POWER IS NOTHING WITHOUT CONTROL. Ambrogio Beccaria was born in Milan in 1991 and gained a degree in nautical engineering. In 2019 he became the first Italian in the history of sailing to win  the Mini-Transat – the historic solo competition that crosses the Atlantic Ocean on board 6.5 metre boats. Since 2022 Beccaria has been reaching important goals on his boat “Alla Grande – Pirelli” and in 2023 won the Transat Jacques Vabre, the most important race of the year.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Ambrogio Beccaria, have you always been at ease with the ocean? 

As a child growing up in Milan I spent the whole year dreaming about the sea, and when the holiday month by the sea finally came I tried to spend as much time as possible in the sea. Not by the sea, but actually in the water.

Why is it that not much water goes through Milan, but several other Milanese people, including the famous Giovanni Soldini, became sailing champions?

In fact I started late, doing sailing races on Lake Como aged 14, but for the sport that I, Giovanni Soldini, Alberto Riva and many other great Milanese sailors do, you don’t only need technical skills, you need a good boat. For that you need a good company to go with you on this trip. Milan is a city where this is the easiest possible, because there are a lot of companies who want to advertise and so they sponsor your activities.

“I love everything about sailing.”

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria at sea on his magnificent boat “Alla Grande – Pirelli” in Le Havre, Normandy

Ambrogio Beccaria, did you become a nautical engineer to help you build racing boats?  

No, it was just an excuse to go and live by the sea. I was already racing but was far from being a professional, and I was looking for a solution to how I could spend my life on boats. My father wanted me to do some studies and I was in love with physics too, so it was a balanced choice to do nautical engineering at La Spezia University. I moved there and started studying, but I also started doing a lot more sailing.

Does being a nautical engineer help you to build and prepare the boat?

Definitely. Being an engineer gives me the scientific method, but there is always the question if the boat is more important than the skipper. In the America’s Cup autopilots do the foiling adjustments and steer the boat, but having more technology on board doesn’t mean that the boat is simplified. In fact, the boat gets more complicated, because you need to know how to use this complex technology to your advantage, otherwise it only damages your performance. Skippers are super important.

Did you sail your own boat when you started on Lake Como?

I had a Laser 4000 dinghy on Lake Como, but at La Spezia. I went with professional crews on others’ boats, and because I didn’t have much experience cleaned a lot of decks! Then I started doing some seasonal skippering, and that helped me a lot, because I was earning good money for a 22-year-old and was also gaining a lot of experience managing big boats.

You bought an old Mini 6.50 in Portugal and restored it. Was this your first serious boat?

Yes, this was the beginning of my professional sports career. The Mini 6.50s are a magical boat, because they are only 6.5 metres long and 3 metres wide and weigh 900 kilos, but every two years you can race across the Atlantic with a fleet of 90 boats.

You crossed the Atlantic single handed on this small boat?

Yes, in 2017. It’s two legs. We started from La Rochelle to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and this leg was 9 days. The second leg was 17 days from Gran Canaria to Fort-de-France in Martinique in the Caribbean. I learned hugely from this experience.

How did it feel to be alone in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic?

It’s hard to explain because when you arrive you eliminate a lot of the bad side of the adventure from your mind, and remember the good side way better. I wasn’t there to find myself. I was there because I was in love with the competition and to discover more about the sea.

How did you sleep?

It’s  a discipline, and you have to split your sleep into small phases. A good balance for me was to sleep between 15 and 30 minutes in each phase. You have to find your balance, knowing that you cannot go with less than 5 to 6 hours sleep a day.

What technology did you have? 

In the sailing world we call the Mini Transat 6.50 the Ocean School, because you have no satellite communications or computers. You only get a very general and imprecise radio meteorological forecast. It’s primitive sailing and you have to be really careful, but this is not a dangerous route. You can find some storms in the first five days from France to Gibraltar, but after that you are in the trade winds.

“You need to be a sailor. You need to understand your boat, to feel what is going on, to be connected with the sea.”

Ambrogio Beccaria, what are your biggest enemies? 

