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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones