Star Italian Skipper’s Atlantic Record Quest, And The Ghosts Of The Titanic

Considered by many to be the greatest long-distance solo sailor, Giovanni Soldini now leads an Italian crew in a quest to break the speed record for crossing the Atlantic. The challenge coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking in the sa

Giovanni Soldini
Giovanni Soldini
Fabio Pozzo

MILAN –Giovanni Soldini wants to conquer the Atlantic. The 45-year-old Italian, who many consider the greatest around-the-world sailor, is set to embark on a new, somewhat shorter sporting challenge: setting a new speed record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Having already crossed the Atlantic 30 times, Soldini has some extra help in his attempt to break the speed record: a nine-person crew, and a boat sponsored by Italian sports carmaker Maserati. "We can break the record," says Soldini. "Our ship is explosive."

In his Milan headquarters, in the Navigli old channel district, Soldini is busy mapping out his course on a computer, evaluating the weather and wind patterns, areas of high and low pressures. The clock will be his only opponent.

Soldini had previously partnered with Fiat company president John Elkann to enter a yacht in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race with an all-Italian crew, but the necessary sponsors could not be secured in time for that race.

Now, the same vessel, re-christened Maserati, and sponsored by the carmaker and the insurance giant Generali, is awaiting the final preparations to take on the challenge of breaking the Atlantic record. "We're assembling the new keel and mast, and we'll be putting the new ship in the water next week," says Soldini.

The 45-year-old skipper is one of the legend's of the sport, having first crossed the Atlantic at the age of 16, and captured two solo sailing around-the-world race titles. He made headlines in 1999 when he risked both his own safety and his victory in the Around Alone race to save French rival sailor Isabelle Autissier.

Pushing the limits

In his new adventure, the first trial will begin in mid-January, sailing the 3,884 miles westward between Cadiz, Spain and San Salvador in the Bahamas. Along this route, there is no standing reference time for monohulls, but it is a chance to test the boat – and the team.

The crew consists of nine people, evenly divided among those with the solitary experience of around alone sailing competitions, and veterans of America's Cup and Volvo Ocean Race. "It took a while for the two "families' to trust each other," admits Soldini. These men will live in extreme conditions, eating only freeze-dried food because there will not be time to cook. The crew will be equipped with computers, satellite telephones, and video cameras. The race will be monitored by a website and followed via social networks.

The sails of course are vital. Soldini showed a previous plan of 14 pieces of sails to change at every change of wind (maximum every 5 knots). It was an exhausting plan. "We will not carry all the sails with us, because they increase the weight onboard. I think we'll carry nine pieces. Of course, we'll have to make choices and to compromise."

From the Bahamas, Soldini and his crew will move to Miami. Maserati will race 947 miles to New York, to try to set an unprecedented record for monohulls along that south-to-north route. "There, the Gulf Stream is in your favor," Soldini explains. "The issues are the areas of low pressure, from the West, which change the wind."

Timing the right moment to leave is vital. "The weather counts for more than 50 percent in these undertakings." Soldini admits

The same will be the case from the port of Charleston, South Carolina, where the Maserati crew will look to set a new record for distance covered in a 24-hour period. Currently, Ericsson 4 holds the record set in 2008 during the Volvo Ocean Race: at 596.6 miles in 24 hours.

And finally, at the end of the season, Soldini and crew will try to set the biggest record of all, sailing the 2,925 miles from Ambrose lighthouse in New York harbor to Cape Lizard in the United Kingdom. The current holder of the Atlantic crossing record is Mari Cha IV, which in 2003 crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 6 days, 17 hours, 52 minutes and 39 seconds.

"We can do it," said Soldini. "We need the time to wait for the best conditions. We can't wait for too long after the March-April period, because icebergs are low and prevent us from following the shortest northern route. We can't forget that in mid-April, exactly 100 years ago, the Titanic sank there."

Read the original article in Italian

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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