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Dona Bertarelli: Trading the high life for a trip on the high seas

She is one of the richest women in Europe – and her insurers aren’t happy about her Atlantic voyage

One of Europe’s richest women is about to put her life on the line, racing across the Atlantic in a beast of a boat, ignoring all the cautionary mutterings from the people, such as lawyers and insurers, whose highly paid job it is to look after her.

Diamonds are not Dona Bertarelli’s best friend and the Rodeo Drive lifestyle is not for her. She says a definite no to being “girly”, didn’t go gooey when her daughter was born, and has only casually consulted her sons about any risk of turning them into orphans.

As a debut to ocean racing, there is nothing like starting at the top in a machine powerful enough to cruise at the same speed as the America’s Cup yachts. In the run-up she has spent about 10 nights at sea. From this weekend she is on Atlantic standby.

Born in Rome, she went to university in Boston and has lived most of her life in Switzerland. She describes herself as a tomboy who fought to keep up with older boys on the Alpine slopes, and later had a senior management role in the family’s major European pharmaceuticals company, Serono. Its sale brought billions to both her and her brother.

Now, she and 13 men will settle into a night and day regime of two hours on, two hours off, two hours on standby for a week. Her owner’s cabin has no shower, no loo, just a bunk bed, and is subject to shaking and constant racket. The food is not brilliant, either, for someone who owns the swankiest hangout in Gstaad, the Grand Hotel Park.

The goal is to set the fastest time for sailing between Cadiz and San Salvador in the Bahamas. The challenge is called the Route of Discovery, inspired by another Italian, Christopher Columbus, in 1492. He took about five weeks; the current time to beat is 7d 10h 58m 53s, set in 2007 by Frenchman Franck Cammas.  

She is mixing management discipline with an affair of the heart. “I want to follow my man,” she says,  referring to co-skipper and top French yachtsman Yann Guichard, “and take a risk”.

Sailing is dangerous, she admits, but: “The way you have been brought up, the opportunities you have been given and the person you become cannot be swept away. You are still going to apply your ethics. All that comes from your background.

“Doing things well in a proper way requires effort. Success, for me, means hard work. We come from a Catholic education and an Italian structure of the family. The father figure is very strong but maybe also the mother figure is very strong. So you need to make big statements in all kinds of different ways, through working.”

Bertarelli has won the Bol d’Or race on Lake Geneva in a 35-foot catamaran, the first woman in its 75 years to do that, and has raced with an all-woman crew, though admits that the decision once to race in mini-skirts was a wrong one. Legs covered in bruises were testimony to that.

She was more proud of winning a podium place for the whole season and talks excitedly about giving her top women crew members the opportunity to compete on level terms.

Not that she demands feminist concessions. If she wins, she wins, records are or are not broken. What is inexcusable is to lack courage. “Mate,” said one world standard racing yachtsman, “the crew respects her because she gets stuck in, she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty.”

She says: “I am scared sometimes, and I would never have done this without Yann being next to me. He is a fantastic professional sailor and human being. But I have had to earn my place and I have had to step up to his level.”