In April 2018, septuagenarian Vittorio Fabris set out for what he thought would be a solitary 20,000-mile journey around the world. Inspired by “Moby-Dick,” he planned to spend 1½ years circumnavigating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in his 33-foot sailboat, Mia, following the routes once traveled by 19th-century whalers.
Things did not go according to plan.
As the Falmouth Enterprise reported, Fabris was not the most experienced seaman. He had been an artist, freelance writer and activist, spent several decades as a fishmonger, worked in a bookstore and owned a restaurant that was popular with poets and artists. But despite growing up by the sea in Venice, he hadn’t actually spent much time on the water until about 15 years ago, when he first learned to sail.
Through an interpreter, Fabris told the paper that buying and selling fish helped inspire his voyage. Over the years, he watched as fish stocks were depleted, which made him cognizant of environmental disasters such as overfishing and pollution. His transoceanic journey, he hoped, could spread awareness of what humankind had wrought.
After watching several film adaptations of Herman Melville’s classic novel, Fabris came up with his own interpretation of “Moby-Dick.” The white whale, he told the Enterprise, symbolized nature and the inherent danger it presented to humans. From his vantage point in the 21st century, though, Fabris knew that the real threat was humankind’s potential to destroy nature.
He hung a banner from the port side of his boat: “I’m going to apologize to the whale.”
Before leaving his home port of Venice in April 2018, Fabris told the Italian newspaper La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre that he planned to make his first stop in Nantucket. The island off the coast of Massachusetts was where the Pequod, the fictional whaleship in “Moby-Dick,” had set sail. Fabris had a whale-inspired sculpture created by the Italian artist Carlo Pecorelli on board, and planned to give it to the Nantucket Whaling Museum when he arrived. He told a reporter that he expected to complete the transatlantic crossing within a month.
Two months later, however, the paper reported that Fabris was still in Spain. He had been on the way to the Azores when he hit a mystery object in the middle of the ocean, which he initially thought might be a whale. Fabris told La Nuova di Venezia that he returned to Gibraltar, where he was welcomed with a huge party.
After setting sail once again, Fabris quickly ran into problems with the automatic steering system that prevented the boat from veering off course while he slept. He told the Cape Cod Times that he had detoured south to the Canary Islands to get it fixed. By the time the system was working, hurricane season had arrived, and it was no longer safe to cross the North Atlantic.
So Fabris opted to take the much longer southern route to Nantucket. His GPS tracker shows that he sailed from the Canary Islands to Cape Verde in January, before setting off for a long slog across the ocean. He touched land in Guadeloupe in March, and took a break to rest and replenish his food supply, according to the Times. From there, he continued slowly making his way through the Caribbean, likely confusing vacationers with the banner on the starboard side of the boat announcing the journey he had initially planned: “Venezia-Nantucket.”
It was April, a year after Fabris originally set out on his voyage, when La Nuova di Venezia reported that he had arrived in the Dominican Republic port of Santo Domingo.
More storms delayed him on his way up the East Coast. Finally, over Memorial Day weekend, Fabris set sail from Long Island under calm conditions. Fourteen months after he first left home, Nantucket and its gray-shingled cottages finally came into view. He was just 1,500 feet from shore when his boat capsized.
According to the Times, Fabris had turned on Mia’s motor to guide him into the harbor, but the engine unexpectedly died and he began to drift. Before he could drop an anchor to hold him in place, the sloop flipped over and he was plunged into the frigid waters of Nantucket Sound. He pulled the boat upright, but it capsized again.
A tow boat operator who happened to be in the area heard a call go out to the Coast Guard, and rushed to help. But unfortunately for the Italian sailor, the man who had come to his rescue happened to be based out of Cape Cod, so he towed Fabris and his boat there, too. After getting so close to reaching Nantucket, Fabris was being dragged, literally, in the opposite direction.
In Falmouth, Massachusetts, the unexpected arrival of a suntanned septuagenarian mariner who spoke only Italian and wore T-shirts declaring that he wanted to apologize to whales initially baffled local officials.
“The big issue was he didn’t speak English,” Will Hopkins, an assistant at the town harbormaster’s office, told the Times. Eventually, after some negotiation with the Italian consulate, they agreed to let him stay put for the time being, even though his boat was docked illegally.
Even if he couldn’t get there by sail, Fabris was still dead-set on visiting Nantucket. Somehow, he managed to communicate to staffers at the Black Dog Cafe in Falmouth that he was trying to get to the whaling museum, the Times reported. They told him how to get there on the ferry. But when he arrived, he was once again stymied.
Fabris told the Enterprise, through an interpreter, that the museum’s staff refused to take the sculpture and asked him to leave. Speaking to the Times, James Russell, the executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association, said that wasn’t what had happened: Fabris had actually been given a pass to tour the museum when he showed up, and no one had any idea he was trying to donate a sculpture.
After leaving the island frustrated, Fabris returned to Falmouth, where he has been stranded for the past two weeks. As word of his adventures spread, the community rallied to make sure he had food and access to hot showers. The owner of a local Italian restaurant helped the sailor get around town and translated for him. Sebastian Agapite, the vice commodore of the Falmouth Yacht Club, spotted the Italian flag flying from Fabris’ boat and gave him a berth at the club’s marina.
Originally, Fabris wanted to travel to the part of the Pacific Ocean where the whaleship Essex, whose harrowing voyage reportedly inspired “Moby-Dick,” is believed to have sunk after being rammed by a whale. But he has abandoned those plans.
“Now he just wants to return to Venice in time for his birthday,” Agapite told the Times, adding that Fabris will turn 78 at the end of June.
Because his boat is apparently in no condition to make the return voyage across the Atlantic, the Agapite family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help Fabris “complete his journey by seeing the whales,” then fly back to Venice and reunite with his family.
Once home, he plans on writing a book.
“The trip was not for sport or joy,” he told the Times through his interpreters. “I did it for the whales.”