A year ago, Vittorio Fabris embarked on an 18-month solo journey around the world in a 30-foot sailboat. The first leg of his trip took him across the Atlantic Ocean, from Venice to Nantucket.
He should have cleared this leg within a month. Instead, the transatlantic voyage took over a year. On May 26, he was near Nantucket when his motor cut out. The current and wind swept his vessel into shallow waters, knocking it over. Mr. Fabris was able to right it by the time Sea Tow Captain Ramsey Chason arrived and towed it to Falmouth.
Once in Falmouth, Mr. Fabris sought out advice for getting to Nantucket without his sailboat. He had been close to the island, a destination that represented many things to the 77-year-old Italian sailor. Part of his reason for sailing to Nantucket was a handcrafted piece of metalwork entrusted to him by Venetian artist Carlo Pecorelli. He wanted to present it to the museum’s head of collections.
Mr. Fabris found his way to Black Dog Heights Cafe, a new restaurant on Falmouth Heights Road. Staff directed Mr. Fabris to a bus. The bus took him to a ferry, which brought him to Nantucket where he found a taxi willing to help him reach his destination, despite a lack of funds.
He entered the Nantucket Whaling Museum, with the circular piece of metal, carved into a whale’s tail. Museum administration would not accept the artwork. Staff asked him to leave.
James Russell, executive director of the museum denied that the staff asked Mr. Fabris to leave. He said the staff gave him a tour of the museum and after took him to the island visitor center.
Mr. Fabris grounded-out for the second time since reaching Massachusetts.
Word spread that an Italian sailor who did not speak English was docked at Falmouth Harbor. Alberto Toselli, owner of the Italian restaurant, Osteria La Civetta in Flamouth, offered to translate for Mr. Fabris. He has also been helping Mr. Fabris get around.
He translated as Mr. Fabris told of his voyage across the Atlantic.
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For 30 years Mr. Fabris worked as a fishmonger, buying and selling fish, mostly sourced from the Mediterranean. Over a time span as short as 10 years, he watched the quality and quantity of fish decrease and became increasingly aware of what he referred to as man’s impact on the environment, Mr. Toselli translated.
He bought a Dutch sailboat that was built circa 1973 and attached a banner that read, “I’m going to apologize to the whale.” “Moby-Dick,” the story of the infamous white whale by Herman Melville, had always stuck with him. It was inspired by a real-life shipwreck, a whaling vessel that left Nantucket and never returned. Mr. Fabris felt that the white whale in the story was a metaphor for the damage nature can do to man. He thinks the metaphor should be flipped, Mr. Toselli said.
When Mr. Fabris set out to “apologize to the whale,” he wanted to raise awareness about environmental harm. He also wanted to see that harm firsthand—the islands of plastic and trash floating in the water, the stains of black oil lurking near the surface.
The trip was a personal challenge and a way for him to reflect on his life, Mr. Toselli explained. Carrying through with the Moby-Dick metaphor, Mr. Fabris said he believes that people can get harpooned in life, just as whales can.
Mr. Fabris left Venice in April 2018, heading for the Strait of Gibraltar. A mechanical problem with his rudder while sailing across the strait landed Mr. Fabris in the Canary Islands. By the time he repaired his boat, he had missed the window of time that would allow for a safe journey along the northern route across the Atlantic.
Mr. Fabris had been many things when he left Italy, but a lifelong sailor was not one of them. Despite a childhood in Venice, a city surrounded by, and sometimes submerged in, water, Mr. Fabris did not take up sailing until the age of 63. Instead he had spent time as an artist, a freelance writer and an activist. In the 1980s Mr. Fabris owned a restaurant in Milan that catered to artists, offering performance space to singers, comedians and poets.
The time taken to repair the boat in the Canary Islands meant that Mr. Fabris was forced to take the southern route across the Atlantic. He sailed from Azores to Cape Verde and then set out across the ocean. He landed in Guadeloupe, a French island group in the Caribbean, then sailed north, staying to the east of islands like Puerto Rico. North of the Bahamas he entered US waters. He ran into two storms, one off the coast of South Carolina, and another off the coast of Philadelphia on his way to Long Island, New York.
It was his trip from New York to Nantucket that landed him in Falmouth. The condition of Mr. Fabris’s boat makes a transatlantic trip back to Italy impossible, Mr. Toselli said. The vessel, Mia, is now docked at the Falmouth Yacht Club. Thanks to Vice Commodore Sebastian Agapite, Mr. Fabris and his sailboat have a temporary home. Mr. Agapite has also set up a GoFundMe site to gather donations to send this literal “wash-ashore” home.
Seated on the outdoor patio of Osteria La Civetta, Mr. Fabris reflected on his journey across the Atlantic. If he had completed his voyage, he would have been the first in the world to do so. This is what Mr. Fabris regrets—not finishing the voyage. Risking his life simply came with the territory, Mr. Toselli translated.
“He is a dreamer,” Mr. Toselli laughed.
Mr. Fabris’s future is uncertain, and so is the future of the piece of art that traveled with him across the Atlantic Ocean. The piece of metal sits on a table in Osteria La Civetta instead of in the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
“Maybe if they hear Vittorio’s story, the museum will come get it,” Mr. Toselli suggested.
As for whether Mr. Fabris will sail again, he is unsure. If he does, it will not be to cross the Atlantic Ocean.