March 13, 2020
“The sailboat is an extraordinary laboratory, in which everyone is called to cooperate and do their part. It is a place where resources are limited and shall be used with thoughtfulness, where everyone's behavior determines everyone else's well-being, where there are no privileges and nobody is left behind. And if someone is found adrift at sea, the obligation is to save them." Tommaso Stella knows the sea and its laws. A long-time sailor, with so many adventures alongside one of the world's most famous sailors, Giovanni Soldini, Tommaso joined Mediterranea last year, becoming the captain of the ship Alex. He was the one in charge to command the ship to the rescue of 59 people from the waters of ‘Mare Nostrum’ in July 2019, which led to its impoundment. His story tells how the sporting competence, the one of a sailor, can be at the service of a higher cause. A skill complemented by the awareness that it is not possible to turn your head the other way when it comes to save a life and defend human rights.”
Ilaria Leccardi: Let's start from your relationship with the sea. You were born in the city, how and when does your love of sailing come to life?
Tommaso Stella: I was born in Milan and there is no sea there. When I was a little boy, my father made some experiments: he built model ships and armed a small rubber boat with wood and sails made from old sheets, to be tried at the Idroscalo [the small artificial lake of Milan]. Those models and that kind of raft were my first contacts with something resembling a boat. A few years later, when I was attending middle school, the principal’s office often summoned my mother because I was a “rowdy boy”, they said. In fact, the principal was the instructor of a sailing school offering summer camps in the municipality of Milan. He suggested my mother to send me to that camp because "it would have been good for me ..." It started like that, at the age of 11: I have not stopped yet.
IL: Tell us more about the world of sailing.
TS: Unfortunately, in Italy, it is expensive to follow that passion. The boat is a status symbol. In other countries, like France, it isn’t the same. There, children from primary school have many opportunities to practice this sport even if their parents aren’t well off or put their house on reverse mortgage. To continue with my passion, during the holidays I started giving lessons as instructor assistant and later on as the main instructor in my first sailing school, Utopia.
IL: And then what happened?
TS: After almost nine years of activity, sitting down for "feeling too good" was the risk I was facing. So, after ten months of civil service, I wore back the student's clothes and I eventually embarked for my first sail across the ocean to discover other boats, other seas, other places and other people. I left in October 1997 from the Mediterranean to the Antilles via the Canary Islands, to finally land in April 1998 in Barcelona. I realized that I really liked that kind of life, that I had so much to learn and so much to discover.
IL: And then you met someone who became important for you
TS: A few months after that experience in the ocean, I met Giovanni Soldini, who was coming back from his victorious round the world regatta, the one when he was able to rescue Isabelle Autissier, a competitor who went adrift in the southern seas. Giovanni was about to launch the construction of a new sail boat, a trimaran, an 18-meter "spaceship" capable of sailing faster than the wind. He needed a crew. We immediately tuned our human frequencies and, even if I had no construction site experience, he pulled me in: "If there are good vibrations, the rest you can learn in a matter of time... the opposite is way more difficult!". I will never forget the years between 2000 and 2005: they have been intense. We were a group of five people who took care of everything: maintenance and modifications to the boat, transfers and crew races.
IL: What did you learn from Soldini?
TS: He has been a reference for me, I consider him the greatest Italian single-handed sailor in history. I did not just learn from him from a technical standpoint, I actually acquired that extraordinary ability to overcome new obstacles and unexpected events, on land as at sea, without losing heart. And then I picked up the ability to play down the most difficult situations with laughter, displacing even fear. It feels very good at sea with him.
IL: And he experienced dramatic situations...
TS: Yes, especially in 2005, during “La Route du Café”, a regatta from Le Havre (France) to Salvador de Bahia (Brazil), which he did with his longtime friend Vittorio Malingri. Their trimaran capsized off the coast of Senegal. The two were rescued by an oil tanker bound for Houston that could not enter the port due to its size and, tens of miles from the coast, was being emptied by smaller tankers. The two castaways, despite having in their pockets credit cards, passports and visas for the US, took days to convince one of the tanker commanders to bring them to mainland: nobody wanted to take responsibility for their landing. Think about it: even at that time, despite having the "right" passport – the one of a wealthy Westerner country – the law of the sea, which requires to help those in danger, was in question.
