The starting cannon fired. The smoke cleared. Nothing happened.
From a distance they resembled a long mountain range of snow-capped peaks. Up close they were more than 2,600 becalmed sailboats. Eventually some of the professional crews sailing state-of-the-art ships captured enough puffs of air to move forward.
This was the Barcolana regatta, which takes place every year in the Gulf of Trieste on the second Sunday of October. By most accounts, it is the largest regatta in the world. Olympic sailing crews line up side-by-side with boating enthusiasts from all over the world and with many local experts and newbies.
Since the Barcolana was founded in 1969 (with only 51 entrants), sailboats have gathered annually in the gulf near the Miramare Castle, which was built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Tradition holds that he was forced to dock here in 1855 by strong gusts of the Bora wind.
Normally, the Bora—named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind—howls down from the Julian alps to the Adriatic ocean. It can blow so fiercely that some sidewalks in Trieste are lined with handrails. Some years the Bora has broken masts of ships in the regatta. Other years it has been nonexistent, and some boats couldn’t complete the 15-mile course toward Slovenia and back to the finish line near Trieste’s Unity of Italy piazza.
In Trieste both Italian and Slovene are spoken, along with triestinà, the city’s colorful dialect. Linguistic multiculturalism extends to its coffee culture. In the home of Illy, an espresso is a nero, a macchiato is a capo, and a cappuccino is a caffelatte. But it wasn’t coffee on the minds of the crew this October day as they loaded their ships’ holds with friulano, prosecco and sauvignon. Knowing the forecast, the question for most wasn’t whether they would celebrate a win, but whether they might win this year’s first trophy for last place. To pass the time, they drank white wine, sang old Trieste folk songs and swam off the stern of the boat. One friend on shore even texted, “since there is no wind, at least try and catch some sea bass for tonight.”
From experts to beginners, the sailors were all in the same predicament—to try to win or to try to lose. The spirit of the race was captured in last year’s official regatta poster—“We’re all in the same boat.” The theme then and now resonates amid a national crackdown on migrants. The message of inclusiveness infuriated the anti-migrant League party.