I’m not sure if five beers at the bar with one of the Porthole editors counts as a ‘management meeting’ but I was getting a bit worried I’d been shirking my responsibilities as a journalist. With just two days before the print deadline I’d still not spoken to my proposed interviewee and I was thinking up excuses as to why pages eight and nine were going to be blank. Then in walks this beautiful French woman with an air of sophistication. We were introduced (re-introduced, actually, as I’d taken her lines once or twice before) and was told Sylvaine Ilario is not only a female solo sailor but a concert pianist too. My next interview was staring me in the face: this was too good an opportunity to miss…
Sylvaine’s passion for the sea probably stems from her grandfather who was an under-water archaeologist, though the fact her father was a sailor too has something to do with her getting into diving and sailing when she was just eight years old. Before all this, however, Sylvaine had already spent three years playing the piano. I quickly learned that Sylvaine has in fact spent 20 years in many different countries, from Austria to Canada to the UK, studying her art and playing on international stages for her career. As a young girl this was a difficult role to grow into. She quit school early and fell into a strict regime that meant practising for hours on end every day. As a classical musician she loved it though and it is clear she is very dedicated.
“I love playing from the Romantic period, which includes Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov, but I also enjoy composers such as Astor Piazzolla and Gershwin.”
How do the two interests compare? “Music is my blood and the sea my oxygen. I grew up on the sea in the south of France and in spite of my career on the international concert stage, between hotels and flights, I never neglected my love for the ocean, always sailing or diving between tours when my agenda permitted it.”
The traveling and practising took their toll, however, and Sylvaine became very ill. “At that time my father was selling his Gib Sea 126, ‘Apis II’, and knowing what the sea meant for me suggested I should take advantage of Apis as my heritage. I’d been sailing since my childhood, of course, but it would be an escape from the toils of concert performance. I love travelling and obviously do a lot whilst playing the piano but doing it by boat instead seemed the obvious choice. After spending 25 years playing on international stages, with great orchestras and solo musicians, choosing the sea for the second chapter of my life is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“In 2004 I decided to live on board Apis, still playing concerts in between sailing, but now with the goal of one day changing my routine for a life on the water. This would be in stark contrast to the world of applause, success and, don’t forget, stage fright, that old bed-fellow of all artists!”
In 2006 Sylvaine did her first big solo sail, the 400-odd mile trip from Cap d’Agde to St Remo. “I felt tiny compared to the world! Then in 2007 I decided to cast off, to escape the stiff, cold and conformist classical concert hall. Now I could relax and live my life with my two passions in perfect harmony and without the stress I’d previously endured since I was a child.”
If you thought sailing and playing the piano didn’t go together, you couldn’t be more wrong. “In 2005 I did a concert performance in Marseille, touring on board a catamaran! The fun bit was trying to get a grand piano on board, the photographs of which are documented on my website. Of course I don’t travel with a grand piano on ‘Apis II’ but I do have a full-sized electronic keyboard, which gets round the humidity problem. I still practice every day and when I was last in Marmaris Yacht Marina, after a practice session I went up for a breath of fresh air, only to receive a round of applause from my neighbours! I’m always conscious of being a noisy neighbour but yotties seem to like the entertainment.”
We’ve heard about her music but does Sylvaine have any sailing stories to share? “Once when I was looking for a protected anchorage in the Cyclades I had a nasty experience. In Kynaros, a deserted island, bar a family of goats, I was contending with 25 knots of wind when my main sail got stuck in the track and I couldn’t haul it down. There was no one to help me so I dropped the anchor – straight onto rock, so of course that dragged. I tried to get a mooring line but I was alone, with strong winds and a stuck sail. The line wrapped around my prop and broke the strut, which started letting in water. In the end I had to dive over the side and take a line ashore. Eventually I made my way to Marti Marine and met Gingy, of ‘MyMermaid’, who suggested I should come to Marmaris Yacht Marina. I now base half my time here and half in France, where my son is studying. When he goes to senior school in Austria I am hoping to head off towards South America. I love it there. Little tourism, just a few other boats and wonderful native Americans make it an authentic and exciting cruising ground.”
Sylvaine is currently preparing for the Vienna Music Festival, which is this May and June, whilst at the same time prepping her boat for the summer season. “One of the biggest issues I have as a sailor is looking after my hands. They get stiff when I’m sailing and jobs like anti-fouling are out of the question – if I lose the sensation in them they are next to useless for playing the piano. Sailing and the piano are two completely different universes but which come to the same point: escape from the daily routine and the stresses of the world. One is freedom of movement whilst the other is freedom of spirit, both demanding concentration and discipline. Switching between the two, however, can be very difficult. I have perfect pitch which means I tend to hear every tune: even a police siren is a perfect third and that is really annoying!” When I asked Sylvaine what she thinks about whilst doing a concert performance she explained that “it’s like two films running at the same time. Because I play from memory I’m very often thinking about sailing. The two hands are playing in different keys and sometimes the left hand can be problematic. When that happens I try not to concentrate on each tune but instead let the music flow from my fingers while my spirit is on the sea. At that moment I am free as a bird.”
For more info, music clips and pictures take a look at Sylvain’s website: www.sylvaineilario.com.