If you want an easy life, the mantra might be, “Don’t take up offshore sailing.” As the skipper of arguably the fastest multi-hull on water, Giovanni Soldini, a master yacht racer with countless epic voyages behind him, knows that better than anyone.
Soldini is a leading light in the fast-moving and fast-developing sport of foiling, which is racing boats that, at their best, fly rather than float, and can reach speeds of 40 knots (about 46 mph) in winds of just 15 knots. Since they were first introduced in competitive sailing in the America’s Cup in the early 2000s, foiling multi-hull yachts have transformed yacht racing from top to bottom. At the cutting-edge of material science and engineering, foiling yachts work like hydrofoils. With them, an entire yacht can rocket along as much as five feet out of the water on two narrow, L-shaped blades set into the booms on either side of the main hull. With the boat out of the water and the drag removed, these yachts can reach speeds only dreamed of until a decade ago, often four to five times the speed of the wind—which makes them dangerous close to shore. Soldini and the crew of his 70-foot Maserati Multi 70 do this out over thousands of miles of rolling, open ocean, in voyages that can reach halfway round the world.
While the basic principles of making a boat fly have been established in the relatively flat inshore waters of Americas Cup courses, making it work in open ocean is down to innovators like Soldini and his crew, who over six years have made hundreds of minute adjustments, much of them with the help of Maserati’s stellar automotive design team in Modena, Italy, home of the Quattro Porte, the Ghibli and the Gran Turismo.
A lot of Soldini’s tweaks, however, are by gut instinct. And all of the innovation is designed to get the yacht up on her foils and keep her there. Rudders on each boom and “Manta” fins on the main hull have had elevators added that can control the amount of lift. Anything out of the water is given aerodynamic shaping to coax a fraction-of-a-knot advantage. In terms of innovation, the Multi 70 is in a constant battle to keep ahead of the opposition, a handful of other equally futuristic super-boats with equally fanatical crews. It’s the space race at sea level.
The ride is anything but the serene feeling of a yacht under sail. It’s a soaking, bruising, jolting, adrenaline-rush joyride. And at these speeds, when things go wrong, they go wrong fast. On Soldini’s last race, the Transpac 50 between Los Angeles and Hawaii, the Multi 70 struck a large, heavy, submerged object at 4 a.m. while doing 24 knots. The unidentified flotsam (previous collisions have been with a household boiler, a tractor tire, and a suspected tuna) ripped off part of the port prow and half the elevator on the rudder. Submerged objects like this one are an all-too-common hazard in ocean races. The only hope—when you’re traveling faster than any sailboat in history—is that you’ll miss them.
Soldini is an engaging, beardy 50-something, with a shag of salt- and sun-bleached hair, and a disarming piratical cackle (with matching earring) that erupts often, especially when he’s talking about the ups and downs of manhandling a thoroughbred yacht in an environment as unpredictable as the open ocean. Dyslexic as a child, he turned his back to the land at 16 and made his first Atlantic crossing. He has spent more time at sea than on land ever since.
On his second solo race round-the-world-race, in 1999, Soldini spent almost 24 hours looking for a stricken fellow competitor, Isabelle Autissier, whose yacht had capsized in mountainous seas in the southern Pacific ocean, 60 degrees south of the Equator, or two thirds of the way to the South Pole. Scouring a 100 square-kilometer patch of roiling sea, much of it clamped to the top of the mast, Soldini found her, saved her, and with Autissier as a now-passive guest, continued on to win the race in his class. He earned the Legion D’Honneur from a grateful France two years later.
After three years at the helm of Maserati’s VOR70, Soldini switched in 2016 to the new Maserati Multi 70, and has been busting records wide open since. Every nautical mile travelled is research. And the boat gets faster with each adjustment Soldini makes to trim and hardware.
“Until last year, we never won a race,” he says, “except when an opponent made a wrong move. Slowly, slowly, we solved the problems, and this past year, from the first races in October, we won the races even in very changeable conditions. We were like ‘Wow!’ But we won by 20 minutes—it’s nothing over a 600-mile race. Then we did the transatlantic and won by 45 minutes. The next race we won by just 10 minutes. Nothing! But we won. Then there’s always the next problem. The next problem is always to make the boat better, more efficient. It’s about making an advantage from almost nothing. There is always something we can improve. Then we learn.”
On our brief test run out of Long Beach last month, before the Transpac50, the newly tweaked and stiffened rudders coaxed almost 40 knots out of the yacht in just 17 knots of wind. We rocketed under the bows of vast, anchored supertankers, their crew emerging from the bridges high above to take videos on their phones as we disappeared into the engulfing spray. Soldini, beaming (and of course cackling) at the starboard helm, professed himself very happy with the run. What a way to travel.
“These boats are fantastic,” he says again with that laugh. “You can go really fast; they’re not so expensive compared to a big monohull, but they are so much faster. The speed is everything. But I like all boats. I have a cruising boat that goes only ten knots max, and I love it. Its about getting the best from the yacht. When I go on holiday with my family in Italy, you know, we will probably go sailing.”