The oceans have emptied over the past few months, with seagoing voyagers around the world seeking safe harbor amid fears that Covid outbreaks or restrictions could leave them stranded with nowhere to go.
Which makes the decision of one Italian family to embark on an epic adventure in a sailboat seem all the more courageous or, in the eyes of some, foolhardy.
Stefano and Sara Barberis, a couple in their 40s from a small town in the northern region of Lombardy, have sold their house to fund their year-long trip, during which they aim to cross the Atlantic, explore the Caribbean and perhaps further afield.
Accompanying them will be their three children, Iago, aged 11, Nina, aged eight, and Timo, a three-year-old. Pepper, a Labrador dog, will also be along for the ride.
Home, for all six of them, will be a 17-meter sailing boat called Shibumi, meaning “refined beauty” in Japanese.
The Barberis say they’re bringing their kids along because the journey will offer them unmissable life experiences and educational opportunities, and regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, the time to travel is now.
“Of course we’re extremely frightened,” Sara Barberis tells CNN. “It’s crazy, but we were supposed to set sail in June then waited for the situation to improve. We sold our house earlier this year before the virus outbreak so we can’t wait for next year; by then we would have spent all the money we raised with the sale.”
The family will depart at the end of September from La Spezia in Liguria, northwestern Italy, heading first to Spain’s Balearic Islands, then Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic.
Further ports of call are expected in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and, at the end of the year with the winds blowing in the right direction, across the Atlantic Ocean to the tropical atolls of Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe and Martinique.
With the coronavirus crisis swiftly evolving, Sara says the family is prepared to adapt plans en route if they need to. Once they reach the Canaries they say they’ll evaluate the Covid outlook in the Caribbean before crossing the ocean.
“There’s no point getting there if we then end up locked on board for months, if the situation were to be really bad. If you have to have food brought to you and never leave the ship, swimming close to it, missing out on the stunning beauty of those tropical spots, it wouldn’t be worth the trip”, she adds.
The couple also worries that if the trip is rescheduled to next year, their oldest son would be almost a teenager and might lose his enthusiasm to take part.
The Barberis say they’ll be wearing masks and gloves when they disembark in foreign ports, but for most of the trip they’ll be dining on deck and anchoring at secluded, quiet beaches and solitary bays without other boats and people around.
A different kind of life
Motivation for this ambitious voyage comes, the couple insists, not from a desire to quit the rat race or lack of fulfillment at home, but rather to experience an alternative lifestyle and allow their kids to also discover it.
“We’re happy now, but very curious to experience a different kind of life and share it with our two sons and daughter, far from the daily routine and rhythms of school,” says Sara, a fashion designer.
“That can allow us to be in contact with nature and see beautiful paradise-like and uncontaminated places before mankind destroys them with his arrogance. That’s a risk we wouldn’t want our children to run were we to leave them behind.”
The couple spent months preparing and restyling their stunning two-mast sailing boat with four cabins into a comfortable floating house. They’ve given the Shibumi the nickname “La Chiattona” — an Italian term meaning broad-bottomed and referring to the vessel’s large, flat, stable hull of the ship, ideally suited to the rolling Atlantic.
The Barberis are sea dogs and their kids have grown up sailing around the Mediterranean, often in tricky conditions. They’re tested the Shibumi, and their own abilities, in the rough Aegean Sea, zigzagging through a maze of isles and facing brutal currents and winds.
“The sale of our home has allowed us to raise enough money to refurbish the boat and spend one year at sea, living a simple life where you really need just a few things,” says Sara. “That’s what we’ve always wanted our kids to learn.
“Living on board a sailing boat can be much less expensive than everyday life at home. It all depends on how you spend your money, with home-cooked food and a few clothes rather than going to restaurants or buying expensive shirts”.
Their time in the Med has also convinced them of the urgency of their adventure, having witnessed how climate change and urban sprawl are affecting places closer to home.
They hope to involve their children in undertaking research as part of their home-schooled education aboard the boat to help highlight environmental concerns. Stefano Barberis’ background as a nuclear physicist will help with the scientific side.
The boat hosts a “floating lab” to collect data on energy and water consumption, pollution by microplastics, and as an observatory for dolphin and whale-watching. The videos and data collected will be shared through online platforms with students from several Italian schools.
The goal of the journey, says Sara, is also to spread environmental awareness by comparing sailing life with everyday life at home.
“We think it’s important that kids fully understand what energy means and how excessive consumption can affect the planet: does everybody know what taking a shower entails, how much water is wasted or how much energy is consumed to charge a phone battery?”
The family’s sea adventure has sparked some controversy in Italy with people taking to social media to question the wisdom of setting sail right now.
Some have criticized the Barberis for taking their children — and even their dog — on what is a potentially perilous journey.
“We’ve been described as selfish, but I would feel selfish were my husband and I to set sail alone leaving the kids behind and not allowing them to live such a unique opportunity,” says Sara. “Even driving on the highway in Milan is dangerous, but that doesn’t mean one should stay glued to the sofa.
“The boat is stocked with emergency first aid kits, antibiotics and everything we could need. We’ll always be sailing close to the shore except for the two to three weeks crossing the Atlantic, but we have all the technology we need to call for help if anything happens.”
‘Savor each moment’
Maurizio Martini, an Italian sailing expert who has crossed the Atlantic several times, says the Barberis have strong odds of enjoying a smooth trip, with the weather in their favor at this time of year.
There are, however, a few hazards, particularly the uncertainties created by climate change.
“Modern technology, GPS and the Internet have made it simpler but, on the other hand, there could be sudden weather disturbances with tropical storms that prolong the hurricane season beyond November, heavy cargo ship traffic, and huge pieces of plastic and other floating objects that can get stuck in their propeller,” he says.
One of the biggest hazards could be navigating the tricky Strait of Gibraltar, before the family even enters the Atlantic, he says. “The Mediterranean is a closed sea but it can be a nasty one, never to underestimate.”
While it’ll be down to the parents to handle any stormy seas, Iago, Nina and Timo all help with tasks on board. Iago has learned to master the dinghy, while his sister can handle mooring.
The couple isn’t worried either about the “what next” when the journey terminates and they return to Italy with nowhere to live. The Barberis say they prefer to focus on and enjoy the moment, free from anxiety.
Friends and relatives, says Sara, have already offered them a place to stay when they return and her father has a camper van to share.
She adds: “Our real dream is one day to sail all the way to Polynesia, stay at sea another one to two years, but dreams don’t come free. For now, let’s take it one step at a time and savor each moment of this upcoming trip.”