Alex Whittaker flies to Palermo for an exclusive interview with SERGIO DAVI as he embarks on his cross-Atlantic voyage aboard his 38ft Suzuki powered Nuova Jolly Prince RIB
When I was invited to interview celebrated Italian voyager and environmentalist Sergio Davi, I confess I was intrigued at what manner of man he might be. Among other adventures, he has already crossed the Atlantic by the Arctic route solo in a RIB, so this chap clearly is no lightweight.
First of all, I had to get to Italy. Flying in the time of Covid proved to be a major undertaking, as with no direct flights, I had to stop over in Milan. It was late at night by the time I reached my hotel in Palermo, but Roberta Rosa from Simrad was there to explain the next day’s itinerary. She organised everything for me, and also acted as Sergio’s technical interpreter. All I had to do was get a good night’s sleep and interview Sergio after breakfast.
Wet, wet, wet
The weather was deteriorating and heavy rain woke me up at 5am. I could see that our planned sea trip to get a feel for Sergio’s transatlantic RIB was going to be memorable. I walked into the breakfast room and there was Robi with the great man. First of all, I suppose Sergio is in his mid-fifties, about 5ft 10in tall and he has a very disarming smile. Like many Italians, he also has that irrepressible warmth of character. However, after just a few questions I knew he was a formidable organiser, networker and logistician. Crossing the Atlantic unsupported in an outboard-powered RIB is no trivial matter. This meant that each of the commercial partners for the boat, engine and electronics had to be brought together within a complex project. A seemingly infinite number of small and large snags had to be ironed out. Sergio’s phone was ringing almost constantly with calls from those involved with putting together the boat, rigging the engines and fitting the various electronics. Then there were breakfast interviews for TV and print media. Sergio needed no notes – he carried all the data in his head like a poem. Besides the obvious charm, he comes across as utterly committed, but also shrewd and resourceful – good attributes for a man who is used to venturing across wide oceans in his own company. His planned route from Palermo included the Straits of Gibraltar and following the coast of Africa south, before striking over to the Atlantic island of Cape Verde. Then, the huge challenge of the Atlantic crossing to the Caribbean, a transit of the Panama Canal and finally turning north to finish at Los Angeles. I had prepared my interview questions, so we bashed on.
Sergio, I think of you as a marine adventurer, an ecological activist and an ambassador for the marine environment. Have I missed anything out?
I call myself first of all a realist activist because we have to be aware of our limits. For example, keeping all the data inside computers has a very high environmental cost, but this is fundamental for our lives, which we can’t give up. I have always respected the sea and the environment: I try not to use plastic, I pay attention to everyday actions and gestures, and I use engines with a reduced environmental impact. I am a great lover of the sea and this is what influences me most – and is the reason for the attention that I pay every day to minimising my impact on the environment. I’m a dreamer, but with my feet on the ground.
Which RIB did you choose for this new adventure, and why?
For my crossing I chose a Nuova Jolly boat, the 11m Prince 38cc. I have been working with Nuova Jolly for years – I made a crossing to New York in one of their boats previously. Before my 2019 adventure from Palermo to New York, I had been courting Nuova Jolly for a long time because I have always admired their work. What I like about them, and in particular about Antonio – who follows me on the preparation of my adventures – is that they are always looking for improvement, and this is a key characteristic I look for in all the partners I choose. After the 2019 experience, it was certain we would continue our journey together since we had gotten along so well. Before the crossing we studied together every single aspect of the boat so that everything would be perfect; I remember flying to Milan very often to define all the details together.
In general, with all my gold sponsors, besides the economic support, we have created a good working relationship, and I became part of their families. I’m sure that if I have a problem in the middle of the ocean, they will come to help me right away.
In what ways has your new RIB been modified for long sea passages?
The RIB that I will use for the crossing has not been modified structurally. The standard structure has been maintained. It must be said that we start from a very good base; we have only added extra tanks for navigation, and they will be only external. Nuova Jolly produce high-quality inflatable boats, regardless of their length. This means that they can push this as a big selling point: one of their RIBs has crossed the Atlantic and it’s the same RIB that you can buy for your time on the water with your family – more or less as Simrad do with the electronics, offering to daily cruisers and boating enthusiasts the same technology (in terms of reliability, standards, etc.) that has been used for such an incredible challenge across the ocean.
Which key navigation equipment did you choose for this challenge?
For this crossing I chose to equip the boat with a comprehensive marine electronics system from Simrad; this includes two NSS evo3 9in and two NSS evo3S 12in displays. This was a fundamental choice because I can see more data at the same time. These displays have high levels of built-in functionality under all conditions using charts, radar and sonar. Three of these are on one circuit while the fourth is completely different. The boat is also equipped with a HALO20+ radar, which features VelocityTrack. This doppler technology is for collision avoidance, which will identify hazards in an instant; it also has simultaneous short- and long-range coverage for up to 36 nautical miles. The boat is also equipped with an RS40 VHF radio, which not only receives AIS targets but also transmits your boat’s position to nearby AIS-equipped vessels – both imperative tools for a safe crossing. In addition, I always carry a classic surveying compass, which can always be useful. To integrate all these instruments into the boat, there was a lot of design work first, and then we custom-built some parts of the boat. To fit all the electronics, everything has been developed and designed from scratch (hand drawing) – it’s a custom solution. You need to trust your electronics, because the more you have in terms of products, the more you can get in terms of problems – so reliability is key!
