I must have been on a landyacht. A foolish expression and the mouth half-open because my lower jaw is too tired to stay attached to my jawbone, I am watching an episode of the TV series S.H.A.D.O., one of the amazing science fiction TV series created by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson. This is happening in a village to the south of Rome after having spent three mid-November days fighting a too narrow beach and a sticky sand: I am sure I have already lived a moment like that.
Well, I had the same foolish expression, my hands were aching badly, there was sand even in my ears and no foam rubber cushion could have saved my bony and wet ass from the bottom of the hull. I was still watching on the BBC2 something created by Sylvia and Gerry Andersons imagination, an episode of the TV series Thunderbirds, with those electronic puppets which take half the episode to get to their means of transport using an armchair which disappears into the floor and following the most improbable secret routes. Well then, where was I?
I was in Terschelling, Frisian Isles: it is an isle off the Dutch coast where the Landyacht World Championship took place.
Remember very well the Thunderbirds, their secret routes and their improbable things. Perhaps you can start with the following one: I am the Italian team captain. I do not deserve it, but I am the one and only participant. Some fellow-countrymen, participant or not, would have definitely been a help for me, at least during the tug-of-war match. It is such a new experience to be captain that just during the briefing I am so unaware that I am elsewhere. The other improbable thing is that I am a gondolier. To be clear, I know very well I am not a gondolier; some months have already passed and if I meet somebody Ive never met before, I do not boast of being a gondolier. Yet my insurance company, a necessary step to take part in the competition, is of another opinion. In Italy, if you say the word landyacht everyone goggles: the only similar activity my insurer agent could think of was that of gondolier. Unlikely events take place with my personal things too. For example, my beauty case tought to be made to contain soap, toothpaste, toothbrush and disposable razors for life. On the contrary, it too is wet and gives shelter to a Leatherman knife and two wrenches, in case of need during the long World Championship races.
With regard to secret routes, they stay much the same as before. Not all of them, of course. Quite the opposite. My sole experience of regattas proceeded from the Pacrim, which is a cinch compared to the World Championship. The ground and the yacht at my disposal are completely different. I went to Terschelling to learn and to take part in an unforgettable event: I hit home and in addition to my homecoming unhurt, I carried out all the regattas, I gave back the landyacht placed at my disposal intact as it was and I gave no problems to the other participant (at least, I think so).
The story begins on October the 2th. I landed some days early because I need to familiarize myself with the ground and with the Seagull Standart, principally for safetys sake. At last, on that very day I meet Jan Bloem, who is assembling the landyachts which are at overseas drivers disposal. Jan tells me what I should do and how it works, from the daily assembly of the sail to the starting. Connected to the steering gear, which is controlled by the pedals as usual, there is a little handwheel which allows you to steer the landyacht using the leeward hand, while you can use the windward hand to haul the sheet. Push your Standart till you reach a reasonable speed and then leap into the yacht. At first the thought of leaping into it while it is moving throws me into a panic, but after some attempts this flying start seems fun and much more dignified if compared with the Manta goose-style start. Even if I think that in the U.S.A. everything is much more genuine and practical (from the requirements to be admitted to dinner-parties in the marquee to the extreme simplicity of the Manta Twin and the less rigidity of the regatta field), I rather like some European features, such as the more discriminating course and the daily check of the trim of the landyacht. I am sure it has been better to make my debut at the Pacrim. Besides, I feel lucky to be here in Terschelling to take part in the World Championship, because my fellows tell me that the other European beaches are even harder: the prevailing wind blowing on the Frisian Isles usually comes from the south, right-angled to the beach, while at De Panne (Belgium) you cant get away from close hauling and at St. Peter Ording (Germany) you have to steer to avoid puddles and deep holes. Hardships strengthen the character and beeing at my second experience it seems to me that Terschelling is enough to gratify my heroic and athletic ambitions.
Sunday. First race: 32nd place.
