Sergio Davì is most certainly a man who loves a challenge. In this exclusive interview with PBR, this outstanding long-distance RIB expeditionary tells of his incredible 6,500-mile, record-breaking, ‘Ice RIB’ solo voyage from Palermo in Italy to New York City aboard a standard-production family-styled sports boat, a Suzuki twin-outboard-powered Nuova Jolly RIB.
Tell us, Sergio, about your background in boating and the sea … And when did your love affair with RIBs begin?
My passion for the sea started as a young child. It had humble beginnings, mind you. I got my first taste for being the master of my own vessel when I began playing in the waves with an old rubber dinghy. But when I reached the great age of 17, I advanced to an inflatable of precisely 3.75m in length that featured a mighty 15hp outboard engine on its transom!
When did you come up with the idea for the Ice Challenge and what inspired it?
I came up with the idea for the Ice RIB Challenge after the crossing to Brazil. The Brazilian adventure, which involved voyaging from Palermo to South America, was an incredible cross-Atlantic Ocean voyage for me ‒ the biggest expedition I had undertaken up until that time (see boxout.) But the Ice RIB expedition was chiefly motivated by a desire to undertake a solo adventure. Once I started to contemplate it, the idea of passing glaciers and experiencing such beautiful places so high in the northern hemisphere grew increasingly irresistible. Of course, the opportunity to test myself, push my own boundaries, also had great appeal.
Why alone? What in particular was the attraction in doing this strictly solo?
I wanted to try to overcome my own fears and perceived limitations. Conquering loneliness was a big one for me. Being at sea, many miles from the familiar safeguards of normal life, was of course going to be a ‘given’ on a voyage of this type. You don’t know your limits until your circumstances take you to that certain ‘place’. This voyage certainly did that. Furthermore, committing to something and then seeing it through all the way to its completion has its own very great rewards. You learn so much from that. Life lessons.
Why did you choose Nuova Jolly as your expedition craft and in particular Suzuki outboards to power the craft?
Firstly, I chose Suzuki outboard motors because I have been using them for a long time now. I guess you become familiar with a brand, and if the experience is a good one, it’s my tendency at least to stick with what I know and trust. As for the boat, I chose the Nuova Jolly because it has a very capable deep-vee hull that provides good offshore seakeeping. I spent some time considering different propellers and making sure I got the set-up just right. In the end, I felt I had arrived at the point where my fuel consumption and long-range performance were about as good as I could get them.
Can you tell us about what was involved in terms of the planning, the preparation and the sea-trialling prior to the voyage?
Yes, of course. The planning aspect when considering something of this magnitude is absolutely critical. You’ve got to do your homework! I intended to complete the 6,500-mile course successfully, and so working over the detail was painstaking but essential. In fact, planning this crossing from Europe to America was about two and a half years in the making. This was because I needed to study the entire route, establish contacts in advance and then also make sure I had all the clearances needed, including the necessary documentation required, such as visas etc. And from a navigation standpoint, I wanted to anticipate every eventuality and feel as if I knew the route even before actually traversing a single mile of it.
Why did you choose petrol outboards and not diesel inboards and what challenges did you face in terms of creating sufficient fuel capacity?
Well, I chose outboard petrol engines because they are more dynamic than their diesel inboard cousins, and besides, I like to see the power pack operating at any given moment. When the engines are below deck you can’t monitor their behaviour. When the engines are sitting on the transom, they’re observable the whole time and I find that reassuring. But in terms of consumption, the 350hp twin installation with Suzuki’s Lean Burn technology is remarkably efficient. By way of an example, when travelling at my typical 25-knot cruising speed, the boat was generally burning fuel at a rate of 2.6mpg per engine. As for the total fuel capacity, my total fuel load was at least 1,000 litres.
Was there any point during your preparations and planning when you began to have second thoughts or doubt that the voyage was achievable?
I never had any doubts at all really about realising my goal. I was aware that what I was seeking to do was unique and something important too. But I tried to leave nothing to chance while being aware all the time that there was in truth always the capacity for error and for mistakes to be made. After all, although I was employing technology and machinery, the challenge still remained a very human one. I have to say, though, that I truly owe a debt of gratitude to my sponsors for trusting my judgement and throwing their lot in with me. That took courage on their part too.
Speaking of courage, what was your greatest fear and what kept you awake at night the most prior to setting off?
My biggest fear was the concern I had of encountering obstacles at sea. In the waters off Greenland, for example, I was very aware of the likelihood of icebergs, and I don’t mean those that can be picked up on a radar above the waterline. I mean those just beneath the water’s surface: ‘growlers’. As it happened, I didn’t strike any, but semi-submerged ship’s containers and driftwood are also a real danger out there, and, particularly for any planing craft, striking objects of this kind can cause the hull to be ripped apart.
