“I looked like a skeleton. And I felt like one.”
Giacomo loves the water. In fact, he’s been, as he puts it, “making love to the water” for 10-12 hours each day for nearly two years, through 15 countries with only the force of the wind, water, and his muscles to power him along.
Forty-six-year-old Giacomo De Stefano is now standing at the bow, his tattered straw hat at a rakish tilt and faded t-shirt fluttering in the salty breeze. He’s singing “That’s Amore” to no one in particular. We’re gliding along the silken waters of the Bosphorus in what is the last leg of a 3,356-mile voyage that has taken him from one end of Europe to the other.
But let’s pause that for a second and rewind the world back a decade, away from this seemingly idyllic spot. Now we see a flashy Italian filmmaker who lived in London, New York, and Rome and regularly traveled to Spain, San Francisco, Paris, Beijing, and Shanghai, leaving a large carbon footprint in his wake.
“I spent 20 years of my life in cities before realizing I needed a change,” De Stefano says. A change that came in 2002 when he traded his multi-urban life, three houses, Volvo SW (he never liked cars), and 43-foot wooden Ketch for a slower, simpler life unencumbered by stuff.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism is one of the most important and largest industries in the world, which might be good news if all tourism was sustainable, but you’ve been on a plane and you know that’s not true. With that in mind, the one-time-triple-house-owner now wants to build a healthier relationship between people and water.
Enter “Man on the River,” De Stefano’s 3,200-plus-mile trip from London to Istanbul—in a row boat—to promote slow travel and a greater awareness of the world’s rivers. His plan: Row and/or sail for no more than six months, stopping along the way to share his story with those on the river banks while living on his boat with a zero-Euro budget. In other words, eating fruit, fish, or anything complete strangers would kindly toss his way.
HE PUSHED OFF LONDON’S shore on April 30, 2010, but the combination of strenuous exercise, poor nutrition, and stress from trying to balance press events with rowing across the continent nearly proved too much for the then-44-year-old. Less than a month in, his voyage came to a halt, indefinitely, as a severe case of bacterial pneumonia grounded him in the hospital.
After a month in the hospital, the doctor told Giacomo he could resume the trip. But with the Italian’s immune system dilapidated, the doctor warned, it would still be dangerous—especially if he didn’t fully recover. Bad news: full recovery would take an adventure-halting year.