owner of 34-metre Billy Budd III yacht

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Mariacristina Rapisardi on her love of Arctic and her 34m sailing yacht Billy Budd III

8 September 2023 • Written by Sam Fortescue

The owner of 34-metre Billy Budd III tells Sam Fortescue about her fondness for Arctic forays, first ascents and sailing in the world’s most remote locations...

"I’m an Arctic addict,” says Mariacristina Rapisardi, with what I can only describe as pure joy in her voice, bubbling up from deep within. She may be a successful patent lawyer, well used to defending clients in court, but get her on the subject of boats and high latitudes and it’s as if she’s discussing a favourite child.

“I don’t know how I first got this idea to go to the Northwest Passage,” she says a little dreamily. “It was probably a story I read when I was young. I was fascinated with the stories of the people who went there, and those that were lost. But I never thought that I’d be able to do it myself.”

All that changed in August 2004 when she attempted the passage as part of an eight-person crew under the leadership of Skip Novak, who has since become a close friend. Aboard his original yacht Pelagic Australis, they undertook an expedition that many still believed impossible – all the more so in a 22.5-metre sloop.

Credit: Getty Images

“We stayed there for one month waiting for the ice to break up, but it was too thick,” she says. “We sailed a lot – Greenland, then Pond Inlet, then Lancaster Sound. In the south, around the Beagle Channel, you have a mooring bay every 20 miles, but in the north you have to do 70 to 80 miles – it’s a lot of sailing.”

It would take another seven years of Arctic cruising before she finally conquered the infamous sea route, which runs close to 74 degrees north across the top of the world, through the ice-bound northern archipelagos that fringe Canada. And this time it would be in her own boat, the 34-metre Royal Huisman sloop Billy Budd (ex-Saudade). “We were very well organised,” she says. “In the end, we didn’t have a single problem with the boat and arrived in Nome [Alaska] on the exact day we thought we would.”

Credit: Mariacristina Rapisardi

Altogether, she has visited the Arctic seven times and been four times to extreme southern latitudes to explore the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands of the Southern Ocean – including South Georgia and parts of the Chilean coast. “South Georgia gave us the worst conditions,” she remembers. “It was 800 miles to the Falklands and upwind. There was a lot of wind, and waves – we had 50 knots for two to three days. People were seasick and if you’re not used to sailing, it could have been scary.”

With all this remote cruising, there must have been moments of fear, even terror, I suggest. But it seems not. Admittedly, Rapisardi is no great fan of oceanic passages, and tends to let the skipper handle those bits of the expedition, but nerves are not the issue there. “Crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific is too boring,” she exclaims. “We have had a lot of days with dangerous situations – ice coming quickly, places where we’re surrounded and don’t know if we can pass or not. But my character is not to be scared.”

Credit: Getty Images

This issue of fear comes up again later in the interview, when I ask Rapisardi whether she has ever fought any high-profile legal battles. There is a pause, then she launches into the story of the bitter fight between fashion house Giorgio Armani and an Italian printing company of the same name. At stake was the use of the domain name armani.it which the printer refused to sell. Rapisardi fought the case and won on behalf of the luxury brand in the first case of its kind in Italy against so-called cyber-squatting. “The guy [from the printer] came into my office [and was very angry with me] but I managed to keep cool, like you do in the Arctic.”

This sort of sangfroid has served Rapisardi well in a stellar career as a patent lawyer. Her firm now employs 50 people and is one of the best-known teams in Italy. But it didn’t start out like that. She explains how she had to make a quick decision when she finished school because her father fell sick. “I was quite obliged to be a lawyer because my father was an engineer in the patent authority,” she says. “My mother died when I was very young and my father was not so healthy. So when I was 19, I started to work with him to become independent if necessary. I chose to become a lawyer because it was quicker than becoming an engineer.”

Pictured: Mariacristina Rapisardi and her grandson, Giovanni
Credit: Mariacristina Rapisardi

It was a wise choice, as Rapisardi’s father passed away soon afterward. He never saw the success she would make of her career, but she is convinced that she owes it in part to him. “I grew up with a lot of technical information from him,” she says. “I’m probably one of the few lawyers who also understands technical issues.”