The biggest enemies are in your head. Sailing is a psychological sport. It’s a competition, a race, and the main obstacles are technical and psychological. You have to be prepared, but the biggest wall to go through is the motivation. You have to know why you are doing the race. I was there to win the competition and when you start it’s not only about being first, but about how good am I compared to the others.

Is it different now that you know?

Yes, and in the ocean world it’s not possible to win, because it is a French world, and they have better boats, better designers and better sponsors. They have been doing this for 200 years. Now I live in Brittany, and when you love sailing you cannot help falling in love with Brittany. It’s a region that turns around sailing and its culture. There is no other place where there is this professional sailing world.

Why is this?

The French sailing world is a meritocracy, there are plenty of sponsors and the sponsors only choose by results. In all the other countries sailing is a privileged hobby more than a sport. In France you can be a child who starts in an Optimist dinghy and then you get some results and then you go on; and then maybe there will be a sponsor that’s interested in your career. They want to promote themselves and so they call you. This only exists in France, and our sport needs a lot more of this kind of development.

In 2022 you found two major sponsors: Pirelli, the main and lead sponsor, and Mapei, the global sponsor, and you built the 40 feet long boat the “Alla Grande-Pirelli”? 

Yes, after Covid launched this ambitious project to design and build a Class40 boat in Italy with Italian designers. I was not moved by nationalism, but because I am more Italian than French I was connected to this world. I found the designers Gianluca Guelfi and Fabio D’Angeli, and “Alla Grande-Pirelli” was the first boat they did alone, but motivation is more important than experience. They were the most motivated guys that I had ever met, and they developed a lot of software themselves to help design and analyse the boat.

Is your “Alla Grande-Pirelli” like Soldini’s Maserati Multi 70 Trimaran?

No, not at all. It’s a Class40, because I want to sail in a high-level competitive class where there are a lot of boats so you can compete with other high-level skippers. It’s a very simple fiberglass boat. There is no canting keel and no foil system, and because of the Class40 rules these two managed on a low budget. Budgets explode when you have complicated boats, and there are other classes that I would like to do, but it is not yet the right moment of my career.

Are your competitors from many countries?

Yes, there are guys from all over the world, but the best ones are French. We got the boat in the water two months before the Route du Rhum, which was my first single handed race with this boat, so it was a huge discovery. More than a million visitors come to Saint-Malo for two weeks because it’s one of the most important races of the panorama and it was my life’s dream just to start. And then to think that I finished second with a boat that I didn’t know….. I had gybed only once before starting this race because we didn’t have any time.

How long does the Route du Rhum last? 

14 days. From Saint-Malo you are in the English Channel and you arrive in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean without any stopover in the Canaries or the Azores. The race is completely singlehanded, but satellite communications and computers are allowed. That changed a lot, because you have simulations of your routes and performance. There is a  lot to study and understand.

Is it a big exercise of concentration?

Yes, but you cannot be concentrated 100% all the time for two weeks, so it’s a state of mind. You need to be a sailor. You need to understand your boat, to feel what is going on, to be connected with the sea. There are so many aspects to be performed on a race that sometimes you forget to eat or sleep, and recovery is very complicated if you don’t sleep for eight hours.

Do you need a lot of physical preparation?

You don’t have to be very physically strong. Males and females can compete in the same category together, and females can do very well even if they are less strong.

But sometimes it must get physical? 

Yes, there are a lot of flying fish in the Atlantic Ocean, and sitting on the Mini you get fish in your face. In the Transat Jacques Vabre that I won with Nicolas Andrieu, we were sailing near the Canaries and a big whale was just in front of us, which can be quite dangerous.

What happens if you get sick?

Luckily I have never been very sick. I am only seasick before the start of the big races, because then I can’t sleep well. I am stressed, and I have fear about not being able to do this, to crack, to just say: “I can’t.” I know that it will be very intense, very windy, very demanding, and sometimes you just can’t say before starting if you will be able to manage or not. I always sleep well at sea, even in a big storm, and I always sleep very badly on land during the week before the start.

