Upon the completion of arguably the greatest RIB voyage in history, PBR’s HMS & Alex Whittaker gain an exclusive one-to-one interview with trans-ocean RIB adventurer Sergio Davi …
Before we begin, congratulations on a tremendous achievement – truly inspirational for all of us who own a small powerboat and a ‘grab bag’ full of dreams. Our PBR readers are hugely impressed by your single-handed endeavour and gritty resourcefulness, and yet speaking to those around you, I’ve discovered that people describe you as a modest man, not at all one who plays the ‘big adventurer’ …
But first things first, Sergio – remind us, exactly how many nautical miles did you cover upon completion of the entire voyage?
Well, it was a grand total of 9,201.80 nautical miles. Quite a stretch! But before you ask how many litres of fuel I burned over the course of the Palermo to USA run, I used 32,616.46 litres of gasoline in all.
Waypoints & wildlife
Those figures are pretty impressive, I admit. But also, what was your final itinerary, and did you find yourself having to adapt or change the scheduled course?
Except for the islands of the Galapagos, my final itinerary pretty much stuck to the original plan, starting out from my home port of Palermo and then on out to the Balearic Islands, on to Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, French Guiana, Trinidad & Tobago, Curaçao, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico and finally the United States. Sadly, I didn’t get to make my planned visit to the Galapagos Islands because of the very complicated and expensive bureaucratic process needed to obtain the necessary authorisations. These related not only to gaining permission to enter the waters of the archipelago, but also to permission to shoot video and stills photography too. Understandably, the authorities are pretty hot on the matter of protecting the delicate and most prized Galapagos ecosytem.
I know many of our readers will be keen to know about the wildlife you encountered on your deep-water, transatlantic sections of the voyage …
As you can imagine, making such passages aboard, what is essentially, a small open boat in relation to major ocean traversing means you really do become at one with nature. This is the beauty of all small-boat adventuring, whether it be offshore or coastal. But certainly, on this solo expedition, I had the privilege of enjoying encounters with turtles, many types of shark species, varieties too of colourful, warm-water migrating fish species, as well as my ever-entertaining friends, the flying fish – which, as any of your readers who have ever gone boating in and around the Azores will know, become a constant companion to the ocean mariner. I even ended up with them ‘flying’ onto the deck of the RIB and taking the odd straggler all the way to French Guiana!
Weather or knot
Did you have any dangerous or testing periods of weather and stormy sea states?
I always make it my business to study the weather reports carefully, starting at least a few days before undertaking the next leg of a journey. It becomes habitual. But of course, no forecasting system is infallible, and no forecast can ever be expected to be entirely reliable. There will always be local variations too. The most notable issues I encountered were on the approach to Mexico, on the same leg that took me to Ensenada. It was here I experienced some very serious conditions that had the potential to overwhelm or compromise the vessel’s structural integrity – particularly its ancillary items, which are always the most vulnerable on any craft.
Floating debris, of course, is a constant danger, even for displacement-hulled sailing craft – particularly for any powered craft, as it necessitates you keeping an ever-watchful lookout, and this can be very wearing on long hauls. Nevertheless, despite the large quantity of flotsam I came across, I wasn’t aware of striking anything substantial. (Ed’s note: The latest Oscar open-water surveillance system, as presented in Issue 177 of PBR, is a purpose-made product intended to tackle this very problem. Of course, high-definition radar technology, such as Simrad’s multifunction ‘Glass Bridge’ product array, is also capable of showing a broad range of detail, including larger objects in the water and even seabirds.)
Did you suffer any equipment failures on the trip – boat, engine, gear or electronics? If so, how did you get around the problem?
Thankfully, everything went pretty much to plan and without incident. But a constant, rolling programme of equipment and system checks was critical to the safe running of the vessel. One of the most testing incidents was off the coast of Mexico, where the superstructure to the T-top weakened and broke. Running in big seas puts a great deal of strain on any craft, especially when the going is constant, when it’s relentless. I find it amazing – the degree of punishment that a RIB like the Nuova Jolly I employed can take mile after mile. Over the course of the voyage, though, I had to have the T-top framework welded on two occasions. It was an important matter to get fixed, because if it had completely failed, it would have disabled the boat’s flying gear/navigation masts, etc. completely.
Did you have any close calls or hazardous situations involving larger vessels?
Indeed I did! During the voyage I encountered big shipping several times, especially near the entrances to busy ports such as Panama. In Panama’s case, this applied to negotiating the canal’s entrance on the Atlantic side and while transiting the canal itself. However, one of the tensest encounters occurred when I unfortunately had a close call with a band of pirates in the Caribbean Sea off the Venezuelan coast while heading for Colombia. I was about 20 miles out when I saw a boat of considerable size approaching at speed, displaying a blue flashing light. However, I figured that in that position it was unlikely to be a coastguard cutter. When I tried to take evasive action, they chased me – whereupon I responded by pushing the throttles to the stops, and thanks to the twin Suzuki 300hp outboards on the NV Prince 38 CC’s tail, I escaped and shook them off with no further incident.
Could you briefly describe your daily routine at sea, mid-Atlantic?
Life aboard a small boat means you have to be good at doing housework! The daily routine of tidying and cleaning also helps one to identify any faults or damage the boat may have suffered. It’s all about attention to detail, remembering it’s usually the smallest things that let you down and that can give rise to an escalation of issues. The daily fuel transfer was always a big deal in the itinerary and needed to be undertaken with great care so as not to allow any polluting spills. Noting fuel consumption and checking all the Simrad instrument and navigation data, which I relied upon so heavily, was all part of the daily routine too. Even when the weather is rough and perhaps you’re feeling seasick, cold or tired, these daily disciplines have to be prioritized – very often on the move at displacement speed to keep the vessel ‘head to sea’.
