"In Italy," says Skibinska, "We do everything at the last minute. We invent, we improvise. Maybe it's not the professional way to act, but in the end it's better. You can accomplish anything."
Professionalism is Ricci's hallmark. He's a 48-year-old native of Rimini who earned his reputation first as a helmsman, a career that culminated in the winning of the Cowes-Dinard race in 1974 aboard Comet One. Ricci next turned his talents to organizing the international campaigns of such well-known racers as Deception, Suspense, and the two Vaninas. (Incidentally, his helmsman in each of those campaigns was Tom Blackaller, the American who will be at the helm of Defender this summer when it takes on Conner and Freedom, or whichever of his two boats Conner chooses, for the right to defend the Cup.)
Italian yachtsmen describe Ricci as "introverted," when, in fact, to an American sensibility he seems merely thoughtful and calm, the ideal leader for a disparate group of men who must live at close quarters for more than a year and produce their best efforts on call, always aware that in the end only half of them will be chosen. In a sport in which egos often run amok, Ricci is virtually egoless. "Those who know him well have the impression he's always willing to step aside with no envy anytime someone better comes along," says Riccardo Villarosa, a Milanese journalist.
Unlike Conner, the hard-driving perfectionist who was both the helmsman and the man responsible for crew selection and training on Freedom, the defender in 1980, Ricci has chosen to remove himself from consideration as helmsman on Azzurra; though he calls himself the skipper, he may or may not be aboard when the racing begins. Says Ricci, "The helmsman, if he has one-half day free, he must go for a holiday, not with the problems of the mast or the boat or the crew on his mind. Those people like Conner, it is possible they have the concentration and they can manage the two, but I think it is very hard for him. I know many American people of the Dennis Conner team, and I know he has problems."
If a happy crew were all it took to win the America's Cup, the men of Azzurra would have it sewn up. Ricci's presence and his quiet charisma have seen to that. The crew ranges in age from 21 to 44. Its members hail from major cities and seaside villages. They are students and sailmakers and manufacturers' representatives. One has a medical degree, another teaches karate, and at least three are the offspring of famous Italian yachtsmen. Nicolo Reggio, for instance, a 28-year-old naval engineering student from Genoa, is the son of an Italian champion in several classes and the grandson of a man who competed for Italy in the eight-meter class at the 1936 Olympic Games.
One Sunday afternoon in early spring, Reggio stood in the late afternoon sunshine on the deck of Formia's Circolo Nautico Caposele, a small yacht club overlooking the Gulf of Gaeta. This particular weekend. Formia was playing host for the last time to Azzurra before her departure for Newport. The festivities included an astonishing banquet of five courses and 29 dishes served to 700 guests in the dining rooms of the Instituto Professionale Alberghiero Turistico di Stato, the national hotel training school. (Until Azzurra came along, Formia had been best known for Cicero's tomb, a Roman aqueduct, the hotel school and a national track-and-field training center.)
On Saturday in a cold rain and on Sunday under the kind of skies that inspire Neapolitan song, Azzurra, Enterprise and a fleet of some 50 smaller boats had raced on a triangular course laid between Formia and its archrival, the medieval town of Gaeta at the southern end of the gulf. Now the prizes were being given out and the speeches were being made on a terrace below Reggio's vantage point. The citizens of Formia drank champagne provided by Cinzano and, though it went against the grain, tried to believe Comandante Alberini when he once more said that in the America's Cup the glory lies in merely competing. Meanwhile, children in their Palm Sunday best skipped up and down the ancient staircase from the clubhouse to the terrace on stones that Cicero may have trod, Formia having been his summer home and the scene of his death at the hands of hired assassins in 43 B.C. The younger candidates for the crew, having heard the speech before, milled happily on the outskirts of the crowd, jostling and spraying each other with the winy foam of Cinzano's bounty.
More often than not through the winter training period, Azzurra had beaten Enterprise, but in this last regatta at Formia, Enterprise won both days. On Saturday it was because of spinnaker pole troubles on Azzurra, but on Sunday the cause was tactical error. Reggio, who had been a tailer on Azzurra both days, was feeling mildly rueful. "A day like this on the Twelves is bad, when you lose for stupid mistakes," he said. "You give everything you can and you lose without responsibility." But then he brightened. "Perhaps it's good preparation for the U.S., to lose, to be always sad."
"In other classes," says Ricci, "you have some races with other boats. For the 12-meters, no. You wait, you wait, you wait for the America's Cup, and every day you must work, work. This is very big pressure for the people involved."
Now, at last, the waiting is over. The entire 28-member crew is in the U.S., and Enterprise is on her way to the Costa Smeralda, where she will be stored until she is needed again. And Azzurra has been broken down, trucked to Genoa and shipped aboard a freighter to the New World.