Sailing used to be her hobby. Now Cristina Lombardi’s sailing skills and ability to navigate the high seas have become a means for her to help troubled youth find their way in life.
Her own life has been full speed ahead marked by several sharp changes of course. Difficulties only stimulate her. “Sometimes I go looking for them”, she admits with a laugh.
Yet when she welcomes me to her home in Lugano, it is surprising how this 55-year-old – who intrepidly takes on the ocean – seems almost intimidated by my intrusion of her home environment. It is all too apparent that she doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. She continually plays down her accomplishments, preferring to emphasise those of the people around her.
However, in answer to my storm of questions, she gradually reveals her strength of character. She relates that she has been able to overcome her fears by adopting a simple motto: “If others can do it, I can do it”.
Changes of course
This has been her strategy since the age of 11, when she went to boarding school.
“They were three very hard years. I was afraid of not making it, because it was an old-style school system, very authoritarian. So I started to self-talk in that way to encourage myself.” And it has always worked for her since then.
Like in 1998, when at the age of 40 and married with three children aged 8-11, she quit architecture and started a new course of training in a field that was new and exciting at that time: web design. “Up until a few months before, I didn’t even know how to switch on a computer”, she recalls with some amusement.
As she approached 50, Lombardi felt a new desire for change. She heard the call of the sea which “is a drug and makes you addicted”. She decided to dedicate herself completely to sailing.
“Not the glamorous kind of sailing, which is just a display of luxury, but rather sailing as the simple life, getting back to the basics, which helps you take on the sea with all its difficulties, its challenges.”
Boating and the sea have been Lombardi’s passion since she was 17. It started with a rowing trip from Locarno to Venice organised by a teacher at the end of secondary school.
“It was my first holiday away from home, without my parents. This was adventure. It was a heady brew that gave me the passion for this kind of living.” Two years later she made her first sailboat trip on the island of Caprera, Sardinia – where she would continue visit every year.
Solo Atlantic crossing
In May 2006, she had a frightening experience that was decisive for her future. During a crossing from the Azores to Brittany as part of a crew, she found herself in the middle of a huge storm and feared that she might not succeed in bringing them everybody home safe and sound. They finally arrived in port with no injuries sustained, but the boat was in terrible condition.
At that point she decided to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic. The idea had been in her mind for a while, but now she no longer had any doubts. This trip had shown her that she was capable of doing it. Among her souvenirs at home, she shows me a whale tooth from the Azores. A picture of her sailboat, the ZenZero, is carved into it.
Sailing as an educational activity
The solo transatlantic trip was a good experience for her. Yet Lombardi realised that it did nobody else any good. So she decided to do something that she had been turning over in her mind ever since she had got back to Brittany after the storm at sea. In port she met participants in a sailing project based on the idea of adventure education.
“Even though I had always thought that the sailboat was a good school for life, I had never thought of making an educational activity out of it. Seeing this project struck a spark within me,” says Lombardi, who was inspired to create a similar project in Ticino.
In Lugano in 2009 she met some people with whom she founded “Il Sorgitore”, which means “The Protected Anchorage”. It’s a non-profit society which offers a three-month programme in navigation the high seas by sailboat as an educational tool for teenagers suffering from psychosocial problems. These are youth between 15 and 20, who are neither in school nor working, who don’t know what to do with their lives, but are neither delinquents nor drug-addicts, as Lombardi explains.
“The whole thing takes three months. The first month involves adjusting: the group forms, there are departures, there are tensions. Then the real work starts. The work is done by the instructors, but it is also life on board – where they have to share cramped living space, without any way out – that does the work: the routines, the responsibilities, the tasks, learning to trust each other.”
Sharing that brings satisfaction
The association also puts on short sailing camps for other people in need, such as drug addicts or the physically or mentally handicapped. Lombardi dedicates herself intensively to all of these programmes, making herself and her boat available to the association. This activity occupies her just about year-round, because apart from being “la skipper”, she is involved in everything going on around her: organisation, fundraising, maintenance work and administrative tasks. This volunteer work never fails to arouse her enthusiasm.
“In life I have been very fortunate. I have also learned skills, and it seems right to me to share them with those who have been less fortunate – to dedicate a few years of my life to a project that helps others. Apart from that, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. These are incredible experiences at a human level.”
Yet she also has new ideas that she wants to implement: a house on an island for youth projects and a new boat for expeditions to the Arctic or the Antarctic. And Lombardi will probably do all of this, because when she takes something on, she sees it through.
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch