The Amerigo Vespucci training ship, the "queen of the seas", is one of the most famous ships of all time, a symbol of beauty, courage and perseverance. It is not often that you meet a legend, let alone get on board and be able to tell its secrets.
Not only the oldest and most admired ship of the Italian Navy still in service, but also the most beautiful.
In fact, in 1962, the American aircraft carrier USS Independence, seeing a silhouette on the radar, asked:
“Who are you?”
which was followed by the answer: “Amerigo Vespucci training ship, Italian Navy”
Upon receiving these words, the aircraft carrier turned off the engines, interrupting the navigation, and sounded three blasts of the siren in greeting, replying: “You are the most beautiful ship in the world.”
Its fame has grown over the years thanks also to the legendary exploits of its great commanders, such as when Admiral Agostino Starulino in 1965, refusing tugs, made a triumphal entry sailing under full sail along the Thames or, once he reached the port of Portsmouth, moored, always under sail, between a cruiser and an aircraft carrier with imperturbable aplomb (imagine what it means to sail a ship 100 meters long and weighing 4000 tons).
So let’s enter the myth.
The history of the Amerigo Vespucci
The idea of the Amerigo Vespucci was born in the second half of the 1920s when the Italian Navy, having to renew the units intended for the training of the students of the Naval Academy, decided to build a vessel that would allow the students to learn the secrets of sea and wind; a sailing ship, therefore, where the maneuvers had to be carried out strictly by hand. The project was entrusted to the engineer and lieutenant colonel of the Naval Engineers Francesco Rotundi, as well as the director of the shipyards of Castellammare di Stabia, who was inspired by the vessels of the early 19th century and in particular by the designs of the flagship of the Royal Navy of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, the Monarca.
The training ships designed were actually two, the Vespucci and the “twin” Cristoforo Colombo, which, however, did not have an equally happy destiny. While the Amerigo Vespucci was launched on February 22, 1931 in the Royal Shipyard of Castellammare di Stabia and is still in business today as a training ship, the Cristoforo Colombo entered service in 1928 and was used as a training ship only until 1943. In 1949, at the end of the Second World War, following the clauses of the Paris peace treaty, it was in fact ceded to the Soviet Union under the name of Dunay (Danube) and then used as a training ship in Odessa in the Black Sea until, in 1963, following a devastating fire, the Soviet authorities decided to radiate it.
Subject of substantial modernization works from 2014 to 2016, during which the operational capabilities on board were adapted to modern standards, including the propulsion system and the generation of electricity, today Amerigo Vespucci continues to carry out training activities at favor of the students of the Naval Academy of Livorno, but also of the students of the Volunteers in fixed stop and of the students of the Naval College, now the “Francesco Morosini” Military Naval School of Venice. In addition, she carries out the role of ambassador on the sea of Italian art, culture and engineering, overseeing the most important ports in the world on special institutional occasions, and since September 2007 she has also been a UNICEF Ambassador.
The interior: a 1930s design jewel
The Amerigo Vespucci is a sailing ship with motor and three vertical masts, 101 meters long for 4000 tons of weight, with a maximum speed of about 10 knots under motor and 16 under sail. The crew of about 270 men and women grows in the summer, when the ship embarks the students, arriving to accommodate over 400 people on board.
Her elegant hull enchants for the black and white color of the sides with white bands interspersed with portholes that recall the lines of the cannon batteries of nineteenth-century vessels. The golden details, including the figurehead at the bow, which represents Amerigo Vespucci, and the beautiful friezes on the prow and the stern arabesque in wood covered with pure gold leaf complete the magic of a sailing ship that knows a thousand legends of the sea.
Once on board and on the bridge, another marvel awaits us: the perfection of the details that pay homage to the highest naval tradition: the 26 sails are in olon canvas, the ropes are made of natural material and precious woods are used for all purposes – such as the teak used for the main deck and the wheelhouse; mahogany, teak and holy wood for seafaring equipment and ash for grating.
But it is when one enters the rooms reserved for officers that one cannot fail to feel admiration mixed with fear in front of the symbols of the most valiant chapters in the history of the Navy preserved among the refined original furnishings of the 1930s. To access the staterooms, you go through a long corridor where hundreds of Crests are hung on the wall – that is, the shield-shaped emblems that are exchanged with the authorities of each host port, testimony to the multitude of villages visited by Amerigo Vespucci in the course of his activity – interspersed with marvelous decorated doors that date back to ’28 (in one in particular you can still see the original inscription where the R of Regia Nave Amerigo Vespucci was later deleted).
At the end of the corridor is the splendid Council Room made of walnut and mahogany, used as a representative sitting room for the most important institutional meetings, where two oil paintings are exhibited that respectively depict the landing of Columbus in San Salvador and his return to Spain; paintings that originally were on the “twin” Christopher Columbus. Once you leave the Council Room, you enter the Officers’ quarters including the Captain’s cabin recognizable, as well as by the plaque above the door, by the miccera, a tribute to the past when the Commander was the only one who could turn the fire on board (due to the danger of possible fires).
On the lower deck is the officers’ square with the Dining Room and the Bar with walls adorned with wonderful historical photos: you can thus admire the Vespucci in NY passing by the Twin Towers, a rare image near its “twin” the Colombo, the Olympic torch which in 1960 was transported from the port of Piraeus to Rome, or the 1960s photos of the girls greeting the departing sailors kissing them from the portholes.
Going down further, you reach the spaces where the students live, characterized by a large convivial room where you eat and rest all together in practical hammocks.
The visit ends here: a whistle brings us back to the present and everyone stands at attention. The Captain has just boarded and, according to the law of the sea, every officer, both during embarkation and disembarkation, must be greeted with the “honors at the barcarizzo” or a whistle, the helmsman‘s responsibility, which imposes the order “two to the band” (or 4 or 6 depending on the degree of authority) attributable to the custom of lighting the “band” at night with two oil lanterns, or the steps of the barcarizzo, to facilitate the passage of the officer. On the Vespucci every order is given by the Commander, through the boatswain, with the whistle, and everyone must quickly get used to strict discipline and hard teamwork where everyone has a role and a specific responsibility on which all the other members of the crew depend.
Together, with the right guidance, you can reach any goal and rise to higher honors. Not surprisingly, Vespucci’s motto is “Not who starts but who perseveres” and the successes collected over the years by the training ship suggest that this is precisely the secret of an all-Italian prestige, destined to last for eternity.