BBS Sailing Experience Talks: Gianfranco Bacchi

26 July 2022

BBS Sailing Experience Talks continue, the series of events that BBS has decided to dedicate to sailing.

With the collaboration of the BBS Alumni Association, the School organized a series of lectures about the world of sailing with its values of cohesion, cooperation, and team spirit. From the passion for challenges to the ability to react to unforeseen events quickly, decisively, and professionally, there are many aspects that make the world of sailing lend itself better than any other to a constructive discussion with faculty, students, and managers from the BBS Community

Protagonist and special guest of this third meeting was Gianfranco Bacchi who, from 2019 until last April was the 122nd Captain of the Nave scuola Amerigo Vespucci, the now legendary sailing ship of the Italian Navy launched in 1931. Passionate about sailing during his teenage years, Bacchi participated in major national and international competitions on various types of vessels, while as a captain he held numerous positions in both operational and educational settings: today he teaches Naval Strategy at the Naval Military School in Venice. In addition to all this, Bacchi is also an expert in communication, a subject he taught for several years, also in Venice. More than that, Bacchi has recently become an author: in the book Il punto più alto. Sulla rotta di un sogno al comando dell’Amerigo Vespucci” (The Highest Point. On the Course of a Dream at the Helm of the Amerigo Vespucci), he tells his story as a yachtsman and as a man, through a path of growth that inspires one to find the courage to broaden one’s horizon, pursuing a personal “highest point” that represents self-realization par excellence. The highest point, at least in the eyes of the world, Bacchi reached on August 22, 2020, when he entered with the open sails of the Vespucci into the navigable channel of Taranto: an operation completed, but outgoing, only by Admiral Straulino, in 1965. However, he had done so without authorization, receiving a note of commendation for the extraordinary achievement and one of demerit for breaking the rules. An epic accomplishment, if we consider that we are talking about a passage that, at its narrowest point, is only 58 meters wide and that the Amerigo Vespucci is a sailing ship 110 meters long, 25 meters high and almost 16 meters wide! A feat made possible not so much and not only by the audacity and preparation of an extraordinary man, who risked his career forever with this operation, but by a team effort that was, to say the least, impeccable, carried out by Bacchi with commitment, courage, and deep dedication.

Story of an outsider destined to attain his highest point

Perhaps the most remarkable and human aspect of a notable person like Gianfranco Bacchi is the fact that he doesn’t preach humility. This is often done by so many successful men with the vocation of motivators. What is striking about Bacchi is that what speaks to us of humility and respect, for one’s own history and for those who have been a part of it, is his attitude, the way he carries himself, his tone of voice, and his ability to put everything, even his successes, in perspective. His Romagna accent immediately won over the audience, and even before his extraordinary career came the image of a nice and curious young man. A cheerful young man with a passion for music who was not satisfied with being smart and talented: he wanted to go further and test himself on grounds that no one would have expected him to dominate. The inspiration? A picture in a magazine: it was that of the Amerigo Vespucci, and thinking about it today gives one chills imagining that young man fascinated by a magnificent vintage sailing ship succeeding one day in becoming its captain. And that’s how a young man with “peasant” DNA, as he calls himself, ironically referring to his Forlì origins, found himself in line with the sons of officers, people who breathe the sea from the cradle, for admission to the Naval Academy in Livorno.

Bacchi’s Navy military story, which he also recounted in his book, was born without any pressure; rather, it was born with what he himself called a “de-pressure,” that is, the push from relatives to convince him to return home, go study in Bologna and perhaps attend the conservatory, which was somewhat the expectation that had been created about him. Yet, the knowledge that if one day he wanted to leave the uniform, his decision would be greeted with a smile by his family members, gave him the strength to move forward by living each experience in a positive way. Although the Academy had not been his first thought, Bacchi felt at ease there. And although “Yachtsman” and “Forlì” seem like two antithetical terms, on the strength of his initial sailing experience in Milano Marittima, he applied as a yachtsman on the Academy team, becoming a full starter thanks to a stroke of luck. Because in life you need that too. He never left and began a career as a sportsman destined never to end, because, he explained, “when you start sailing you never stop.”

