Pasquale De Gregorio is one of the closest sailors to all lovers of the sea and sailing. Pasquale is an example, he had to conquer the sea, he was not born near it, it was love at first sight, which lasted a lifetime. Pasquale embodies a dream, that of racing the most extreme solo race, the Everest of sailing, the Vendée Globe. He teaches us that there are no expiration dates, you don’t need to be twenty to go around the world, he did it at almost sixty.
Pasquale De Gregorio did not embark on a crazy adventure, he studied, he sailed and in stages he reached his goal. Pasquale did not finish first. But the courage to finish the Vendée Globe, disadvantaged by his blocked canting keel blocked and without weather forecasts, is worthy of a great moral recognition. Pasquale did not have great resources for his project and he paid dearly for his dream but lived it fully, without regrets. He has never proposed himself as a protagonist in the spotlight of the media, but we feel he is one of our family, that of the sea and Sailors.
This and much more is Pasquale De Gregorio, born in 1941, 180,000 miles of sailing under his belt. A gentleman sailor, in love with the sea and always consistent with his choice of life, which involved losses but also a lot of enrichment. In a recently released interview he told us his story, before leaving with his love for a cruise in southern Italy.
Pasquale De Gregorio: at the origin of the passion for the sea and for sailing
“I was born in Abruzzo, on the slopes of the Majella, so I was more of a mountaineer and I had a relationship with the sea as a normal citizen. I used to go on vacation to the beach in the summer and I’m not even a very good swimmer, there was more desire for knowledge, initially. I have a degree in law and for almost twenty years I worked in the legal service of the Bank of Italy,” recalls Pasquale De Gregorio.
“In 1973, I was 32, I was undecided whether to buy a van equipped for traveling or to take a sailing course. I chose the second option and went to the famous Caprera school and for me it was a dazzling experience. Caprera worked the miracle, also thanks to a shift manager, Piero Bianchessi. He was an experienced sailor and taught us sailing on dinghies, preparing us for sailing on larger boats. Years later we met again in Vanuatu, where he had moved.
In 1988 I gave up everything, my job and my career and I gave myself completely to sailing. I had envisaged that I would be living at sea already the year after I had attended the Sailing Center in Caprera. I had worked out this plan: to hold on until the minimum seniority for retirement had matured to have a pension that would provide me with an economic basis. I was also aware that if I wanted to do this in life, by organizing school cruises with sea lovers, I had to learn how to sail well. I bought my first boat, a Brigand 750 and took my first cruise, the first time sailing offshore. In that period I saw clear in the plan of my existence,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
Change of vision for a new lifestyle
“In the years that have elapsed between the elaboration of the project and its realization I have dedicated a lot of time to learning. I committed myself to creating the experience that would guarantee me an activity as a skipper and instructor and learn to be always in complete safety, for myself and others. The Adriatic was my gymnasium and offshore school, initially with Open regattas, such as the 500×2 or the Rimini – Corfù – Rimini. What fascinated me most and still fascinates me about the sea is the lifestyle,” Pasquale De Gregorio points out.
“The first sailing course, that first experience in Sardinia had triggered a series of very profound chain reactions. In my passion for the sea there is the tourist aspect of travelling, the romantic relationship with the sea, people, places and anchorages. But the approach to a lifestyle that is completely the opposite of the one I followed out of habit and necessity.
My previous life was dedicated to the affirmation of an economic condition of well-being in a bourgeois and common perspective. Starting to go by boat and making the first trips, I realized that there was a completely different life alternative. I understood that you could live well, with little,” says Pasquale De Gregorio. “It was a kind of detonator, I started peeling off a series of certainties and beliefs.”
Family and sea, a combination that is not always easy
“Reconciling sea and family is not always easy, at the time of my life change I was married with two children. My first wife initially enjoyed the boat but had not undergone the same transformation, the same change of vision. Unfortunately, this has led to a progressive distancing and our lives have taken a divergent path,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
“My two sons enjoy sailing with me but always in a detached way, they haven’t fully embraced my same passion. However, they joined me around the world at the Round the World Rally-Europa 92 in which I participated in 1991-92. They saw the Vava’u and we sailed to Thailand, sharing beautiful landscapes and emotions.
For fifteen years I have been happily remarried with Oriana Ubaldi, painter and lover of the sea and sailing. When we met he had already made an Atlantic crossing. We met twenty-six years ago for common marine passions and a couple of years later the spark struck. Now we sail together,” confesses Pasquale De Gregorio.
From cruising to races, but offshore
“After I started sailing on my cruise boat, I met other sailors and ventured into the world of racing. For me it was always a question of responsibility. I did the races with a view to training, as if it were a gym to carry out this activity with awareness and responsibility. After participating in various triangle regattas, even IOR championships on friends’ boats, I realized that it was a stressful environment. There was not only the pleasure of sailing and competing sportingly, we often ended up fighting for the rankings,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
“When instead I approached the environment of the Open regattas, in particular at the beginning the 500×2, I found a completely different environment of expert and good sailors. At sea they were equally committed to the maximum and competitive, but with a certain lightness, with irony.
This true sailor approach helped me to train. Then the sea, initially the Adriatic did the rest, like the Kvarner when it gets angry puts men and boat structures to a severe test. On these Mediterranean experiences I have based my preparation as a skipper and the preparation of the boat itself for the world tour as a crew.” Concludes Pasquale De Gregorio.
Pasquale De Gregorio, the first round of the world, Round the World Rally-Europa 92
“In 1991 I entered the Round the World Rally-Europa 92, a round the world race in stages, as a crew. For me it was a further step of enrichment. I had never crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), so sailing all the oceans, even in tropical latitudes, was very beautiful. Humanly it was also an important experience, we were seven Italian boats and other boats from all over the world,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
“We sailed and visited the most beautiful places on earth, but what impressed me most was the navigation. My boat was a 50 footer brought to 53 and from a marine point of view it was very intense.
Then, after touring the tropical latitudes, I said to myself why not see what’s further down. I was caught by the idea of the Vendée Globe which in reality I consider more as a consequence than as the goal of my journey.”
Towards single-handed sailing
“From sailing around the world as a crew to sailing solo for me it was a natural transition. During the Rally, I had two crew mates who did the whole circumnavigation with me. They were normal people, like me, a retired pilot and a younger guy who worked in the field of computer science.
In reality the most experienced of the three was me and I felt the responsibility. From the departure from Gibraltar to Thailand, I never slept in a bunk, I slept outside ready to intervene and check. Then in Thailand I met a Frenchman who guaranteed me the presence in the cockpit of another expert,” recalls Pasquale De Gregorio.
The Vendée Globe, a dream to achieve a goal
“As to the Vendée Globe, for the most extreme test of solo sailors, I have always been at the start since the first edition in 1989.I was fascinated by the technical aspect but also the human one. At the first edition there was an atmosphere of tension, it was the first time and the participants themselves did not know what they would face.
The boats were varied, some already designed for solo sailing, like the BOC Challenge, while others were adapted. The panorama of boats and navigators had not yet specialized. Then I went back to see the start also in 1992 and 1996 and going to look around I got the fixation. Until in 2000 I managed to be on the starting line with an Open 50′, at the time they were still allowed and there were three of us.
The beautiful memory, beyond the navigation is the intense human experience, in fact I managed to fulfill this dream thanks to the financial support of many friends. When I sold the boat to Andrea Mura, I had to ask nineteen other people to agree to the sale, we were twenty owners.
This allowed me initially to start building the boat behind the scenes, without being sure of finding a sponsor. Then at the last minute I found the sponsor Wind, again thanks to my friends because I had lost all hope,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
The boat for around the world
“Given the limited resources, building the Open 50 was an odyssey, amidst the normal difficulties of organizing a similar race. The hull was built by a shipyard in Fiumara, in Ostia, called Dolphin which was then a small local shipyard. The deck, bulkheads and deckhouse were made in Latina in the same yard where Soldini had built Stupefacente Kodak. The direction of the works in both Ostia and Latina was by Stefan Falcon,” recalls Pasquale De Gregorio.
“I found myself in 1998 with this shell, the hull without stern, which I then hauled from Fiumara, like a bar of soap, to another shipyard. The deck with all the bulkheads, however, did not coincide with the inside of the hull, there was still work to be done on it and I thought I would remain in a limbo.
