It is the day before the 2006 Newport-to-Bermuda race, and any minute now we are going to cast off and put one of the racing yachts through its paces. But first, Enrico Chieffi, Italy’s two-time Olympic sailing champion and now vice president of sales for yacht maker Nautor’s Swan, wants to point out a few of the features that distinguish this yacht from others. “Now this is a Swan 45,” begins the lean, tanned yachtsman, stepping onto one of the sleek vessels tied to the dock on which we are standing. “Like every Swan, it offers the comfort and reliability of a family cruiser, but this one is also built for competition.”
The clues to the 45’s more competitive nature include a 61-foot-tall carbon-fiber mast that supports more than twice the sail area of a like-sized family cruiser. The cleats on either side of the mast also are larger and heavier than normal, so that they can manage the sail’s greater wind load. Astern, instead of two wheels, there is only one, and it is some 7 feet in diameter, so large that its bottom edge runs through a channel in the deck. The single wheel affords the helmsman greater visibility and control of the rudder at high speeds and in rough water. Belowdecks, the interior has been gutted–the bunk beds and cabinetry replaced by mattresses for the eight-man crew–to reduce weight. These and other measures will contribute to significant increases in performance, says Chieffi. “The Swans of the 1960s had a top speed of about 7 knots. The 45, in this trim, with an experienced captain, can do up to 27 knots.”
Although the Swans, which number 46 out of this year’s 267 competitors, are pitted against craft designed from the keel up to be pure racers, nobody is writing off the chances of one winning this year’s Lighthouse Trophy, one of the sport’s most prestigious prizes. Best known for offering safe, comfortable, even luxurious sailing in weather fair or foul, Swans are more than capable of holding their own in international regattas. In fact, a Swan won the Lighthouse Trophy in the most recent Newport-to-Bermuda race, in 2004, just as another Swan had done in 1994.
Remarkable performances are something of a tradition for Nautor’s Swans. In 1968 the first Swan ever built, a 36-footer, became the most successful yacht in the 142-year history of the Cowes Week races off the Isle of Wight, winning all seven races in the annual regatta. This victory by a then-unknown builder stunned the sailing world and propelled Nautor to the first rank of yacht makers. Six years later, in the 1973—1974 inaugural Whitbread race, an endurance competition stretching some 40,000 miles around the globe, a 65-foot Nautor’s Swan finished first in a field of 17 boats. In the second Whitbread, in 1977—1978, three of the first five finishers were Swans.
By the late 1970s, barely 10 years after the first Nautor’s Swan had been built, the marque had come to represent a more genteel form of ocean racing. In his book Fastnet, Force 10: The Deadliest Storm in the History of Modern Sailing (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), author John Rousmaniere describes Toscana, the Swan 47 on which he crewed during the 1979 Fastnet race off the coast of Great Britain, as an extremely livable vessel. It had a freezer in the galley, hot and cold running water, two enclosed toilets with showers, six built-in bunks, several lockers, and “enough teak and other hardwoods laid over the fiberglass hull to build a small elegant house.”
But Toscana, designed by the New York firm of Sparkman & Stephens, was also an exceptionally seaworthy yacht, considerably more so than was the rule among the new breed of racing yachts. “Although fast,” writes Rousmaniere, “many of the new racing machines were difficult to steer and often uncomfortable.”
The highly specialized racing yachts were at a disadvantage when, as the title of Rousmaniere’s book indicates, the 1979 race turned into the worst disaster in modern racing history. Toscana finished the race, but 69 others did not, and 19 sailors lost their lives. Ultimately American Ted Turner, who sailed Tenacious, another Sparkman & Stephens design, was declared the winner. Legend has it that when his crew pleaded with him to haul in the yacht’s sheets, Turner yelled back, “This is sailing, boys.”
As the owner of Nautor’s Swan, Leonardo Ferragamo is wont to observe that sailing one of the builder’s yachts at any speed, under any conditions, can be a transcendent experience. A scion of the Italian fashion dynasty, Ferragamo has been a Swan aficionado since he purchased a secondhand 51-footer in 1988. Ten years later he acquired the company, but the thrill of taking the helm on a Swan of any size, any configuration, remains for him as powerful as ever. “There is a feeling inside that you don’t get with any other boat,” says Ferragamo. “There is so much to appreciate: the quality, the beauty, the image, and above all, the style.”
It is axiomatic among racers that Swans represent a class unto themselves; no other yacht possesses the same mystique. “When it comes to selling Swans, we do not compete against other yacht makers,” says Chieffi. “Our competition is the villa in Provence or the ski chalet in Aspen. It is a matter of lifestyle. In Europe, owning a Swan defines who you are. It has become a very social thing.”
