Despite the America’s Cup having turned to foiling boats, many of its top sailors have still been attracted back to the 44Cup: from Dean Barker and Ray Davies to Terry Hutchinson and currently Peninsula Petroleum’s tactician Giles Scott and Team Nika’s Francesco Bruni. But this is also true further forward in the boats with Bruni recruiting his friend and long term headsail trimmer Pierluigi de Felice to race with him this season on the 44Cup.
Aside from racing with Bruni, the lure of racing in the 44Cup was also simply to bring more balance to his sailing, explains de Felice: “Otherwise as a professional sailor you get stuck in one corner of the game.” He fondly remembers the World Match Racing Tour, when, following the 2007 America’s Cup, he and Bruni (along with their present Team Nika pitman Pietro Mantovani and Ceeref powered by Hrastnik 1860 bowman Matteo Auguardo) represented Italy with the Azzurra team. “Doing the World Match Racing Tour you’d change boats from event to event. Being able to adapt to them all of the time really improves your skill, instead of being stuck on one design and being really specific to that.”
De Felice and Bruni have remained stuck together as a team that has taken them through numerous campaigns. “After so many years you tend to spend your time and sail with people you enjoy and also enjoy sailing with and have a good feeling. Also on the boat when you interact with people you want to be quick to adapt and feel and you need to have a good relationship to do that. If you are not getting the most out of each other, you are not succeeding. That is why sailing with the same people and getting a good vibe on the boat and being able to get the best out of each other is the best recipe.”
Having raced in the ClubSwan 36 last year finished second at the Worlds with Bruni, an opportunity came up with Team Nika for this season. “Vladimir [Prosikhin] wasn’t happy with the way his team was heading and wanted to make some changes so we got in touch and had the opportunity to sail with him,” explains de Felice.
Originally from Naples, de Felice speaks English with a slight hint of Kiwi. This is because of his strong ties to the country. While competing at a 470 Junior Worlds there in 1999, he saw Patrizio Bertelli’s first Luna Rossa challenge for the America’s Cup. This caused him to swap his Olympic aspirations in favour of sport’s oldest trophy. He joined Mascalzone Latino for the 2003 Cup.
In fact the 2000s were halcyon days for Italian sailing with two Italian America’s Cup campaigns, both running two boat campaigns, both with 30+ strong sailing teams and both eager to recruit the most promising young Italian talent. De Felice continued with Vincenzo Onorato’s team in Valencia in 2007 before signing with Luna Rossa for San Francisco. He has remained with Luna Rossa Pirelli Prada ever since, including the 36th America’s Cup with Bruni, once again back in Auckland.
While most Italian sailors sail with Italian racing teams, perhaps for language or cultural reasons, de Felice, along with Bruni, made the conscious decision early on to ‘go foreign’, outside of his America’s Cup racing at least. Today he seems to have sailed in more classes with more crews of multiple nationalities than most other Italian pro sailors. “It was never easy,” he admits. “Italy is similar to France and Spain where the ‘season’ is the ‘season’. I remember after my first America’s Cup when I came back and wanted to do more, I said ‘this isn’t big enough - I’m not going to get where I want to get to. I have to get out of here. I need more opportunities.’” Since then, whenever possible, he has sailed with international teams. This has included for example winning the Extreme Sailing Series in 2017, for example with the Danish crew on SAP Extreme Sailing Team.
However de Felice has also enjoyed great success with Italian teams, notably Joe Fly on the Farr 40 circuit and, later, on aboard the Stig Melges 32. He won the Louis Vuitton Trophy in Nice in 2009 with the Italian Azzurra team. He had also twice been part of the top ranked skipper’s crew on the World Match Racing Tour - first with his former Mascalzone Latino helm Paolo Cian, then with Bruni and Azzurra.
Unusually 2022 is de Felice’s first 44Cup campaign, although he has done one-off races with Team Aqua, notably when they won in Malta in 2017, and then with Team Aleph in Montenegro. While invited to continue with Team Aqua, he was unable to do so due to his America’s Cup commitments.
“Back in January I really wanted to do some monohull sailing, to balance out all the foiling boats with some high level [displacement] monohull racing. So we decide to get into the RC44 again because it is really fun racing. It is amazing – you can race the RC44 in five knots of wind and still have a good race. Or 25 knots. It is good that the class has stuck to together and is getting a bit of a new boost now with more people interested in it because of the cost of the boat. As long as the class keeps adapting and changing and making it fun, it is really interesting. And it is great racing - we are not foiling or doing 40 knots, but it is still really good fun.”
Surprisingly, de Felice signing with Team Nika occurred just before one of his other teams – Black Star Sailing, with whom he is tactician on the GC32 Racing Tour and won this year’s GC32 World Championship – also joined the 44Cup.
On board Team Nika, de Felice is headsail trimmer but is also more deeply involved in the sail program. Although he is not a sailmaker, he has always been involved with the sailmaking process dating back to his first America’s Cup campaign. “I help with the sail development, so I am more in the speed loop.”
At the time of this interview de Felice had yet to have the call up for what will be his fifth America’s Cup campaign. But this is allowing him to focus on Team Nika on the 44Cup: “We started the season in Lanzarote and came away with a second, which was great. We were third in Cascais and we didn’t have our best event in Marstrand… So we are looking forward to the World Championship Portoroz in October.”