In January 2000, the sponsor Wind fortunately became operational. At that point the boat was hull, deck and deckhouse assembled at the Fiad shipyard in Fiumicino. But the transom, rudders, canards, engine and instrumentation, deck equipment, keel and mast were still missing. There was practically nothing, in a rush we managed to complete the boat as best as possible but I was unable to try it. I only made one test sail before leaving for Plymouth where I had to race the Ostar, qualifying regatta for the Vendée,” says De Gregorio.
OSTAR, new problems and a race against time
“The memory of Ostar is not pleasant, there were excited moments, problems that came to light, with my thoughts turned to the Vendée. In the rush to finish many details of the boat, I had neglected the training to test the new structures and in particular the canting keel.
When I ran into the first storm, we faced a very steep type of wave, similar to those of the Adriatic. From the fifth day of the Ostar, the keel started to tilt both transversely and longitudinally, I should have retired from the race. But I had to try to complete the race to qualify for the Vendée Globe, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to start,” confides Pasquale De Gregorio.
“I tried to contain the damage, I knew the boat was built well. The keel builders who were not the same as the hull builders, despite being very good, had made a mistake. So I chose a wider course, without going too far north in latitude and only sailing gently to windward. With each wave that hit the boat, the keel moved four, five times before coming to a stop.
When I returned from the United States I sailed alone, contrary to what I had planned because I was really afraid of losing the keel. I didn’t want to put other people’s lives at risk and I took this responsibility myself. Arriving in France, I sent the keel to Italy to be inspected and the verdict came from there. The spindles were more than half cracked and there was no time to redo a new one. The only solution was to have the keel sent back to France and fasten it in an “adventurous” way to be able to leave,” says De Gregorio.
Pasquale De Gregorio: on the starting line of the Vendée Globe, the dream
“We fixed the keel and created flood lockers to ensure self-righting but I couldn’t use them as ballast. Two weeks before the start I had to do another qualifying because the boat was no longer in the original configuration with which I had done the Ostar.
I returned to the dock with the other competitors a week before departure which fortunately was postponed for four days,” recalls De Gregorio. “So I had one last respite to be able to complete the last few things, despite knowing that the boat was very limited by the changes. However, I had arrived at the start despite the adversities and difficulties and for me it was already a first result.
When starting these projects it is like winning the lottery, nothing is certain. In fact, those who have ventured into these programs agree as I do in saying that the hardest part is the one on that happens before ashore. Once you set sail, the pleasure begins, the real enjoyment,” comments Pasquale De Gregorio.
Problems and breakdowns, the effort of persevering
“My race around the world was an unforgettable experience but even in navigation I had to face further problems and failures.
At the beginning of the Indian Ocean I suffered an involuntary jibe while inside the boat which broke the meteofax antenna and the satellite phone. I could no longer access the internet and weather forecasts and this penalized me terribly, I knew I would be sailing blindly.
After two days, the breakdown of a low shroud added to the complicate the situation. At that point it was just a matter of trying to get to the end,” confides De Gregorio.
I had no press officers and I am not good at communicating so the news of the breakdowns I was suffering had gone quietly. I had informed the regatta secretariat of my problems in the daily email I sent via Standard C to give the position.
During the race all of us participants were obliged to give a sign of presence on board every day. The organization knew the position of the boat but it was important to certify that the skipper was still on board. I sent the communication just during the Christmas period, December 21-23, so they probably took it and casually archived it, without reading the content in depth.
When I arrived, I realized that not even the organizer, Jeantot knew anything about it. Unfortunately, these failures have led to a slowdown, especially in the Atlantic ascent. I had no weather information and I did not know where the anticyclones of St. Helena and the Azores were and how they were moving and in what direction. This slowdown, without proper communication, caused misunderstandings and, in some, the impression that I was taking it easy.
The arrival: a great party
“My arrival, two months after the first placed, was still a great celebration. Waiting for me was Oriana, many Italian friends, Ellen MacArthur who had returned especially from England and also Michel Desjoyeaux, the winner. I must say that the human aspect is what makes these adventures particularly intense and that prevails over everything, an indelible memory,” recalls De Gregorio.
