Italian Giovanni Soldini won Leg 3 of the Around Alone sailing race yesterday, slipping across the finish line to a hero's welcome along the docks in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
As Soldini came to the docks, signage on the hull of the Italian's 60-foot racer, Fila, read "No more problems."
The problems, of course, already had been encountered and overcome.
Two weeks ago, Soldini mounted a 22-hour rescue mission during the height of a Southern Ocean storm.
Soldini, using satellite positioning equipment, found Autissier's boat, PRB, capsized more than a thousand miles from land and beyond the range of airborne assistance. Autissier, who was inside the boat in an air pocket, escaped through an emergency hatch after Soldini threw a hammer against the hull to signal his arrival.
In the days since, Soldini and Autissier have sailed several thousand miles together -- Autissier the reluctant passenger, and Soldini the only skipper left in Class I with a chance to win the leg and the race overall.
During a news conference shortly after reaching the docks, Autissier, the most celebrated female solo racer in the world, asked for a round of applause for the shy, reticent Soldini.
The applause lasted several minutes, before Soldini said, simply, "This is overwhelming. Anybody in my position would do it. I don't feel like a hero."
For Autissier, who has been rescued from sinking yachts in the last two solo races around the world, Soldini was not only her rescuer but her confidant during days of depression after the Feb. 16 sinking.
"For the last two weeks, he has been a perfect guy," Autissier said. "He understood exactly what I was going through. It's pretty difficult to lose your boat, to lose the race, to lose your hopes."
For the first two days aboard Fila, Soldini said, "I thought that a good thing would be to drink a glass of wine together and just take it easy."
In fact, Soldini said, he turned off the satellite phone aboard Fila for 24 hours, cutting communications with everyone in the outside world, including Race Operations.
After the first 24 hours together, with Fila running fast toward Cape Horn under autopilot, the 42-year-old sailors passed the time in the cabin, drinking tea and talking.
"We were not very busy except the days after the rescue," Autissier said. "The phone was ringing all the time, and the messages and the COMSAT."
During the balance of the leg to Punta del Este, Autissier said, there were times when she had to trim sails to ensure the safety of the boat while Soldini was asleep.
Race officials said Autissier's actions aboard Fila were "a safety issue" and within race rules. An international racing jury will be convened but no penalty is expected to be assessed against Soldini.
"My position was really simple," she said. "I was a sailor on board a boat and I was not in the race. It was Giovanni's boat. It was Giovanni's race. It was his decisions."
Three of the four boats that left Auckland, New Zealand, at the start of Leg 3 were damaged en route. Autissier's PRB sank, Josh Hall's Gartmore Investment Management was dismasted and motor-sailed to the Chatham Islands, and Marc Thiercelin's Somewhere was dismasted and is in the Falkland Islands for repairs.
Although Thiercelin hopes to leave the Falklands by this weekend, Soldini will have an almost unbeatable lead when the two Class I survivors start the final leg to Charleston, S.C., later this month.
About all that could stop the Italian from winning the overall title in Class I would be a dismasting or a sinking.
During the layover, Soldini said, he will fly to Italy to visit his family -- but first he will take some time to celebrate.
"I am going to lift a glass," he said. "Come to think of it, a couple of them."
Pub Date: 3/04/99