men of Azzurra would have it sewn up. Ricci's presence and his quiet charisma have seen to that. The crew ranges in age from 21 to 44. Its members hail from major cities and seaside villages. They are students and sailmakers and manufacturers' representatives. One has a medical degree, another teaches karate, and at least three are the offspring of famous Italian yachtsmen. Nicolo Reggio, for instance, a 28-year-old naval engineering student from Genoa, is the son of an Italian champion in several classes and the grandson of a man who competed for Italy in the eight-meter class at the 1936 Olympic Games.

One Sunday afternoon in early spring, Reggio stood in the late afternoon sunshine on the deck of Formia's Circolo Nautico Caposele, a small yacht club overlooking the Gulf of Gaeta. This particular weekend. Formia was playing host for the last time to Azzurra before her departure for Newport. The festivities included an astonishing banquet of five courses and 29 dishes served to 700 guests in the dining rooms of the Instituto Professionale Alberghiero Turistico di Stato, the national hotel training school. (Until Azzurra came along, Formia had been best known for Cicero's tomb, a Roman aqueduct, the hotel school and a national track-and-field training center.)

On Saturday in a cold rain and on Sunday under the kind of skies that inspire Neapolitan song, Azzurra, Enterprise and a fleet of some 50 smaller boats had raced on a triangular course laid between Formia and its archrival, the medieval town of Gaeta at the southern end of the gulf. Now the prizes were being given out and the speeches were being made on a terrace below Reggio's vantage point. The citizens of Formia drank champagne provided by Cinzano and, though it went against the grain, tried to believe Comandante Alberini when he once more said that in the America's Cup the glory lies in merely competing. Meanwhile, children in their Palm Sunday best skipped up and down the ancient staircase from the clubhouse to the terrace on stones that Cicero may have trod, Formia having been his summer home and the scene of his death at the hands of hired assassins in 43 B.C. The younger candidates for the crew, having heard the speech before, milled happily on the outskirts of the crowd, jostling and spraying each other with the winy foam of Cinzano's bounty.

More often than not through the winter training period, Azzurra had beaten Enterprise, but in this last regatta at Formia, Enterprise won both days. On Saturday it was because of spinnaker pole troubles on Azzurra, but on Sunday the cause was tactical error. Reggio, who had been a tailer on Azzurra both days, was feeling mildly rueful. "A day like this on the Twelves is bad, when you lose for stupid mistakes," he said. "You give everything you can and you lose without responsibility." But then he brightened. "Perhaps it's good preparation for the U.S., to lose, to be always sad."

"In other classes," says Ricci, "you have some races with other boats. For the 12-meters, no. You wait, you wait, you wait for the America's Cup, and every day you must work, work. This is very big pressure for the people involved."

Now, at last, the waiting is over. The entire 28-member crew is in the U.S., and Enterprise is on her way to the Costa Smeralda, where she will be stored until she is needed again. And Azzurra has been broken down, trucked to Genoa and shipped aboard a freighter to the New World.

"Good luck!" seems a bit too hearty for a beautiful debutante, but "buon vento, Azzurra!" sounds nice.





All winter, curious Formians lined a highway overpass to watch Enterprise and Azzurra sail to and from their match-racing practice.



Most of the time Azzurra beat Enterprise, but in their last regatta, the old boat won.



Alberini tells Italians that winning isn't everything.



Designer Vallicelli (left) and team manager Ricci are new to Twelves.



Before the Roman battlements of Formia, Azzurra's crewmen talk of the upcoming battle of Newport.