Strong wind and an increased tension because while the first mark is not far from the starting point, the second one is a long way off; minimum time 40 minutes. As I supposed, the pack reaches the mark in close formation. Maybe it is not stylish, but I apply the handbrake: there is no reason to tip over or to collide at the beginning of the longest race. Some participants turn upside down, the Dane fellow losts a rear wheel as I follow him closely. Every channel running to the sea and every puddle blind you when you cross them.
I make a mistake which could turn out to be really dangerous: I do not remember the position of an enormous puddle. I have a feeling of grey water in my eyes and salty water in my mouth. I am forced to reduce speed from 50km per hour to 0. After some coughs, I see again the white of the sail, I know I have to haul, I have to start again. I hit my helmet because as a result of the impact it is dangling from my head. I lost one of the shields which make the front wheel aerodynamic. The other one got stuck and now it is knocking against the rim. Maybe I should not dare, but suddenly the memory of Gilles Villeneuve at Zandvoort in 1979 strikes me.
Monday. Second race: 34th place.
Third race: 35th place.
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to understand that I alternate a good day, full of positive results, and a bad one. Absolutely. A gentle wind is blowing and it is no more a question of hauling the sheet to death and holding out. It is necessary for me to choose the right course: if I go off the road, if I dont remember it or dont recognize it, it could be the end. I lose touch with the first ones, those who know the right course, and I have to think up a route. In theory there is no doubt that the darker route is the right one, but the development of the race drives me to an area where theres nothing else to do but get off and push. I really dont know where to try to find a breath of wind.
The wind rises little. I have to do my best, even because I am no longer a debutant and I have to show Ive learned to do something, how to start at least. I have to push my landyacht for a longer time to pick up speed. Well, maybe you will see a brilliant start during the next World Championship. Another mistake, at the first mark the sheet is under my body but this time I will learn from my mistakes and wont make them any more. Even an overturn is an experience I have to go through. I am hanging in mid-air, I got stuck in the narrow shell of my Standart. A scorer rushes to help me, he holds me up by the shoulder and at last I manage to get off. My landyacht is on its wheels again, I overtake two opponents to attempt a pointless comeback. Two races to forget. On the other hand, I come back home dry. The sport clothes I used to wear (a full suit, a pair of cotton trousers, a pair of waterproof trousers, a sweatshirt, a sweater, a wind jacket, an oilskin given to me by my gas station keeper after a patient collection of gift stamps) had been replaced with a more functional water-proof suite lent me by an islander, Jort Blanken, who will be finishing the Championship near the top, at the 9th place.
Thursday. Fourth race: 29th place.
Fifth race: 26th place.
Its an odd race day (the third one), so everybody expects a lot from me. We have been cut off by a windstorm for two days. The storm is over but the weather report shows variable winds, between 8 and 10 on the Beaufort scale. Exciting. I fill up two bags with sand and put them in the shell as Master Jan recommends me. Even if I have a poor constitution and the two bags of sand keep on shifting about, I feel quite at my ease. My landyacht doesnt cover an inch keeping its wheel in line: I have to do with an endless, wonderful, delightful countersteer. I am completely absorbed in what I am doing and manage to change my place in the little shell of my landyacht, trying to balance the windblasts. During the second race of the day the wind falls. I empty the bags of sand and feel happy, getting my best result.
Friday. Sixth race: 32th place.
Seventh race: 29th place.
I know that I will derive little from an even race day, but I wake up full of enthusiasm and have great ambitions, like catching up with Laszlo Westra and Curtis Obi, my direct opponents in the general ranking. I waste my first race like an idiot: I havent fastened my helmet correctly and during the whole race I have to hold it with my hand. It is the last rebellion act from my motorbike helmet, totally unsuitable for a race on the seashore, with its beautiful stuffing, which I have tried to wring and dry for days. During the last race I decide to risk everything, beginning with a spectacular start. And it is spectacular, because while I am pushing my landyacht hard I tip over and someone passes on the top of the sail. As for the rest, the race is more awful than the previous one: the ruts are deeeper and deeper, both on the straight road and near the marks. They are traps leading you either to the North Sea or to a stop.
|English version by Barbara bandini|