She owes him her passion for the water as well. Growing up in Milan, Lake Como was the nearest sailing spot, an hour’s drive north of the city. When Rapisardi was 12, her father bought a three-metre Zef dinghy for racing out of Dervio, on the eastern shore of the lake. “The boat just had the basics, and there were about 20 of them at the sailing club, all sailed by young people,” she recalls. “My crew was a very good family friend. We started racing there and it was great fun.” Two years later, she graduated to a Strale, a dinghy class a little like today’s 470, which she would sail with her boyfriend. “The boat had no success, but we did, racing all around Italy,” says Rapisardi. “Today racing is much more competitive; 55 years ago, we were all friends. It was social.”

Credit: Mariacristina Rapisardi

In the meantime, her father had bought a bigger boat. This was a 6.3-metre Jeanneau Captain, which he kept in the then Yugoslavia for cruising the Adriatic. “It was a very small boat, without a toilet – very sporty,” remembers Rapisardi. “Those were different times. Nowadays people find a 30ft [nine-metre] sailing boat small.” 

But the real breakthrough came a year or so later, when the family bought an Arpège – the nine-metre live-aboard that helped cement Dufour’s name as a serious boatbuilder. In a way that seems unlikely these days, a 17-year-old Rapisardi borrowed the boat to sail with her boyfriend and they circled the Italian coast. This was the first boat to bear the Billy Budd name, as homage to the tragic hero of Herman Melville’s last, unfinished book. In the book, Budd is a crewman who accidentally kills a cruel ship’s officer who sought to falsely incriminate him. Although the captain concedes that Budd had moral right on his side, the law demands his execution. “I was interested in the contrast between law and justice,” says Rapisardi.

Credit: Mariacristina Rapisardi

University and a burgeoning career intervened, but she never lost sight of the sea. There was a Sweden Yachts 34, then a Sweden Yachts 36, but always used only for Mediterranean sailing. She was married to her second husband by now, with two young children, a daughter and a son. “My idea was to wait until the children grew up to be free to sail in other waters, no longer in the Med.”

And sure enough, that’s what she did. As soon as the children reached their 20s, an already successful Rapisardi went to Oyster to commission a 22-metre for high-latitude work. “Oyster was very strong – we looked everywhere but the Oyster was, in my opinion, the strongest non-custom boat I saw.”

It was the year after the abortive attempt on the Northwest Passage, and she was brimming with ideas from that first encounter with Skip Novak. “I asked Skip if I could copy his ideas, and he agreed,” she says. “But a roll bar on an Oyster is something horrible. We wanted aesthetically horrible but very useful mast steps. It required daily discussion with project manager Andrew Martin – I was a nightmare for him.”

The build of Billy Budd II took three years and the day she was launched, Martin’s first child was born. “It was like two births in one day for him,” says Rapisardi. “We went straight to Greenland.”

She loved the Oyster and would have stuck with her, she says, but for the fact that an aluminium hull is better for high latitudes where ice is a danger. Not that this stopped her taking the boat to both Baffin Island and South Georgia. And she says the amenities of the Oyster were very similar to the 34-metre Royal Huisman she currently owns (Billy Budd III). “Being longer, it has a deckhouse and it’s much more comfortable to be in the deckhouse at high latitudes. You can leave all the wet gear and chaos there and go inside dry and clean,” she says. It also happens to be fabulously appointed below, with three suites and room for five crew.

Comfort, if not luxury, is a theme that comes up several times during our conversation. Rapisardi loves sailing, but doesn’t see why that should mean being cold and wet, or not sleeping on a proper pillow. And it’s clearly a contagious attitude, if the story she recounts about heading to Greenland with small-boat and climbing legend Bob Shepton in 2011 is anything to go by.

“We met in Denmark and he arrived saying ‘macaroni’, ‘spaghetti’ and that this was not a real boat because there were pillows everywhere,” she remembers. “After one week, I had a photo of him with a glass of wine in hand and, every night, he would ask about aperitivo time! You can be an explorer and not have to suffer every day.”

Climbing has been one of Rapisardi’s main motivations to head north and she has made numerous first ascents. I wonder out loud whether she will ever feel like simply settling down to cruise gently around Tuscany or Corfu. She almost snorts with derision. “I have 10 grandchildren in total,” she says. “For them, sailing means Greece, so Billy Budd is in the Mediterranean this season. But I can’t wait until they are old enough to go to the Arctic – the oldest is already asking me.”

She is also planning a long multi-year circumnavigation via Chile and Polynesia. But in the end, it is the solitude of the far north that attracts Rapisardi the most. She dreams of exploring the islands of Franz Josef Land, controlled by Russia and closer to the North Pole than Svalbard. “I like to stay in places without any people when we sail,” she explains simply.

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