In the 2000 edition, two Italians participated and “climbed” the Everest of the seas: Simone Bianchetti, in twelfth place and Pasquale De Gregorio, fifteenth. The latter, then fifty-nine, also holds the record for that edition as the “oldest” skipper by age.
“In my experience, age is a plus of added value rather than being a handicap. It is not only physical strength that counts, as demonstrated by many female navigators who engage in similar tests and make up for shortcomings with technology. By tackling such a project in maturity, you do things with a deep and true motivation. If you take care of your preparation properly, age allows you to better manage tensions and risky situations from a psychological point of view.
To give an example, upon arrival I was told: “It looks like you were just hiding in a bay nearby”. I left that I was a rag, because of all the work and uncertainties and I arrived that I was perfect. Instead, many young people arrived destroyed, there is much more vulnerability in them, age is not a big problem,” Pasquale De Gregorio points out.
Some regrets and a circle that closes after ten years
“There remains a bit of regret for the result, I would have liked perhaps a second chance to repeat this splendid race. However, I am satisfied because I am interested in the awareness of what I did and how I did it. I also feel that I have managed to fulfill my task according to the spirit of this race. The original spirit of the Vendée Globe is that of seafaring and of demonstrating that you can face even serious problems on your own. I believe from this point of view I have succeeded,” confides Pasquale De Gregorio.
“To go around the world I sailed for five months, but in reality the Vendée Globe took ten years of my life. Since 1998 I have started preparing it and, after the race ended in 2001, I am committed to repaying the debts. Also, if I wanted to resell the boat to someone, I had to make it “seaworthy” again. Felci made me a project for the new keel and I took care of its construction and assembly in Rimini, where I had moved. In 2008, the boat was finally bought by Andrea Mura,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
Pasquale De Gregorio tells a funny episode
“I have to say that every single moment was very beautiful, except the momentary disappointment mixed with pain when I saw the breaking of the shroud. I still had 20,000 miles to sail and made a repair that partially blocked the mainsail track.
I invented a system to be able to bypass it and get to the second spreader, but I had the mainsail limited to the third reef. I was aware of what this failure represented, but then I got used to it and every moment was beautiful,” confesses Pasquale De Gregorio.
“The crossing of Cape Horn was a nice thing, even if I have not seen it since I was there at night. I did not have precise weather information and I arrived near Cape Horn with a good wind of 30-35 knots. To avoid the breaking waves on the edge of the continental shelf, I decided to sail wide, I passed outside the Diego Ramírez islands.
When I called the lighthouse attendant to declare my passage, identifying myself only with the number of the boat, he replied: “Thank you Don Pasquale”. Evidently the French had left him the publication of the names of the participants, it was a nice episode,” says Pasquale De Gregorio.
… And a moving one
“I repeat that the Vendée Globe was a great experience from a human point of view, made up of knowledge and sharing. Those friendships I have developed over time, for example, we are still in contact with a lady from Les Sables d’Olonne.
Twenty years have passed since she had hosted us before the departure in a small house next to hers, but this bond has continued.
The nice and almost touching fact is that, when I arrived from the Vendée, she gave me the keys to that little house. I don’t forget, she told me: “This is your home, when you want you can always come here”, Pasquale De Gregorio remembers.
The provisions for the Vendée Globe
“My provisions for around the world have been prepared by Oriana on the basis of an experiment done during the Ostar. I had noted down day by day everything I ate in the different hours and based on this information she organized the provisions.
It also took into account the changes of seasons and climatic conditions, for example we started in November with the cold, but then it changes. The meals were organized in weekly bags, where there was only one meal a week of freeze-dried products. In the two months prior to my departure, I experimented with a whole series of brands of freeze-dried products and only saved one,” explains De Gregorio.
The rest was all food I liked like rice, some vegetables and dehydrated fruit. To integrate the vacuum-packed Parmesan and Grisons meat proteins, which a Swiss friend had made prepare for me in a local butcher’s shop. It was a kind of very good square-shaped bresaola, also vacuum-packed.