A career founded on respect, for the ocean and for people

Bacchi’s career has flowed on the waves of his passion for the ocean. The farmer turned yachtsman received several assignments and deepened his knowledge of classic sailing ships, which he approached as commander of the Capriccio, after having cut his teeth both as a Navy sailor and as commander of warships. Respect is a recurring theme in Bacchi’s stories, who, guided by an innate curiosity, stopped at nothing, and approached everything with great awareness. A path somewhat out of the ordinary, which is told in the first person in his book. His dream of commanding the Amerigo Vespucci stemmed precisely from his profound respect and natural awe for this ship, which he discovered as a student during his first embarkation in the port of Le Havre. In Le Havre, in 1989, Bacchi realized that there was a good reason why this very ship has a place of honor in the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution, and, having overcome even his fear of heights (on the ship one works at 50 meters and, in the past, even without safety supports), he began to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. The Amerigo Vespucci is an internationally recognized jewel of the Italian Navy. 150 trainees and 260 or so crew share the 70 habitable meters of a ship that can rightly be called the most beautiful in the world, and none of them is immune to its charms, said the former commander who, however, he confessed, once he got to the command post had largely overcome any fears.

It was fascinating to hear Bacchi recount life on board, and one realizes that respect for others and a spirit of sacrifice are the basis for being able to live together in relatively confined spaces, actively cooperating in strenuous work, even and especially as a trainee, often even putting one’s life at risk. Recalling the events that he shared with those who are still brothers to him today, Bacchi was moved, but he also confessed that, at the end of his training, he would “take it in stride,” so much so that he declared to his comrades that he would return there “only as a commander.” And slowly he ended up becoming attached to the idea. Once he entered the formation through command of the Capriccio and as a lecturer at the Academy first and then at Morosini in Venice, the only element lacking in the characteristics useful for becoming commander of the Vespucci was that of representation. And so it was that, almost by accident, after his NATO assignment was over, he was appointed chief of ceremonial office and in three years ended up being in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills to command the Amerigo Vespucci. The rest is history. A story that mixes feelings, even physical ones, and technical data and that deserves to be known by reading Bacchi’s fine book, which has its “high point” precisely in the years of commanding this ship so important not only for Italy but for the entire world. There are many anecdotes involving even important international figures, and to hear them recounted by the living voice of Gianfranco Bacchi was an inspiring experience. 

Do the best you can do. And if it doesn’t work, change.

The insight of an outsider can also be useful to future managers who listened to the Commander for nearly an hour and a half. Bacchi’s story teaches one how to manage pressure without managing pressure, in fact turning it into a kind of “de-pressure” as he called it. An ostensible paradox of focusing on what one is good at, continuing to do it conscientiously and, indeed, respectfully, without ever giving up, but without obsessing either. If it does not work, change. If those who decide come to the conclusion that we are not the right people, simply accept defeat on that front and continue on our way aiming at something else. The farmer from Forlì who “can always go home,” so much so that no one expected a successful military career from him, delivered to the audience a valuable lesson in style, but also in life. Yet of the tricky situations Bacchi has had to handle as commander of the Vespucci, one has been holding the lives of more than 400 crew members in his hands during such a tough time as the pandemic. 

His trump card? Creativity. Combined with courage, even the courage to go above and beyond whenever he felt in a position to do so, it enabled him to carry out truly remarkable feats under circumstances that no commander before him had experienced. From music to tattoos, the crew literally cooped up on the ship, that had had to forgo a long-planned round-the-world voyage, discovered a “sailing made of passions,” with musical tributes to the parts of Italy where they were stopping and with precious moments of sharing that allowed each person to bring out their talents. Today it is moving to think of this mythical ship, forced like all of us to quarantine, paying tribute to the nation by bringing music to every port. And poignant were the images and storytelling of its Commander, who always and everywhere put the people, his crew, at the center, going so far as to single out the singers and musicians in the team to give them a way to put their talents to good use. And here, too, the strength of leadership emerged, one that is so human and profound that allowed him to learn the names of the entire crew by heart. The experience that Bacchi shared taught us that a leader who has 410 people to manage and knows each of them succeeds in creating optimal performance. For a team to know that those at the top are giving it their all, so much so that they get to know the name and talents of every team member, gives them the strength to perform at their best and creates a relationship whereby, as Bacchi himself explained, “a glance is enough to correct a maneuver.”

The sharing of the video of the passage in the Taranto Channel, commented by the author of this legendary feat, who confessed that he still has chills in front of those images, was also a moment of pure emotion. And here ended the talk by Gianfranco Bacchi at the Bologna Business School: a master of life, as well as of tenacity, leadership, congeniality and, of course, navigation, who will certainly leave his mark in the memory of the Community.


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