IL: Have you also experienced difficult situations?
TS: The only time I really put at risk my own skin was – paradoxically – a few meters from a beach on Elba island in Italy, when I capsized sailing with a friend, getting stuck under the hull.
IL: Let's go back to the open sea. It can be scary, especially if you don't know it. What does it mean to spend a night there?
TS: It is a hostile environment for humans. To survive at sea, you need a place to host and protect you. If you are on a dependable boat, if you know how to use it, if the weather is good and you know your position, you are safer there than behind a steering wheel of a car. Under those assumptions, a night at sea can be magical: far from land, totally disconnected, without the lights and the sounds of the so-called civilization. You breathe clean air, you are pushed by the wind under a starry sky. But humans are not nocturnal animals. Solving a problem in the dark is more complicated, so at night, if one of the conditions above is failing, it can be scary. Is having fear something negative? No, it makes you raise your antennae and let you react better to a situation of potential or real danger.
IL: Fear can also become an element that, instead of paralyzing, pushes you to move ...
TS: Let me use the example of the people fleeing from Libya. They find themselves in a situation that would terrify anyone. They have no idea when they will leave until the very last minute, they don't know what the weather will be, most of them have never seen the sea, almost nobody knows how to swim, they don't have any sailing experience whatsoever, they do not know the dinghy or the boat they will get on – often in a bad state and always overloaded –, they do not know where they will go, they do not know how long the journey will take. The only people that experienced a similar condition were the first brave navigators in history... These people come from terrible situations that leave heavy psychological and physical signs. Yet they get on those rubber boats, because the terror they leave behind them is even worse.
IL: Here we come, precisely, to your commitment with Mediterranea. You already had the opportunity to dedicate yourself to social causes, how did the contact start with them?
TS: I have always been very close to social causes. In the past, I combined my interest in social issues with sailing, participating in the “Goletta Verde” campaign, or bringing blind people or children from family homes on sail boats. In recent years though, I was disgusted with what was going on in the central Mediterranean. In August 2018, when Italy and European governments blocked humanitarian ships making of the sea in front of Libya a deserted graveyard without witnesses, a group of people coming from different experiences decided that they could no longer let that happen before their eyes. A friend of mine asked me if I was interested in the project and I immediately said yes. Initially, the founders' response was the classic "we'll let you know", because Mediterranea’s main ship was a tugboat, Mare Jonio, and I don't have the certification to command that type of vessel. But very quickly it became clear that a support boat was needed to accommodate the rest of the operating and rescue crew, which was too large for Mare Jonio. That support boat ended up being a sailboat, and therefore I was on.
IL: That boat was the Alex, on which, in July 2019, you rescued many people, but that costed you an investigation by the Italian Court.
TS: It was my third mission as commander of the Alex, and I had a fantastic crew. The Mare Jonio had already been unlawfully seized for months and so we decided to go out using Alex for a monitoring mission. We were aware of the fact that with a relatively small sailing boat we would not have been able to rescue people. The idea was that if we ran into a migrants’ rubber boat in distress, we would stabilize the situation with life jackets and safety rafts, calling immediately for help the Italian coast guard for their intervention. But when it really happened, the Italian authorities replied that they had already alerted the so-called Libyan coastguard, which we know being colluded with human traffickers. So, after being chased down by the Libyans, who eventually let us go, and with the Italian authorities who tried to put us in trouble, we did the only thing possible: we followed the law heading to the nearest safe harbor, Lampedusa, with the migrants on board with us.
IL: And there you were stuck ...
TS: Once we reached 12 miles off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, the patrol boats of the Italian coast guard and finance guard notified us of the recently approved “security decree”, which prevented us from entering those territorial waters. We had been standing in sight of Lampedusa for two very hot, tiring and long days, doing everything we could to resolve the situation exercising reasoning and diplomacy, but after running out of water, we decided to force the blockade and enter the port. Once moored, it wasn’t over: throughout the entire afternoon and until late at night we were practically kidnapped on our own boat: nobody could get on or off. That situation came to an end when the prosecutor of Agrigento seized the Alex: at that point we had to disembark. The castaways were able to get off, change their wet and dirty clothes and receive the first medical treatment. I was put under investigation for aiding illegal immigration and warship violence, an accusation that could lead up to 15 years in prison. They also suspended my sailing license for six months. All that for saving 59 human lives from drowning at sea and from the violence of Libyan torture camps.
