Young Men, a Woman and the Sea

It was around 9:00 AM on Thursday, September 18th when I opened my eyes as the pilot announced our imminent descent to Milan airport. As I gazed through the window, the idea of sailing on the Italian Riviera with a group of six other HBS students, some of whom I had never met, began to materialize.

After a soft-landing, I exited the plane to meet Josh Pierce (OE), one of our team members who was waiting for me with a rental car that we drove from Milan to Santa Margherita Ligure.

We arrived in Santa Margherita Ligure around lunch time and basked in the off-season rhythm of the town seduced by its architecture and local delicacies. As we approach the harbor, our excitement grew as we noticed the three dozens sailing yachts that each of the 18 participating teams would use to compete in the annual 2008 MBA Regatta Cup, a two-day racing event for students from top MBA programs around the world. As Josh and I entered the main tent to check-in, we ran into our teammate Adam Chepenik (OI) who arrived a few hours earlier. There was an indescribable air of excitement under the professionally-set tent as teams from Europe, North America and Mexico were gathering and given access to their sailing yacht by staff from both hosting organizations, SDA Bocconi School of Management and the prestigious Yacht Club Italiano. In late afternoon, Skipper Jose Maria Pertusa Honrubia (OE), Lawrence Yu (OG) and Zhong Li (OB) arrived and within moments, we were boarding the “Big Mollica,” our 37 foot sailing boat, which we revamped with the HBS flag before going off for a practice run. Right around sunset and seconds before we sailed off, Marcin Karnowski (OI) joined. The team was now complete and off we went to test the Italian water.

On board, Jose Maria gracefully guided the non-initiated individuals and gradually assigned responsibilities. We then embarked on the most interesting team building exercise I’ve ever been a part of where a team of seven individuals from 5 different countries made a boat move with the wind using communication, coordination and camaraderie as their main instruments. This is perhaps a new 3-C model or at least a more glamorous alternative to the Shad exercise? As we returned to the port, we shared a team meal al fresco to discuss the following day race among many things. After dinner, we returned to the harbor where we were greeted by 300 Regatta participants that easily convinced us to join the pre-race party, we obliged and sipped wine under the stars while meeting new friends.

After a night of sleep in tight quarters, we prepared the boat for the race clad in matching crimson and white HBS sailing uniforms while the hosts’ staff took photos to immortalize the moment. We then left the port to brave the Mediterranean Sea and had to maneuver our sailboat through complex tacks and jibs in an attempt to stay behind the starting buoy before the race started. Then finally, the blast of an air horn signaled the start of the race letting us loose and putting us in a position to implement what we had practiced the day before.

Jose Maria Pertusa Honrubia spent time at the helm as the skipper with Marcin Karnowski by his side focused on race strategy. Lawrence Yu, MarlŠne Ngoyi and Zhong Li kept their hands curled on the jib sheet and main sheet lines to constantly trim the sails and keep it from luffing in the wind. That left Adam Chepenik to spot other boats from the front of the vessel and Josh Pierce to rig and hoist the spinnaker boom.

Maneuvering the sailing vessel upwind was anything but simple. It required a combination of reading the wind, the other boats and the water along with setting a strategy to position the boat correctly.

Racing past the first buoy led to the downward turn. After coming about, Josh Pierce led the effort to quickly rig and raise the boat’s spinnaker – an enormous sail that enables the boat to capture more wind downwind. You could feel the boat jolt forward as it picked up speed and raced toward the downwind buoy where we made another turn and headed upwind for a second time. Each progressive race led to better sailing and a different course as the race organizers changed the location of the buoys to accommodate shifts in the wind and water patterns. Regardless, our team was operating more fluidly and Jose’s objective to help develop the team’s sailing skills became a reality.

After racing each day, we let out the sails and set course for evening cruises to Portofino and other idyllic Mediterranean gems where we would take a refreshing swim in the water, sample Italian wine and cheese while sharing stories of all kind.

Unequivocally, the trip’s highlight off the water was the finale reception and dinner, which was hosted at the Abbey of La Cervara, a 14th century cliff side monastery overlooking Portofino. The majestic domain housed everyone from Francesco Petrarca and Saint Catherine of Siena to popes Gregory XI, Urban VI and Pius VII. It has even provided accommodation for Don John of Austria, the naval commander who defeated the Turks at Lepanto, Alessandro Piccolomini and Guglielmo Marconi. Our experience at the Abbey was evocative of those past inhabitants. Walking through the Emperor gallery, complete with two dozen sculptures, gliding down the ruby red carpeted tapestry staircase, and strolling through the perfectly manicured gardens was magical and gave a new dimension to the “Dolce Vita” notion.

The trip was a success and while we did not leave Italy with the cup, we left with a better understanding of sailing concepts, a group of new friends and a new found appreciation for Poseidon, God of the high seas. As Josh Pierce best put it, “this was an unforgettable experience!”