Ambrogio Fogar

(Filed: 31/08/2005)

new_hed_storyAmbrogio Fogar, who died on August 24 aged 64, survived for 73 days in an open boat amid the frozen waters of the South Atlantic after his yacht was sunk by a killer whale off the Falklands in 1978.

Fogar was one of Italy’s best-known sailors and explorers, and first came to notice in Britain when he entered the 4th Transatlantic Race in 1972. This contest had begun in 1960 as a half-crown wager between Sir Francis Chichester and Lt-Col “Blondie” Hasler, one of the “Cockleshell Heroes”, to see who could sail fastest single-handed from Plymouth to Rhode Island.

During the 1972 race, Fogar lost the use of his rudder and then his radio soon after leaving Devon, but he demonstrated his mettle by continuing to compete and by finishing 26th out of the field of 54.

The following year, he became the first Italian yachtsman to sail solo around the world in a westerly direction, against the prevailing wind, and only the 50th man to circumnavigate the globe alone since Joshua Slocum made the first passage in 1898.

When Fogar arrived in Britain to compete in the 5th Transatlantic Race, in 1976, officials looked askance at his catamaran, Surprise, as it lacked a cabin and Fogar slept in a crate inside one of the hulls. But they conceded that the Italian “seems to know what he is doing”, even though he candidly admitted that he was expecting to capsize several times during the voyage. Fogar said that he had plans in place to deal with this eventuality.

Two years later, shortly after returning from an expedition to the Bermuda Triangle with Uri Geller, he was faced with just such an emergency. While he and a friend, Mauro Mancini, were making an attempt to circumnavigate Antarctica, Surprise was overturned by a killer whale, and the pair were forced to take to a rubber dinghy.

They had virtually no food supplies, and nothing but rainwater to drink. For almost two-and-a-half months they drifted across the waves, sustained by their friendship, their reserves of fat and by Fogar’s faith in God, which Mancini eventually came to share.

Eventually, they were spotted by a Cape Town-bound Greek cargo vessel and were rescued after having travelled some 1,300 miles towards Africa from the location of the wreck. Two days later, however, Mauro Mancini suddenly died, apparently after contracting an otherwise innocuous cold aboard ship that his weakened system was unable to throw off and which speedily developed into pneumonia.

On his return to Italy, Fogar was blamed for the death of Mancini, a journalist, by the media. Only the posthumous publication of the diary Mancini had kept when aboard the dinghy cleared the yachtsman’s name. In the diary Mancini had written: “Fogar is an exemplary sailor and a very courageous man. I hope that the newspapers will treat him with the respect and morality that he has shown me aboard this vessel.”

Ambrogio Fogar was born in Milan on August 13 1941. He first made a living selling sports cars, then qualified as a stunt pilot. His initial love was for parachuting, but after a serious accident in which he lost most of his teeth he gave it up in favour of sailing.

He renounced this after the death of Mancini, and in 1983 attempted to become the first man to walk unsupported to the North Pole. The British explorer David Hempleman-Adams set off at the same time, but in the event neither man reached his goal, the Briton being hampered by injury and the Italian by disintegrating pack ice.

For a time, Fogar claimed to have reached his destination, but it was later revealed that he had been taken there by the aircraft which had picked him up. Nonetheless, his exploits – which also included the ascent of several peaks in Africa, where he contracted malaria – earned him much renown in Italy, and he was able to parlay this into a successful career as a television presenter and author. His books include My Atlantic (1974) and The Raft (1978), the story of his time in the lifeboat.

Then, in 1992, Fogar was rendered permanently paralysed as the result of a crash while competing in the Paris-Peking rally. He spent the last 13 years of his life in bed, unable to breathe or to speak except with the aid of machines. Many regarded it as a cruel destiny for a man of action, but he inspired admiration by his defiance of his condition.

In 1997 he took part in a round-Italy yacht race strapped into a specially-adapted wheelchair. He also became an ardent supporter of Greenpeace and of anti-whaling campaigns.

Ambrogio Fogar was a Commander of the Order of the Italian Republic.

He was divorced, and is survived by two daughters.

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