So much so that some Swan owners frequently sail to distant destinations to socialize, race, and compare notes with fellow enthusiasts. The largest such event is the Rolex Swan Cup, set to take place September 11 through 17 in Porto Cervo, Sardinia. More than 100 Swans and some of the world’s most prominent yachtsmen are expected to gather in a convivial, exclusive setting. “Now we are trying to introduce the same feeling of camaraderie to American yachting,” says Chieffi.
To that end, Nautor’s Swan partnered with the New York Yacht Club last year to establish a new international one-design racing class. The resulting 42-foot racing yacht is tailor-made to compete under IRC rules, but it also is suitable for comfortable offshore cruising. As of June, NYYC members had placed orders for 38 new boats.
However, you do not have to own a yacht to enjoy the cachet of Nautor’s Swan. Like Gucci, Pucci, or, for that matter, Ferragamo, Nautor’s Swan now markets jewelry, handbags, luggage, sunglasses, cigar cases, ties, and backgammon boards bearing its brand name. That name carries such éclat in Italy that six of the Nautor’s Swan boats in the Newport-to-Bermuda race are sponsored by Peroni, the Italian beer maker, in the hope that when Italians think of Nautor’s Swan they will reach for a Peroni.
The yacht maker’s status as an archetype of Italian style is all the more compelling when you consider that Nautor’s Swan may be owned by a Ferragamo, but it is not Italian and neither are the people who work there. On the contrary, the company is in Finland, in the rugged little town of Pietarsaari, some 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
In winter, at least, as you disembark from a predawn flight from Helsinki and darts of snow sting your face, you see scant evidence on the barren Pietarsaari landscape to suggest that anyone here would pass the day building luxury yachts. The Oy Nautor Ab boatyard stands on the western coast of Finland, where snow and slush obscure the shoreline, and the water beyond–the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost stretch of the Baltic Sea–is frozen solid. Yet as one of Nautor’s project managers explains, Pietarsaari’s boatbuilding tradition derives from the ruggedness of life here. “We have forests full of timber and pine for pitch,” says Kristian Kjellman. “And in the winter we couldn’t farm or fish, so we would stay home and build boats in our barns. Then in the spring we would take them out and go sailing. It was all natural.”
The town lies in the heart of the Scandinavian Bible Belt, a stretch of territory inhabited by Finnish Laestadians. Members of this devout, conservative sect first arrived here from Sweden in the early 1900s, and they continue to eschew such indulgences as tobacco, dancing, and alcohol. Also, they speak Swedish, instead of Finnish, in the manner of their forebears. Like the Amish in the United States, the Laestadians are known for their carpentry skills and often build their own homes and barns. They are meticulous and methodical in their work, and their labor is not so much a livelihood as a sacred trust. In short, as Nautor’s Swan founder Pekka Koskenkylä concluded 40 years ago, they are the perfect workforce.
Bags, not boats, first brought Koskenkylä to Pietarsaari. After graduating from college, the young Finn accepted a job with the local plywood and paper mill Oy Wilhelm Schauman Ab, selling sacks to nearby industry. As a teenager, he had built and sold five canoes, and it was not long before his entrepreneurial nature reasserted itself. In 1966, Koskenkylä was intent on constructing a 36-foot sailing yacht, the first of a line that he would name after Finland’s national bird, the swan. Only, instead of building the hull of wood, as the Finns had done for centuries, he planned to make it from fiberglass. The material had been used for smaller utility boats since the 1940s, but it was just then gaining acceptance as a wood alternative in larger vessels such as the yacht he envisioned.
Koskenkylä visited the Pietarsaari yacht club to ask members who they thought was the world’s leading naval architect. Advised that that would be the New York firm of Sparkman & Stephens, Koskenkylä dashed off a letter proposing that the Americans design a yacht for him. Eventually, as the days passed without an answer from S&S, the young Finn’s optimism waned. He did not have even a corporate letterhead, much less a real company–why would Sparkman & Stephens want anything to do with him? As the firm’s partner Rod Stephens explained many weeks later, during a meeting with Koskenkylä at a Helsinki hotel, the company had a perfectly good reason for collaborating with him. S&S had sketched a 36-foot yacht that would be suitable for cruising or for racing, and the firm had been seeking a yacht builder who would construct it in fiberglass, a material that was stronger and lighter than wood and thus would make the yacht more competitive. Koskenkylä was the only one to express interest in a fiberglass version of the boat.
His high hopes to the contrary, Koskenkylä really had not expected S&S to respond to him, but he had little time to bask in his good fortune. Plans in hand, he hurried back to Pietarsaari to begin building the new line of fiberglass boats. He was determined not to make the mistake that other boat makers had made. Their fiberglass yachts had gone unsold, Koskenkylä concluded, because they appeared soulless and synthetic. They violated a primary rule of yachtsmanship, which states that a man’s yacht always should look more luxurious than his house. Prospective buyers who viewed his first Swan 36 could not tell that it was fiberglass. The toe rails were teak, the deck was covered with teak, and even the coamings around the cockpit and the hatches and frames were teak.
