Sailing despite a handicap Marco and Muttley

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The man, the dog, and the sea

Following a severe motorcycle accident hardly anyone believed Marco Rossato would ever steer a sailboat again – except for Marco himself. This summer he sailed around the entire Italian peninsula accompanied by his best friend, Muttley the dog.

It’s September 22nd and a bright and sunny day on the Ligurian coastline. After five months on the open sea full of silence, storms and starry nights, the coastline of Genoa appeared before Marco. Initially misty and blue, but becoming ever clearer. The mountains, the colors, and the port. Thousands of people waiting. Welcoming calls, posters with “Benvenuti a casa” (welcome home) written on them, hugs, and tears of joy. Everyone is there – friends, family, colleagues, and representatives from the media. “In this moment, all sorts of feelings came at once: A mix of exhaustion, bewilderment, and joy – it was amazing,” says Marco. He really did it. Not only did he and Muttley defy the wind and the weather for five months straight, but they also mastered a jam-packed schedule with stops at 80 ports and all sorts of media hype.

„Muttley and I are inseparable. He also makes for the best company on board.“

– Marco Rossato

“Muttley is just like me – he feels right at home on the ocean. I picked him up from the animal shelter four years ago – since then, we have been inseparable. He also makes for the best company on board.” The sailing tour around the Italian peninsula is the first of a total of three tours from Marco’s TRI Sail4All project, which extends over a period of time of three years. Along with two additional major sailing tours, the project encompasses numerous activities and campaigns. “Our goal is to enrich the lives of people with handicaps through sailing and to raise the public’s awareness for handicapped-accessible ports. Winning over B. Braun as one of the main sponsors was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Marco.

But how does someone get the idea to sail around the entirety of Italy? “Originally, that wasn’t my plan at all,” says Marco laughing. It all began 20 years ago while he was sailing on the Atlantic close to the Cuban coast. “I don’t know why, but suddenly the idea came to me to sail alone from Cuba to Italy.” It was completely clear to him that crossing the Atlantic alone in a sailboat is a seemingly challenging affair. “But those who know me know that I am very difficult to hold back once I’ve got my sights set on something,” says Marco grinning. Three years straight, he trained for his transatlantic crossing – and then came the motorcycle accident. When he awoke in the hospital, he didn’t anticipate that he would never be able to use his legs again.

„It isn’t true that a person’s life is over after a severe accident. In fact, a new life is just beginning.“

– Marco Rossato

“When something like that happens, many people claim that their life is over. And maybe that’s what it feels like. But it’s not true,” says Marco. “In fact, a new life is just beginning – like when you are a baby and are initially helpless, forced to learn everything anew – it takes years.” Even Marco needed a few years to conquer his new life step-by-step. Back then, he believed sailing again was completely out of reach – not to mention his dream of crossing the Atlantic. Up until his 40th birthday, however: “I was sitting together with a couple of friends and we were talking about the dreams we used to have. And it suddenly became clear to me – It’s now or never!”

From then on, he did everything he could to make his dream a reality. “My friends and family never stopped believing in me,” says Marco. Sailing around the Italian peninsula was to be his first major milestone. “Of course, I asked myself whether I could cope with leaving behind the comfort of a life on land for five months. And I also had lots of respect for the nautical challenges. But what kind of people would we be if we didn’t take risks?”

„Navigating was back-breaking work and I had no idea whether we would get out of there in one piece.“

– Marco Rossato

And Marco took plenty of risks, as the sailing tour around the peninsula didn’t just take him through tranquil waters. For example, there’s the notorious Strait of Otranto between Italy and Albania where the mistral can prove to be very stormy. Or the Gulf of Squillace, which has been known as a ship graveyard since the antiquity. “But I was lucky. I muddled through everywhere quite easily. Until that day when things got a little dicey.” 

He was sailing along the coast of Apulia when suddenly a storm emerged without warning: Heavy gusts rocked the boat and high waves crashed into it with all their might. “Navigating was back-breaking work and I had no idea whether we would get out of there in one piece. But the worst part was Muttley who was staring at me the whole time with mortal agony in his eyes. Once I was able to finally navigate the boat to a secure location and drop anchor for the night, we had had 13 hours of hell behind us.”

But did he ever question his project in such moments? “Never! Giving up doesn’t belong to my vocabulary.” There were also so many magical moments on the ocean: “Days on which everything came together perfectly – the wind, the waves, and the weather. A sea and a sky with indescribable colors – like a painting. All my worries went away, leaving behind a deep peacefulness.”    

But as much as Marco enjoys the peacefulness, he doesn’t stay put long. If he’s not training or on a lengthy sailing tour, he can be found in clinics and rehabilitation centers. “I want to give people hope. I want to show them how beautiful life is – even after an accident that changes everything.” He finds his work in schools especially fun: “Children are wonderful. Their heads aren’t filled with stereotypes or barriers. They see me as a normal person who has to deal with a couple of limitations, but one who does what he loves most in life. They understand that dreams are not fantasies, but something that we can and should make a reality.” 

In the spring, Marco will head off on his second tour of his TRI Sail4All project. But this time he’ll be going as a regatta: Currently, he is putting together a crew of 140 sailors all living with handicaps. The third tour is planned for 2020 and will follow Odysseus’s tracks across the Mediterranean Sea. And what about the Atlantic crossing? “That will happen when I feel ready. I am guessing it will be 2021. I’ll know when it’s time.” And those who know Marco know that he is hard to hold back when he’s got his sights set on something. 

Marco Rossato is the founder of SailAbility, an international community with members from 24 countries. Since 2018, he has been the president of Hansa Class, a Paralympic sailing discipline. His sailing tour around Italy took place as part of the TRI Sail4All project. B. Braun is the main sponsor.

By Christin Bernhardt