You will be cruising a long way offshore. Which safety and communications equipment will you take?
For safety I will have the standard safety equipment: life raft, satellite telephone, EPIRB, personal locator beacon (PLB). No MOB, because I tie myself to the boat. During my trip I will always be tethered, of course, and this is a key thing. I remember that in the Labrador Sea this thing saved me – I was scared because it is a very dangerous sea and you have to be very careful.
How many sea miles do you expect to cover from Cape Verde to Barbados?
Actually, I will not arrive in Barbados, but in French Guyana. I will cover almost 1,800 nautical miles and it will be my personal record. I will be following a normal course and not an arching one.
How many days at sea will this Atlantic crossing take?
I’m hoping for the shortest possible time, but according to my calculations it will take me more than five days, where I will be sitting all the time with lots of fuel.
Lots of our readers will be wondering how a two-outboard RIB can carry enough fuel for such a long Atlantic crossing …
In the 90s there were very heavy boats with low-powered outboards – the boats used to be slower but they sailed. My RIB, when it is completed, will not weigh more than 10,000kg, which is a very low weight for boats of this type. I will bring with me 5,400kg of fuel, which corresponds to about 7,000 litres. To fill the fuel, I will use homologated electric pumps. These pumps, thanks to their gear, will transfer the fuel without danger. The filling of the engine tank is a very delicate moment. The litre-per-mile consumption varies between 3 and 3 and a half litres per mile for the two double-propeller engines. The speed will be 7 knots while asleep, and between 20 and 25 knots when awake.
Expected fuel consumption/hour consumption of 3–3.5 litres/mile (both engines). Speed cruise on the plane 20–25 knots during the day, 7 knots at night (but if I run into pirates, even 40 knots!)
Could you describe your daily routine at sea on a long Atlantic passage?
During the trip I am always very attentive to what is happening around me. I pay a lot of attention to my electronics and engines; the rest comes later. Each leg is like a man climbing a mountain – until half of each leg is complete, he’s very much under pressure, but after the first half he starts to think about the finish of the leg. Not being able to sleep in the cabin because of the stench of gasoline, I sleep sitting up. To eat, I bring my own pasta, coffee, dry food such as crackers and breadsticks, canned food, dark chocolate and cookies. For cooking, I have an induction stove that I use only when I am onshore. Sometimes, because of the strong nausea I suffer from, I can’t even eat.
On this voyage you say you are also crossing the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands. Why?
I actually decided not to go through the Galapagos Islands since they have serious Covid-related issues and staying there would not have been safe. For this reason, we decided to go through Coiba, which is an archipelago in Panama very similar to the Galapagos Islands.
Can you have contact with home?
Yes. When I am closer to the coast I can call home with the satellite phone.
How did you plan your route – with the help of electronics or something else? How did you decide which ports to stop at?
I study maps a lot, but I also use Google Earth, which is very useful, a fast tool and helps me a lot. For the ports, however, we list them to understand which are the best options, and then we do a deeper analysis on the Internet, so we check the characteristics of each port to make sure it is suitable for the stay.
Do you have a support team?
Yes. I have my wife who is also the Vice-President of the association (CCM – Ciuri Ciuri Mare) who will fly to Los Angeles for my arrival. Having a team that follows me all the way would have been too onerous. When I arrive in French Guyana there will be the Italian Vice-Consul, who is an official of the European Space Agency (ESA).
Are you laying over a few days in some places?
Yes, of course – in order to rest and to do some maintenance. Sometimes I will be forced by the weather.
Which equipment is the most important – radar, autopilot or chartplotter?
My head, my brain …
I would say the autopilot most of all, wouldn’t you?
Yes, it’s true. The autopilot is really useful as it allows you to rest and be able to focus on other things with a clearer mind.
Having concluded the interview, I gave Sergio a little gift for his trip – a Wales fridge magnet!
On the water
After the interview we went down to Marina Arinella, where Sergio’s RIB is stationed. In typical Italian fashion, Massimo Acierno and the whole marina team greeted me like a long-lost family member. Outside, the downpour was biblical. We were all resigned to getting very wet. Wryly, my photographer’s brain noted the greatly reduced visibility. I managed to get a few shots of Sergio underway from a small photo boat bobbing in the swell. Sergio’s RIB has two Suzuki 300s on the transom, so lift-off from a standing start was impressive. Most of the RIB is out of the water at anything much above planing speed. Of course, we did not experience her fully laden with her vast transatlantic petrol load.
Just then it occurred to me that very soon Sergio would be doing this for real – aye, and in much worse weather, solo and mid-Atlantic. That alone was an awe-inspiring thought.