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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing