The fastest woman around the world, Dona Bertarelli has spent 10 years trying to win the Jules Verne. Helen Fretter finds out why
Ocean racing is an unsentimental world. It’s deeply unglamorous, stripping its participants of every iota of vanity. Failures in preparedness will be hurriedly found out, but even the most careful and thorough, most deserving of campaigns can see their chance of victory slip away in the sudden tumbling of a rig or the slow veer of a weather system. It’s an arena where the funds required to play are eye-watering – but where money, ultimately, cannot buy success.
So why on earth would a billionaire choose to undergo all the privations of six weeks at sea, of using a bucket for a toilet and eating freeze-dried food, sleeping in a damp, hot-bunk, and living in a state of constant adrenaline and anxiety? Because that’s what Dona Bertarelli has signed up for, as she goes on standby with the rest of the Sails of Change team for another tilt at the non-stop crewed around the world record, the elusive Jules Verne Trophy.
The Spindrift campaign, now Sails of Change, is unique on many levels. For starters, it’s a privately-backed campaign. While other ocean racing stables – such as Gitana which enjoys the largesse of the Rothschild family – may rely on the enthusiasm of a few key decision makers, the boats are raced by paid hands.
On board Spindrift, Dona herself is a member of crew, while her husband, Frenchman Yann Guichard, is the professional skipper. Her adult son has been part of the race team, and Yann’s brother is one of the team’s core pro members. It’s a unique family endeavour, for a unique family.
The Bertarelli name is deeply entwined with sailing at the highest level. Italian-born Dona, now 53, and her elder brother Ernesto moved to Switzerland when they were children. She was not quite 30 when she and Ernesto inherited Serono, a multi-million pound pharmaceutical company that had been built by their grandfather. Under Ernesto as CEO, the company diversified, with revenues reportedly increasing from $809 million in 1996 to $2.8 billion in 2006.
Ernesto famously poured his passion for sailing, and ability to invest staggering funds, into the America’s Cup. His Alinghi team shook things up and brought sailing’s most famous trophy to Europe, taking back to back wins before being defeated in 2010. It placed the Bertarelli family firmly in the annals of yachting history.
Ernesto and Dona’s father was a keen sailor, and they spent time in childhood sailing on the Swiss lakes or Tuscan sea. Although Dona has previously described the decision to helm her Decision 35 Lady Cat in races as a major step up, both Bertarelli siblings are skilled drivers, and have each competed very successfully on the extreme multihulls which dominate the Swiss lake sailing scene.
However, while Dona’s double victories in Lake Geneva’s famous Bol d’Or (she was the only the second ever female skipper to win the iconic race in 2010 and repeated the win in 2014) are impressive, they barely register on the sliding scale of ambition alongside her other project: challenging for the Jules Verne Trophy.
Bertarelli credits her husband as introducing her to offshore racing. The pair met some 14 years ago, when Guichard had moved from Olympic catamaran sailing (he finished 4th at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the Tornado) into ocean multihulls, racing 60ft trimarans both double-handed and crewed.
“I followed Yann in his offshore campaigns and little by little, that passion for the ocean made me realise I want to go and see it. I want to go and see how vast the ocean is. Every ocean you go through is different – the Atlantic doesn’t look like the Indian Ocean, and the Indian Ocean doesn’t look like the Pacific Ocean, or the Southern Ocean. And I just wanted to experience that. But some people are not made for that, and the big question mark was whether I felt comfortable at sea. I didn’t know until we actually bought the boat and we started racing offshore,” she recalls, “but here we are!”
Rites of passage
And here they are, 11 years later. The Spindrift campaign is notable for its longevity. Set up by Dona and Guichard in 2011, the programme began with a MOD70 (Spindrift), instantly topping podiums on the circuit in 2012. But it was when they purchased the 140ft former Banque Populaire V – the largest racing trimaran in the world – that things really stepped up a gear.
In 2013 the team set two benchmarks with their new weapon Spindrift 2: a Discovery Route record (of 6d 14h), and a win in the Rolex Fastnet Race. While both were impressive results, for Dona they were significant because they marked the point when she felt she could call herself a offshore sailor.
“I think I really felt that during the Discovery Route, which is the first record we did. I had never crossed the Atlantic before, so that was a first for me. Then beating the record I said, ‘Okay, I think I can do this’. The other times where I also started feeling that I could do this is when we did a Fastnet, there was quite a bit of wind and we won. I think for a lot of people a Fastnet is like a waypoint passage.
“But there’s nothing that beats an around the world attempt. It takes something different to go for such a long time.”
In 2015 Spindrift 2 set off on a full Jules Verne record bid, with Dona part of the race crew of 12, Guichard skippering. It was the third fastest lap of the planet ever completed, in a remarkable head-to-head record attempt at the same time as Francis Joyon’s IDEC Sport.
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They had a furious sprint to the Equator, a close battle with IDEC in the South Pacific – at one point sailing within sight of the other boat – and were still ahead of the record as they rounded Cape Horn. But the Atlantic return was a cruel jumbled maze of light winds and pressure ridges that saw Spindrift 2 slip behind the record by the Equator.
The Jules Verne trophy was not to be.
Yet Spindrift 2 went on to make multiple other attempts. In January 2018 the crew readied to start in early January, then aborted on the way to the start line when the forecast deteriorated. As they headed out for a second attempt a few days later, they were dismasted on the way to the startline.
In 2019 they started in early December, only to retire just days later following rudder issues. Again they restarted, this time making it as far as Australia, blasting along to clock 870-plus-mile days before rudder issues again sabotaged the attempt. Few would have been surprised if the campaign had been shuttered over lockdown. But now, post-refit, they’re back to try yet again, and Bertarelli will be back on board.
When Bertarelli finished the 2015 circumnavigation in 47d 10h, at an average speed of 25.3 knots, she became the fastest woman to sail around the world (a record she still holds). Conditions were brutal, but the discomfort involved did not put off Bertarelli (who could live literally in the lap of luxury if she chose, with a property portfolio that includes 5-star hotels in Gstaad and Cannes) from attempting it again.
“Last time I was preparing in my head for the worst.
I wanted to be ready for it, I knew I’m going to suffer like hell. And in the end, I didn’t suffer. I mean, it was difficult, but I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t sick. It was fine. So I know that physically, I can do it. My body can take it,” she recalls.
The harder thing was to be away from her children for such a long period. “Where I struggled was that my youngest daughter, she was 12 years old, it’s Christmas, you’re not there. And in our case, it’s the entire family that goes to sea, not just the mother or the father. I felt really bad then,” she explains.
Seven years after that first attempt, it was her family who encouraged her to get back on board. “I had been super busy with my philanthropic work, that took a lot of time and we had lots of things going on. When you go around the world, the mental engagement is total. Your brain needs to be 100% focused on what you have to do. So these past years, I couldn’t do it. And when my son became part of the team I felt it was his time. He needs to be able to experience that without his mother there!”
Bertarelli’s philanthropic work has long included a focus on marine conservation – she and Ernesto established a foundation in their father’s name and she is a special advisor to a United Nations Conference on marine health.
In 2021 Bertarelli and Guichard reframed their Spindrift campaign as Sails of Change, using it as a platform to lobby for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. “Last year Yann said, well, now we have Sails of Change on the boat. We have a big programme ahead. Who’s better to talk about it than you coming around the world? So then that’s when I thought, maybe it’s time to go again.
“I’m going for different reasons. The first time it was about can I really do it? But this time around, I know where I’m going.”
That’s not to say she has an entirely rose-tinted view of the experience. “The thing that I hate the most is the waiting, the standby period. Twice a day we receive weather forecasts. We do the routes and we look at the models, and every time we have 8, 9, 10 days visibility. So you cannot plan anything further than 10 days.
“Then we know we have three weeks which are going to be tough in the Southern Ocean and Indian Oceans. It’s cold, about 3°C inside the boat, it’s transpiring with humidity, and those are tough days. But at the same time, you know what you’re going into. So you can better prepare for the moment.”
This time around she’ll be going as an onboard reporter, out of the watch system. But does her presence aboard make for an unusual dynamic? Not only is it rare for a team’s backer to be part of the crew, but she and Yann are husband and wife.
“Well, we have sailed together for a really long time,” she points out. “When we started, I had my own project and Yann came along as my tactician, on Lady Cat. The rule is the skipper is the skipper, right? I’m crew and he’s the skipper if we’re on the Maxi. There are no discussions about that.
“The difference comes when you are in those tougher times. Maybe when there are some tough decisions for Yann to make. Like in 2015 at one point we had two routes, two models. One would make us plunge into the ice, and the other went a bit more north. In situations like that, to have the support of your husband or wife is super helpful.
“But yes, I think the dynamic is different. Actually anytime you have a woman in a crew I think it brings something different. Sometimes we’re a bit more rational or a bit more calm. And we also selected a crew of people who share the same values. We look after each other. We’re not mercenaries. It’s really a family.”
Why, after so many failed attempts, is she still chasing the record? “Because there isn’t anything greater, I think,” she answers quickly.
“We leave from the northern hemisphere, go south, around Antarctica and come back home. That’s the magic of the Jules Verne trophy. We have no waypoints to respect, you are just free to sail your own race. And it’s about that freedom. That freedom of experiencing your passion and sharing it as a family also.
“And you’ve got to go all in. Once you’re all in, it’s refreshing. I’ve never been happier than when at sea. We’re still connected online, of course, especially me. But it’s like your brain just empties. The only worry is about the people you leave at home, but my children are older now.”
At the time of publication, the team had been on standby for several weeks, their chances of a weather window that would see them around the world in less than 40 days shrinking with each day, although viable attempts have previously started in January.
Time running out for Jules Verne
But there is another window which is closing, and that’s the race before the giant tri is overtaken by a younger generation boat. Banque Populaire was launched 14 years ago, while the winter of 2020/21 saw two latest generation foiling Ultimes (Gitana 17 and Sodebo) attempt Jules Verne bids. Neither completed, but with more foiling Ultimes launched, it can only be a matter of time before one goes successfully around the world non-stop.
“This boat was a legend when we bought it,” explains Bertarelli. “It was a conscious decision not to build a new boat because we always believed this boat was built, designed and made to win this trophy. And that’s still true today.
“We take every year as it comes. I don’t know when the window will close and she’ll become obsolete. Are we already there? Not yet, I don’t think. We still have a chance. One day this boat will need to retire. But today, this lady, she still has it.”
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