Report from the Barcolana

Ross Stein, who races Corsair 24 #357, Origami, out of San Francisco Bay, sends this report from Italy’s big, crazy, beautiful Barcolana race, or Coppa d’Autunno. With turnouts in the thousands for a course only 19 miles long, there’s not much that compares. The race is sailed in the Gulf of Trieste, with one of four marks laid in the waters of neighboring Slovenia.

Here’s Ross—

On Sunday I crewed on a Mini in the largest sailing race in the world, the Barcolana of Trieste. There were three of us on board this 21-footer, designed for single-handed trans-Atlantic racing. I did cockpit. The 12 halyards and the control lines for the articulating sprit are all clutched to one central winch, and I was the halyard guy.

The day before, I memorized as many Italian sailing terms as I could.

Then, not one clutch was marked.


A 1.5-mile line with Coast Guard cutters at each end and a dozen mid-line buoys had all boats from all classes starting at the same time in 17 knots of wind on a beam reach. The line was so long that we did not hear the starting cannon until 10 seconds after the GPS start. A dozen maxi’s and several super-maxi’s just exploded off the line. We finished 566th out of 1850 boats (elapsed, 20 feet being the minimum length; no multihulls) and 8th out of the 44 finishers in our class. The Barcolana uses no handicaps; rather, divisions are based on boat length. We finished in 6 hr 15 min. The winning boat (the gorgeous 100-foot canting-keeled Alfa Romeo 2) did it in 56 minutes, averaging 17 knots on the course.

The race was labor-intensive, with many sail changes. We had to fend off other boats countless times. Our skipper’s strategy was to make sure we pushed them aft.

That’s skipper Franco Vaccari on the right. In our race together we had all kinds of wind. We were double reefed at the start, and had zero wind numerous times. There were giant shifts and sharp wind lines. We rounded all marks with our fenders in place. Incredible to be overlapped with 50 boats rounding marks; on two roundings we were the inside boat, rounding huge inflatable marks that were legal to rub. I saw at least a hundred collisions, none serious but many very noisy. At times, with no wind, many people just jumped off and swam around. During the race, people danced to boomboxes on their boats, drank champagne, demanded mark room or their rights (“Aqua! Aqua!”), yelled and cheered in many languages.

One of our sprit control fittings broke 15 minutes after the start on a beam-reach with the giant spin up—a mess that cost us about 300 places off the line. Franco, the skipper, was eventually able to fix it, but at the first mark we were in about 1200th place (literally). There were so many boats at that mark we never even saw it; we just figured it was in the center of a clutch of maybe 500 boats. But we kept making money throughout the race, Franco reading the wind well and keeping clear of the massive barges formed by dozens of boats more or less stuck together.

Every moment was scenic. Who’s ever seen a thousand spinnakers flying at once? Castles. Monasteries. Snowcapped mountains. Beautiful sportboats. Intravenous beer after the race, then dinner with Franco at the home of my host and her family, sailors all. Trieste is one sailing-infatuated town.

We watched the heli footage on TV.

Only a heli would know if you were over early on this race.

Ross Stein

Corsair 24 #357, Origami

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