Come the day of departure, how did you feel and were you confident that the boat and its systems were fully prepared?
I had done about 130 hours of tests in all by the time the day of departure arrived. I knew that the boat was in excellent condition and I had scrutinised every last detail of the fit-out, the installations and the boat’s main systems. That said, of course, there is always something that worries you and niggles in the back of your mind. If something does fail, it often tends to be something small. It’s the little things that can you let you down. So attention to detail is essential, especially when the sea is involved!
How many miles did you plan to cover each day and how accurately were you able to hold to that schedule?
Around 200 miles a day was my average and I achieved this very consistently. But of course, there were periods when I just kept going and going!
What was your first major challenge and how unexpected was it?
My biggest challenge, and the one that kicked in pretty quickly, was definitely solitude. It wasn’t a surprise to me, though, and of course this mental challenge was interrupted when making my fuel transfers ashore, but I still struggled with it. After this, I would say the intimidation of rough seas, foul weather and sea fog, which can represent the greatest danger of all. Of course, my Simrad[SB1] radar and navigation equipment was fantastic and provided a great measure of reassurance in poor visibility.
To what degree was the voyage a psychological test as opposed to being purely a physical one?
Strength of mind is fundamental in this type of endurance scenario. We can all think of survival situations where people lived to tell the tale all because they maintained a positive attitude and didn’t give up. I, fortunately, was never in that situation, but I understood the principle. Good physical preparation is essential, of course, but a solo voyage of this kind demands psychological strength to an even greater degree, I believe. To this end, Paolo Loner (aptly named!) coached me professionally and helped me to prepare psychologically for the challenge ahead. Getting enough rest was mentally fatiguing and there were several occasions when sleep deprivation was tough. Amid the seas up in the far north ocean, I sometimes would need to navigate continually with no proper break for anything up to 44 hours at a time. The sea conditions demanded that I stayed on the wheel and kept the boat underway the whole time. I certainly cherished sleep whenever I could grab it. An opportunity to ‘recharge my batteries’. It’s amazing, though, how rest immediately helps give you back your positivity.
What was the most worrying or stressful point of the voyage? Did you ever fear for your life?
The most troubling or stressful part of the voyage was possibly navigating off Greenland in the icy Labrador Sea. Besides the risks involving the icebergs and ‘growlers’, if for any reason I ended up in the water I knew my chances would almost certainly be nil. Taking to a life raft in such seas would have to be an absolute last resort, and the business of transferring into such would be precarious to say the least. (Ed’s note: Remember the old adage: ‘You should only ever step up into a life raft …’) In a survival situation, keeping sufficiently warm in a life raft out there on those cold grey seas would be immensely difficult.
Tell us about some of the high points ‒ perhaps the natural wonders you encountered, and the people and places you visited?
It was wonderful to travel and discover new lands. I loved the whole business of ‘discovery’, and of course, the fact I was voyaging aboard such a ‘little ship’ seemed to heighten the experience all the more. But what I loved more than all else, I think, was encountering and meeting the local people when making my landfalls. Invariably they were so welcoming and hospitable and couldn’t do enough to help. People were also very curious as to what I was doing and why I’d decided to set out on such an adventure that took me so far from home. The people I met touched my heart and I have a lot of fond memories, which I’m so grateful for.
Did anything in the way of equipment ever break or fail?
Fortunately, nothing of importance let me down or got broken, no. Although I did have some problems with the shower pump, which of course is hardly life-threatening, and then also a small amount of water that found its way into the deck lockers, which was a little annoying. But I can hardly complain. All in all, everything stood up to the punishment surprisingly well.
Was refuelling ever an issue en route?
Yes, the matter of refuelling was very difficult and a constant cause of angst. The logistics and fuel carriage could often be slow and problematic, and whether it was fuel drums, jerrycans or even with the direct aid of a tanker, refuelling was rarely an easy exercise. But that said, to a great extent, I already knew this from the outset, and generally each port along the route delivered pretty much what I had anticipated.
At what point did you truly feel you were going to succeed, and what was it like finally seeing the North American coast?
It was an incredibly uplifting moment when, for the first time, I managed to pick out the Canadian coast on the far horizon. I knew at that moment too I had at last cleared the Labrador Sea. Actually, every distant coastline appears on the horizon in the same way. A thin line of grey or pale blue ‒ even a mountainous coastline, which to begin with might look like a series of islands. And of course, the higher the coastline, the longer it seems to take until it’s finally gained because it’s seen from further away. But as I drew closer to the mighty coast of Canada, I began to experience heavy seas and wind-against-tide conditions. RIBs are immensely capable craft as you know, and it’s amazing how much of a beating a well-found RIB can take, but sometimes it does make you wonder. The boat coped well, but navigating through those types of seas could be worse, even more fatiguing and testing, I found, than steaming through the big white-capped ocean swells.
What sort of welcome did you receive upon finally reaching New York?
The welcome was amazing, and the Italian Consul was there too, so I felt very important, as you can imagine! But seriously, that was a great privilege to have such an ‘official’ reception. Likewise, the Suzuki America manager, along with other people in the marine industry, even folk from the Italian community who had followed my progress, even they turned out to greet me! It all made my arrival on US soil very special indeed. But I have to say, as exciting as it was, as I passed beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, I couldn’t help but think of the many migrants, refugees, and religious and ethnic exiles who had made such great sacrifices all those years before in order to get to this same land. It brought things into perspective for me really.
Did your voyage provide you with a greater insight into the issues being faced by the environment and its wildlife?
Good point. Yes, I worked with the Italian National Research Council in order to carry out observation research on plastic pollution, including sampling for microplastics, particularly in the Mediterranean. I need hardly tell you that this pollutant is everywhere now, and wherever studies are carried out, it only underscores the depth and degree of the problem. As custodians of this planet, we should have more respect for the sea. It truly is, ‘the water of life’ …
What were some of the biggest lessons that your record-breaking Ice Challenge taught you?
Nothing is impossible. We only set limits in our own minds. Never say ‘never’. If you work hard to achieve your goals and don’t quit, then, like myself, you might be surprised as to what you can achieve and have the privilege of experiencing.
SergioDavì and his incredible exploits
President of the boat and sport association Ciuri Ciuri Mare, Sergio Davì, aged 52, is a professional skipper and RIB expert in oceanic adventure voyaging who has carved a special career as a professional expeditionary. His real debut was in 2010 when he accomplished his first major challenge, ‘From the flowers of Sicily to the flowers of Holland’, a 41-day voyage from Palermo, Italy, to the coast of Amsterdam, undertaken during the winter months when conditions were at their most challenging. This voyage was completed using a 10m production RIB powered by two 300hp outboard engines and was recounted in his book Palermo-Amsterdam 3000 miglia in gommone. Some two years later, in the summer of 2012, Davì undertook the ‘Nordkapp RIB Mission’, commencing from Palermo on 17th June, which then saw him reach North Cape aboard a twin 150hp outboard-rigged 8m open RIB some 52 days later ‒ a distance of 4,000 miles in all. The North Cape success inspired him to realise the dream of many seafarers: crossing the Atlantic Ocean. So, in 2015, Davì set off once again from Palermo with the goal of reaching Rio de Janeiro aboard a 9m RIB, this time powered by twin diesel sterndrive engines. Unfortunately, the Atlantic RIB crossing was initially halted in Lanzarote because of a fire in the engine compartment of the vessel. But Davì’s determination saw him setting off once again, and on 29th April 2017 he left Palermo, finally reaching Recife (Brazil) on 17th June after completing 4,300 nautical miles over a total of 49 days at sea. (The voyage’s schedule involved departing Palermo bound for Gibraltar, then subsequently took in Morocco, the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria to Cape Verde (approx. 900 miles), Fernando de Noronha (1,300 miles) and Natal, before its completion in Recife, Brazil.) This voyage involved at least 300 hours of navigation with the RIB’s engines running almost continually. Then, in June 2019, Davì left his homeport of Palermo once again, this time to take on his most recent expedition, the Ice RIB Challenge. This latest endeavour employed an 11m Nuova Jolly RIB powered by twin 350hp Suzuki outboards.
The boat and its engines
The RIB used in this 6,500-mile voyage was the Nuova Jolly Prince 38cc RIB ‒ a standard-production 11.30m model but modified to take internal/under-deck steel tankage with a capacity of 1,000 litres (700 litres plus 300 litres). Auxiliary Nauta flexi-tanks were also carried as backup. Other custom additions to the NJ33 included the fibreglass/techno composite T-top designed by Daniele Rizzo of Palermo. This item and the Bagliò-designed laserplex windscreen were assembled by Kontiki Nautical. Seating was supplied by Besenzoni of Italy.
The Suzuki DF350A, a 4-stroke 4.4L V6 outboard employing Suzuki’s latest dual counterrotating prop system, was the motor of choice. The twin rig installed gave a high degree of both efficiency and performance, bearing in mind the payload it was responsible for propelling. These engines, like the boat itself, stood up to the expedition remarkably well and performed without fault.
Safety equipment included an offshore life raft, a Simrad navigation and control system complete with two 12in multifunction top NSS displays, an AP44 autopilot, an AIS system, a weather data reception system and C-MAP cartography. The boat was fitted with an Ultraflex electro-hydraulic steering system and an Iridium satellite device, and carried both fixed and portable VHF systems by Cobra Marine. For additional safety, both an EPIRB and a personal PLB supplied by GME were included on the kit list. A total of four Optima batteries were installed into the NJ33 to provide main ship’s power and switchover auxiliary power.