Around-the-world single-handing is not so much a sport as it is "a complete career," says the 34-year-old Italian. "You need to know a little bit of everything: The designing of the boat, the reading of the weather, the fixing of the generator..."
And let's not forget the throwing of the hammer. In February 1999, midway through the epic Around Alone race, Soldini sailed 200 miles back into the heart of a merciless Southern Ocean storm to rescue competitor Isabelle Autissier, whose yacht had capsized. When he got there, Autissier, sheltering inside her upturned hull, couldn't hear his shouts over the shrieking wind. Soldini reached into his toolbox, pulled out the heaviest thing he could find, and flung it across the water at the Frenchwoman's hull. A few minutes later Autissier opened her escape hatch, tossed out her life raft, and made her way over to his boat.
Such resourcefulness is the product of Soldini's youth, spent working in boatyards and on the foredecks of other people's yachts after dropping out of school in Milan at 16. By his midtwenties he was chafing for his own command. "If you work on a cruising boat, the owner is always wanting to stop, to take a swim or something," he says. "The boat never goes." With a tiny budget but a fierce desire to race in the 1994 BOC Challenge (since renamed the Around Alone), Soldini enlisted a dozen patients in a drug-rehab clinic to work for free on the construction of an ultralight sloop. With it, he won two legs of the race, battling the more experienced Australian David Adams right to the wire in the regatta's 50-foot Class II. Four years later, with backing from Fila, he built a 60-foot boat and, after rescuing Autissier, easily won the elite division of the race. He was the first non-Frenchman to do so.
Soldini is known to his peers for his bold tactics—he often sails away from the fleet on speculative "fliers"—as well as his ambitious race schedule, which includes both single-handed and fully crewed events. The latter have not always been kind to him. In early 1998, he and four friends attempted to set a transatlantic record on Fila and capsized in rough seas 400 miles short of the English Channel. Despite a sturdy safety harness, Soldini's codesigner and best friend, Andrea Romanelli, was washed overboard, never to be seen again. "It was terrible, my worst experience ever," Soldini says. "When you are alone, you have only yourself to worry about. When you are five people sailing, you have to think about much more."