IL: What were your fears during that rescue operation?
TS: My greatest fear was the one of not being able to save them. If the Libyans had arrived during the transshipment of the people from their dinghy to our boat, a disaster could have happened: those who flee Libya are so terrified by the idea of being brought back to that hell that they prefer to jump into the water than being sent back to a Libyan ship. And then, in Lampedusa, when I realized that we were all safe, I started to be concerned about what awaited me personally. The government continued to criminalize sea rescue and I, as commander, was the most exposed target. But never, not even for a single moment, I had a doubt on my decisions. I knew I was on the right side, morally and legally.
IL: The coexistence of many people on a ship like Alex must not have been easy.
TS: Considering the overcrowding, it still went well: crew and migrants collaborated despite the difficulties of sharing insufficient space. Everyone did their part with an incredible harmony.
IL: This whole situation seems so surreal.
TS: Yes, all an above I remember the sailors of the patrol boats that were sent there to prevent our entry into the Italian waters: they were clearly embarrassed to carry out those absurd orders: "We save lives too" they repeated, "We aren’t the bad guys". I saw one of the moved when he looked into the eyes of our "passengers". What is surreal is that, in a few months “Mare Nostrum” – the international coordinated mission that saved 150,000 people between 2013 and 2014 – was abandoned to give space to a situation in which human beings are considered undesired toxic waste in the name of a short-sighted and inhuman policy and propaganda. It is absurd that now only volunteers and humanitarian ships are trying to resolve such a critical situation at sea.
IL: And the situation does not seem to improve recently.
TS: The news coming from Greece and Turkey remind us of times we never wanted to relive: Turkey uses refugees as human bombs in an infamous blackmail to Europe. Greek and European armed forces, instead of helping refugees fleeing Turkey, try to sink rubber boats, shooting, beating... Thousands of people, children, women and men are no longer wanted by any country and no longer have a place to go: rejected by Europe, thrown out of Turkey... They can't even go back to the war in Syria.
IL: What can a sport like sailing teach you, a sport that gave you the skills that you brought back into play for the most noble reason, saving lives?
TS: On board a lot of attention must be paid to the use and consumption of resources. Everything must be rational and sustainable. If someone pretends not to take shifts, or they want to take ten showers a day or eat more than others, they would be pushed back by the "community" for a behavior that would have immediate consequences for everyone's safety and well-being: at sea there is no room for privileges. Nature has the last word and she doesn’t take sides: it is with her that we must measure ourselves and take the right decisions, but if we make a mistake, we got to pay the bill right away.
IL: these are thoughts well in line with the times we live in.
TS: This is what Luca Parmitano, the commander of the International Space Station, said. What else is Earth if not a large ship with limited resources, traveling our galaxy at the extraordinary speed of 492 thousand miles per hour, housing a human crew of 7 billion people? A large ship in which someone is not doing their part, in which a minority claims the "right" to eat more than the others and where too many consume and waste the resources available at unsustainable levels. A ship that is sending a clear message to its crew, but the crew is not taking it seriously. During these weeks we are in the midst of the coronavirus emergency, a situation that is once again demonstrating that borders don't exist. For the virus we are all the same. We should take advantage of this lesson to learn a new way of being together. We should understand that on the Earth, as on a boat in a storm, everyone is saved or we all sunk together.
Original article from: Odiare non e' uno sport
Ilaria Leccardi is an Italian journalist and editor. After a few years with LaPresse news agency, covering international news, she found that being a freelance was a better choice for her. In 2019, she founded the independent publishing company Capovolte (upside down), promoting social and feminist causes. She is also the media officer for the association Cambalache, which develops projects of social inclusion for refugees and asylum seekers. Ilaria is currently following the project Odiare non e’ uno sport (Hate is not a sport), a social campaign launched by various NGOs to study and fight hate speech in sports and to tell stories of social inclusion.