Stats and sights
Can you give us some statistics regarding your chief Atlantic Ocean crossing?
Sure. As you know, my departure point was Mindelo (Cape Verde) and my landfall was Kourou, in French Guiana. This passage took six days and eight hours to complete – a total of 152 hours in all. My average speed over the first 48 hours was made at the displacement speed of 7 knots. After this initial period, the boat’s fuel payload began to lighten, and as a consequence I was able to improve my cruising speed, increasing it to 20 knots for the remainder of the leg to Kourou. The total distance I traversed on the transatlantic leg was 1,770 nautical miles. Contact with my land crew throughout was kept via satellite phone, which in turn was equipped with an emailing and SMS service.
I think we’d all like to know which part of the voyage you enjoyed the most …
It’s really difficult to answer that question. It’s harder than you may think. But the whole first part of the journey up to Cape Verde was familiar to me because I had already done this stretch of coast during my Palermo to Brazil run back in 2017. It was good to see those sights again, and it allowed me to get even more into my stride before striking out into the deep ocean. I was intrigued by the whole approach and arrival in French Guiana. PBR readers may know that French Guiana is an important part of the Amazonian landscape. You can imagine, therefore, how special it was for an Italian adventurer from Europe to be making such a genuinely foreign and important landfall! Of course, as already alluded to, the Panama Canal will always remain with me as a standout part of this unforgettable adventure. Having the canal pilot and his four crewmen on board was an experience, especially as it turned out to be a night passage. Transiting within the locked zones was pretty cool, but then being officially authorised to power up through Lake Gatún at over 40 knots, well, that was just crazy! It took eight and a half hours in all to complete the canal’s ocean-connecting 49 nautical miles. Lastly, of course, entering the mighty Pacific Ocean itself – actually entering its waters. I had to pinch myself, because at that point I was now afloat upon the greatest and most abundant ocean on planet earth! It’s difficult to describe the emotions that flood in upon one at such a moment …
Keeping the balance
On the transatlantic passage, did you have any ‘leisure’ time for music, reading or family communications?
I did, yes. I listened to a lot of music along the way, and when the sea allowed for it, I even watched some of my favourite films – those that I had downloaded to my phone before leaving. Best of all, though, through calls and emails from the satellite phone, I was able to maintain almost constant communication with my family and land support team, which was so encouraging and uplifting, as you can imagine.
Our readers, I’m sure, would be interested to know which part of the voyage demanded the greatest psychological determination …
Good question … The part of the voyage that tested my psychological state the most was when I was seeking to make my transatlantic landfall. The weather simply didn’t allow me to make the final run in, and so the feeling of ‘so close, yet so far’ became a burning issue. I felt trapped and frustrated. I had to submit to the fact that the forces preventing me from reaching my goal were infinitely more powerful than me. I could not fight them. I could only wait it out, biding my time until the wind and the seas abated sufficiently for me to get underway again. Prudence was the better part of valour for sure in this situation. If I had pushed on regardless, rather than ‘standing off’ out to sea, the treacherous coast could have shipwrecked my boat and the entire expedition. I have a ‘sweet fear’ of the ocean. I’m cautious of it, and while I don’t have an abject dread of what it’s capable of, I respect it and never try to take uncalculated risks.
I will add that if you are healthy, you are in a stronger position to maintain a positive state of mind. The run from Gibraltar to Lanzarote and on until arriving in the Canary Islands was pretty arduous because I was suffering badly from what I can only deduce was a form of food poisoning. When I eventually arrived in Lanzarote, I admit to being in a pitiful condition. I was wrecked and totally drained. I couldn’t even talk on the phone! I tried to recover as best as I could before departing on the next leg, but upon making my next landfall in Gran Canaria, I was ill once again, this time with COVID. This meant I had no choice but to delay my next departure and use the time to simply focus on getting myself fully fit again.
All in the planning
Did you suffer any wrangles with local bureaucracy at your various ports of call?
Whenever you’re planning a voyage or cruise of any type, big or small, the preplanning element is essential to the overall plan. This potentially tedious aspect of an adventure at sea lays the foundation to a successful and enjoyable execution of your chosen aims or goal. So, it’s a case of having the right attitude toward planning and pre-voyage preparations, which, of course, include the boat and all your on-board requirements too. But bureaucracy is a factor you just have to accept. You have to be willing to ‘play the game’ according to the rules. Again, it comes down to studying, cross-checking and preparing all you can in advance. But I admit, on this voyage, I found the Mexican authorities to be the most trying. It took about a day and a half to just obtain all the necessary documentation. However, any time and labour expended in this area were more than rewarded. The kindness of the people I met and the sheer beauty of the places I visited will never be forgotten. I am, without question, indebted to those who gave of themselves so generously on my behalf – especially Dionisia, my ‘faithful sailor’ friend and executive expedition coordinator. Likewise, those valued working partners that have helped me to complete my goal. Companies such as Navico/Simrad, Suzuki Marine and their support network, Nuova Jolly, etc. – all these entities were essential to my eventual crossing of the ‘finish line’.
Sergio, let me ask the 64,000-dollar question we are all wanting answered: will you be making another solo transatlantic voyage, and/or is there another adventure in the pipeline?
For now, at least, I intend to devote myself to wrapping everything up as efficiently as possible. There are always many responsibilities to take care of and give attention to following an expedition’s completion. I will also be attending a whole series of meetings and giving presentations back in Europe, where I will be not only talking about this latest adventure but also about my previous endeavours too. I’d also like to include the subject of the environment in my public work and pass on the value of my experiences to others, both from a training perspective and for helping to inspire others to attain their goals safely and successfully.