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Neopolitan Dreams

2010 April 14
A few months ago, a national television news crew arrived at the docks in Naples, Italy, looking to interview one of the kids enrolled in Mascalzone Latino, the sailing school founded by world-class competitive sailor and shipping company heir Vincenzo Onorato.

Onorato was worried about making a good impression because the free school gives street kids a unique opportunity to learn to sail, a skill that can come in handy along the Amalfi Coast where there's no lack of charter boats in need of licensed skippers.

"This is a true story," Onorato was saying during a recent trip to Boston where he's trying to forge a partnership with Courageous Sailing, a program that has been teaching innercity kids to sail for two decades. "The TV journalist came to us with this request. So I went to a lady who lives in Naples, a saint really, who takes care of these kids. I tell her, find someone who speaks nice Italian. She comes back with this girl, maybe 10 years old, Liviana (not her real name)."

Onorato was concerned the journalist might do more harm than good to the only sailing school of its kind in the region. But in walked Liviana, polite and refined, clothes cleaned and pressed, a thousand-watt smile on her face. The camera lights were switched on and the words flowed.

"She was speaking better Italian than I am now speaking to you," Onorato recalled. "And she looked like a little lady. After the interview, I went back to the lady who takes care of the kids, and I ask her, 'Where did you find this girl? Where did she come from?' She was like the daughter of Queen Elizabeth. She was perfect."
Onorato paused, still struck by the memory.

"And the lady says, 'You will not believe me. The father, he is in prison for killing three people. And the mother, she is a prostitute addicted to drugs.'"

The epitome of a Naples street kid, Liviana could be a poster child for the work Onorato and his allies have been trying to accomplish since founding the Mascalzone Latino Scuola Vela three years ago.

Onorato, who keeps an apartment in New York, is passionate about Naples, sailing, and all things Italian. He understands his country's greatness and its limitations and isn't shy about exposing Naples as both a beautiful, historic city and a place rife with poverty and corruption.

"In Italy every year, especially in the south, there is less opportunity for young people. In Naples, my city, there are 6 million inhabitants, more or less 12 percent of the entire population of the country. But Naples and Campagna help the Italian production by only 5 percent. Many people are incredibly poor."

Everybody knows that crime flourishes when people lack the means to make a living. Not the kind of guy to pull punches, Onorato puts it bluntly: "In Naples, you can find someone to kill a man for $70."

It's precisely such realities that fuel his desire to make things better through sailing.

"You have to give the kids an opportunity to get off the streets," he said. "That's why we started the school, to get the kids onto the sea. Can you imagine, some of them live only a few kilometers from the port and have never seen the sea in the whole lives?"
Deeply tanned and physically fit, Onorato has a charismatic personality that tends to bring people around to his way of thinking. He wants a partnership between Mascalzone Latino and Courageous Sailing that will allow young sailors to visit each other's country. He also dreams of bringing a group of Italian and American kids from both schools to the Mascalzone Latino racing team base in California when the Italian syndicate competes in the 34th America's Cup. The Mascalzone Latino team is already the official challenger of record.

"To do this means my kids will be motivated. There will be a goal. They will see the champions on the water. They will meet them and have a positive someone to become like," he said, apologizing for his strong Neopolitan accent. "Kids must have a good role model in their life. In Naples, they don't teach the poor kids, only the ones from healthy families. The generation of champions in Naples is all around my age, 50. Young people must be given hope, and that is what people my age have to do. Teach them to be part of a team. That is something you learn when you are on a sailboat."

The school introduces students between the ages of 8 and 16 to seamanship, cooking, electronics, mechanics and shipwright skills, none of which they would likely encounter elsewhere.

Onorato says people often ask how he won six world sailing championships. "I tell them, my team, my crew. Some of us have been sailing together 30 years. It's more like a marriage. We trust each other, and trust is the most important thing. It's rule No. 1. You must be able to trust the other guy."

Despite the school's efforts, many of the fledgling sailors are lured back to the streets, something Onorato is striving to reverse.

"I deeply believe we have to show to these kids passion and a dream, give them a goal, allow them to participate in something important in their lifetime," he said. "So first thing, we exchange kids. Some from Boston go to Naples, some from Naples go to Boston. They work on a project."

Will this international connection actually happen?

Absolutely, said Onorato, emphasizing his commitment with a clenched fist.

"I come from four generations of ship owners and sailors. My first memories are of the sea. All our fortune belongs to the sea. And every day in my life, I open my eyes to sailboats and the sea. It is time for me and my family to give something back."