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria working on his Laser 4000 dinghy as a youth

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria departing for the Mini-Transat in La Rochelle, France

Ambrogio Beccaria and Giovanni Soldini

Giovanni Soldini and Ambrogio Beccaria at work together

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria at the helm of “Alla Grande – Pirelli”

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria sailing “Alla Grande – Pirelli”  in Guadeloupe © Lorenzo Sironi

Ambrogio Beccaria

Ambrogio Beccaria and Nicolas Andrieu celebrating the victory of Transat Jacques Vabre aboard “Alla Grande – Pirelli” (November 2023) © Martina Orsini

“Once you won one race then you have to win the next.”

Ambrogio Beccaria, how many days a year are you at sea?

Now it’s a profession, and I do 7 to 8 races per year. With the training I spend maybe 80 to 100 days on the sea, and three months without seeing anybody is a lot.

Which are your most important trophies?

Definitely the Mini-Transat in 2019, because I was the first Italian to win this race. Then I won the Normandy Channel Race last summer, and the Transat Jacques Vabre in 2023. I am the second Italian to win, joining Soldini who won it in 2007 on a Class40 like me. These are the best trophies.

Which races do you want to win in future?

You always just want to win the next race, but I would like to win the Vendée Globe, a single-handed, non-stop, non-assisted round-the-world sailing race that takes place every four years. With the “Alla Grande-Pirelli I would like to win the next race, The Transat CIC.

When is the next race?

28th April, and I’m going from Lorient, Brittany, to New York, so it will be a special arrival and I never did the North Atlantic before. I always crossed in the Tradewinds south of the Azores, which is quite safe. The North Atlantic is not at all the same place. This is a very strong wind race, I will be alone, and preparing the sails is very important.

How many days will you be at sea?

About 10 days. There will be iceberg limits, because the further north you go, the shorter the distance. With satellites we can see where the icebergs are, so the race committee will set ice limits that boats cannot go through which will change the race a lot. It will also be the first time that I will race in the Gulf Stream, so I did some meteorological, strategic and navigator courses, and I’m trying to get as much experience as I can from people who already did this kind of route.

Do you have some heroes?

Yes, a lot, and I did this sport because of Giovanni Soldini, an idol who is also a master who helped me a lot. We met in La Spezia and he gave me a lot of advice. Then I have a coach in Brittany, Tanguy Leglatin and without him I would never have won the Mini-Transat 2019. There is also an Italian coach, Riccardo Apolloni, and without him I am not sure I would even be here today.

Is Soldini a competitor of yours?

No, Giovanni Soldini is racing in other classes. He won the Around Alone in 1999, 25 years ago, and it’s unbelievable the motivation he still has. I was on board with his crew when we set the English Channel record with his Maserati Multi-70. Vittorio Bissaro was also on board, and he gave us both a lot of trust. Soldini is the boss, but he’s very good at finding good people and letting them experiment.

You won the Transat Jacques Vabre in 2023 with Nicolas Andrieu?

Yes, a double handed race, the most important race of the year, the goal of the whole season was to win it. The arrival of this race was unbelievable because the fleet was split in two and we were south of the others. No one knew who would come first. It was a very tough race.

Do you want to keep on doing this?

Yes. I’m young and motivated. When I will lose my motivation then I will probably switch to something else, but one of my career dreams is to win the Vendée Globe, the hardest around alone race ever. For 70 days without a stop, it’s the most unbelievable race in an IMOCA 60, 60 feet long,18 metres. All by yourself and it’s a foiling boat, so it’s a very extreme sport.

Will Pirelli sponsor that?

I hope so, but we didn’t discuss it yet because the season that is starting is our goal for now. I will talk soon with them about the future. Pirelli gave me fundamental support right from the start, and I think they are very happy about this project, having in common several values such as Italianity, passion for competitions, technological innovation, and also because when we started it wasn’t written anywhere that we would have been so successful. We already got some great results, but once you won one race then you have to win the next. So, let’s see how our season goes.

Many years ago, the mountain climber Reinhold Messner explained to me that everything was in the preparation. Is it the same on a boat?

It’s true and untrue. In sailing we quote Valentin Mankin who was a big coach in Italy. He said that you go to races just to get the cup, but the cup depends only on the work that you do on the training. This is true, but not completely, because intuition has a big role in ocean racing. There are some creative processes and it’s not just about following a path that you’ve written. You are guided by experience, by data and by a lot of stuff, but then there is why you choose one course of action from other choices that were available.

When you come back to dry land is it easy to return to a normal routine?

It’s very easy to get your normal rhythm of sleep. If a human being needs to be very productive it’s better to split your sleep into small phases, but you cannot do it for all your life, and it depends a lot on your motivation. When I am at sea I know why I’m doing this. To paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo slept in small phases. Leonardo da Vinci too, but it’s impossible if you don’t have something that drives you.

Has the sport of sailing changed a lot since Sir Francis Chichester, the famous solitary global navigator of 1967?

It was not a sport for Chichester, so it’s quite different. I look at these guys with huge respect and admiration because they were true pioneers, and their era was one of strong dreams, the years that man thought that he could go to the moon.

Were the boats very different without today’s technology?

Yes, and also the technical gear. They were soaking wet every day. We have wonderful gear: super dry, super light, and we have updated weather forecasts every two or three hours that can be so precise that you are able to understand every kilometer. This is our most impressive achievement.

When you are at sea what are your general concerns?

One of my biggest fears is that something happens to the people I love on the land and I am not there and no one tells you, because you are on the sea and so it doesn’t make any sense to tell you about it. In the Route du Rhum when I was arriving there was an accident, and two guys died when the boat they were working on for the organisation sank. I don’t know why my team told me this, because you are very fragile when you are sailing alone, like a child. You have to be careful about which news you get. You don’t have anyone to speak with about it and you can’t get away from it.

Why do you like solitary sailing so much, rather than racing with other people?

I do that also, but sailing is too beautiful to let someone else do your sport. I love everything about sailing. I love the sea. I love to trim the sails. I love to adjust the boat. I love the choices, the weather. I love also the endurance of the sport, and I’m very good at the endurance so it would be stupid for me to stop.

Are there many other things you like in life?

I love relationships, I love friends and meeting people, just to understand life. Then there are some hobbies: I love football, I love cooking, making risotto. I love to eat fish. I love to fish. I love to swim. Sailors don’t usually love to swim, but I love it and also go swimming to train.

How many years you think a career like yours can last?

I’m 32 and it depends, because in this sport you can go on a lot but maybe change your goal. For now it’s pure competition, and you can be on top of the wave until you are 45.

What about the element of luck?

You have to build your own luck. There is no secret recipe that will work forever. Life always changes, and you have to be prepared for everything. The advice that I give myself is to investigate my deep feelings. It’s complicated to describe ourselves, but I’m a super calm guy. I never get annoyed. I am very patient, which came from my grandfather who taught me how to fish when I was a small boy. He was always telling me about how being patient is important. Then, sometimes, I’m a monomaniac. When I was getting infected by this virus of sailing, I put all of the energy that I have into this adventure and I talked with everybody about that, trying to build this career with all my energy. And I have a lot of energy.

When there is no wind is when you have to be patient?

Exactly, and the French are very bad at it because they are used to having a lot of wind. I come from the Mediterranean, so I know that there are moments without wind, and in those moments you can rest; and just feeling comfortable in this situation you have already won, because everything is about yourself when there is no wind, because you can do nothing. You can’t move, and if you start to get nervous and think that you are a very unlucky boy that you don’t have your wind, rather than just waiting and trying to do your best and feel comfortable in this situation. While the others are feeling uncomfortable, you are gaining something good.

Why do you live in Lorient instead of living in La Spezia?

For the culture and because there is wind for training, to play with, to understand. In sailing, we are able to go against the wind, but not exactly straight into the wind. You are always learning how to use the wind, and wind is one of the most mystic parts of nature, because it’s invisible and super unsteady. We try to model it with our scientific method, but we will never be able to understand it fully. Even a small thunderstorm is very complicated.

What is success for you?

Success is something not very connected to our own self, it’s more something that people say about you and depends a lot on where and in which culture you live. If you dream about something and then succeed, maybe we can consider it success, but it’s not something that I’m trying to arrive at.

Thank you very much  and good luck for your future adventures.

Portrait of Ambrogio Beccaria © Martina Orsini