Seven kilos of garlic, a few cans and, as a type of bread, the Calabrian friselle. Excluding water and a few bottles of wine, my provisions weighed just over 100kg, just right for a 15m boat. I thought and I think it is right while sailing to eat with satisfaction, without being demotivated, because you are already suffering from cold, humidity, lack of sleep. Eating badly seems like a punishment in life and also from a competitive point of view, if you are well, you sail better,” jokes Pasquale De Gregorio.
Sleep management at the Vendée Globe
“As far as sleep management is concerned, I strictly adhered to what Claudio Stampi recommended to us. During a seminar in Plymouth, before Ostar, he advised us, “Sleep as you please, follow sleep as you wish. The duration of sleep can be half an hour, an hour or two, regardless of whether it is during the day or at night. The important thing is to respect the minimum limit of 5 hours of sleep within 24 hours. I used to sleep at night in two bursts of sleep and never used the alarm clock. When the background noise changed, I woke up, it was a natural state of alert and a consolidated habit even in the course of many navigations.
So I slept my 4-5 hours at night, then a few naps after lunch, and I came back feeling great,” says Pasquale De Gregorio. “Of course, when the depressions arrived, initially through the forecasts, then recorded only by the barometer, I used to stay up to 24 hours, almost completely awake.”
“In fact, I have always warned other sailing friends of the moment of greatest danger, in my opinion, just after the passing of the center of a depression. The wind begins to let up and the waves begin to drop too, but the wave trains that overlap are numerous. The waves arrive from the northwest, west, southwest, and sometimes a fourth train arrives from the south, if the path of the depression goes up a little.
At that point the risk of large wave, which lays you down and maybe makes you capsize, is greater. As happened to Autissier, when Soldini saved her,” comments Pasquale De Gregorio. “She capsized, even with the tilting keel, and there were no other equally steep waves to trigger the righting of the boat.”
The advice of Pasquale De Gregorio
Pasquale De Gregorio is still a very popular sailor today, perhaps because, as he himself says, he is “a common representative of this category”. To conclude the interview, we asked for some advice he would give to those who dream of a change of life like yours, taking the sea route.
“A tip for those who aspire to sail is to find the right compromise between the attention to be paid to the boat and the time to leave.
You don’t have to make things too difficult and you don’t need to seek absolute perfection, then you risk never leaving. In fact, I have seen so many challenging sailing projects that were later aborted because the excessive search for perfection in the details expands the times. Then if the living conditions change, there is no longer the possibility, even if you want, to leave.
The second thing is to prepare yourself adequately, always finding the right compromise in making the right experiences, without exaggerating. You can also learn to sail well in the Mediterranean, where conditions are extremely variable and demanding for sailors,” recalls Pasquale De Gregorio.
“There are perhaps no long stretches or constant winds, like the trade winds, of the oceans, but there are many places to experiment. So, take care of the preparation, without making it too difficult or too easy and then leave, don’t wait too long, otherwise you will miss the train.”
Learn from the experiences of other sailors
“I too tried to metabolize all the risk aspects well in advance to never go back. Once you leave, you have to adopt a healthy fatalism, obviously active , and not get too stressed. Above all, I found that the study of all the failures experienced by the various participants in the previous editions of the Vendée Globe helped me a lot.
An example is the recommendation never to go with bare poles, no matter how strong the temptation may be,” recommends Pasquale De Gregorio.
“The boat with no sails can surf at 20 knots, then, when it gets to the bottom, it stops. The next wave crosses the boat and another wave can cause it to capsize because it is completely helpless, it is better to always have a minimum of speed. It is necessary to hoist a sail that allows to have, after the surf, sufficient speed to allow the pilot steer. It is important to keep the boat at the right angle to the wind and waves.
Another very important thing is to try, as far as possible, when there are very deep depressions, not to go out and maneuver on deck. If you work on the deck in those conditions, the risk of ending up in the sea and that the lifeline does not hold up is great.
Taking into account limits that must never be exceeded, then you have to experience navigation without stressing too much,” advises De Gregorio. “Everyone faces different situations in the best possible way and then things arrive when they want, not when we expect them.”
Pasquale De Gregorio has moved to Salento and sails with his wife Oriana only for pleasure on a 1981 Ziggurat 995. The gentleman sailor, with his arm always steady at the helm of a life of sea and adventures.
Thanks Pasquale, good wind to you and Oriana!