In 1969, Koskenkylä followed the success of his Cowes Week—winning 36-footer with the Swan 43, a craft so fast for its time that it became the first mass-produced yacht chosen by the British team for the Admiral’s Cup races. With the 1970 debut of the Swan 55, the first with an aft master cabin, Nautor’s defined the market sector that it would come to dominate: luxurious cruising yachts capable of high speed and great reliability under sail. The 55’s amenities included a spacious, comfortable interior, a huge freezer, and even an onboard coffee grinder. It is the Swan 65, though, for which Nautor’s early history is best remembered. The S&S design won Whitbread and was, for almost a decade, the world’s largest fiberglass yacht.
But while Koskenkylä’s boats were earning esteem, from a business standpoint, Oy Nautor Ab was anything but a success. In his fourth year of operation, Koskenkylä still was losing money on every sale and relying on the revenue stream from new sales to pay suppliers and to build boats already on order. “I felt like I was juggling balls in the air,” he recalled. “Everything was fine as long as I did not drop one of the balls.”
They all came tumbling down around him even before the launchings of the Swan 55 and 65, in 1969, when a fire ripped through Koskenkylä’s underinsured factory, leaving him with no boats to deliver and no factory to build more. At the insistence of the Finnish government, Oy Wilhelm Schauman Ab, the paper company that had first brought Koskenkylä to Pietarsaari, assumed control of Nautor, and in 1972 it nudged Koskenkylä out the door. He did not leave empty-handed: As a golden handshake, the company presented its former CEO with a new Swan 65, hull number 0000, in which he sailed off to the south of France, ostensibly to represent the company along the Riviera.
With its founder gone and a civic-spirited board of paper makers at its helm, Oy Nautor Ab sailed precariously into the next chapter of its history. In retrospect, one could say that the yacht maker’s custodians did a remarkable job. In the ensuing years they oversaw the development of 1983’s Swan 46, a boat now so coveted that it appreciates in value every year; the Swan 651, which placed third in the 1986 Whitbread against a huge number of pure racers; and a new Swan 55, which debuted in 1990 and was the company’s first true cabin cruiser, built for both lengthy voyages and coastal cruising.
Nonetheless, the company’s financial problems continued. Nautor generally was considered the Rolls-Royce of sailing yachts, but the metaphor was all too apt. Like the British carmaker, during the 1990s it had been slow to adopt new technologies and new building methods, and this reluctance was proving costly.
Nautor’s fiscal woes dismayed Leonardo Ferragamo. In 1992, with an eye toward acquiring a new Swan, he traveled to Pietarsaari from his home in Florence, Italy. Like those sailors who had made this pilgrimage before him, Ferragamo was struck by the old-fashioned craftsmanship that marked every boat. But he found the company’s outmoded ways of doing business decidedly less impressive. Production techniques lacked modern-day efficiencies. Indeed, they evoked a Laestadian barn-raising. The workers were dedicated, but there was no organized assignment of labor in the factory; workers pitched in on every boat and on every task with little regard for the specialized skills or tools required. Also, with no new products on the drawing board, the company was becoming dependent on existing models, and its marketing and advertising lacked pizzazz. “The company had such potential,” says Ferragamo. “It was a legend among yachtsmen, but otherwise it was a well-kept secret.”
Ferragamo had experience managing a global brand and offered to share his insights, gratis. “Sure, my background was in shoes,” he says. “But just like yachts, shoes are a product that depends on quality, durability, fit, style–all those elements. It’s a very different world, but the same kind of mental approach applies.”
The company listened politely to Ferragamo’s ideas–after all, he was a customer–but it clung to its old methodologies and by 1997 was losing $2.6 million on sales of $32 million. The next year, however, company executives paid closer attention to Ferragamo’s ideas. They had to, because the Italian fashion magnate now owned the company.
As Ferragamo explains, acquiring Nautor’s Swan–the purchase price remains undisclosed–was not a matter of simply showing up at the door with a bagful of money. “The company’s management put me to a test,” he recalls. “They wanted to make sure that the company was going to the right hands. I told them about my family background, my business, and my vision and passion for the company. Actually, it wasn’t too hard; most of the managers knew me from before.”
The workers did not, though, and they had reservations about being owned by an outsider, much less a style setter from Italy. Would the new owner move the company to balmier climes? Was he buying it merely for the name? What was it going to be like, working for an Italian? These concerns have been exorcized. “Finns are a little shy, a little conservative,” says longtime employee Ralf Brännbacka, the foreman of the molding department, who, when he was 13, sanded molds for the very first Swan. “We aren’t very good at saying, ‘Look at us.’ We needed a dash of Italian flair.”
Ferragamo has brought the company more than a sense of style. Today Pietarsaari is home to one of the world’s most advanced boatyards. In one building, a computer-driven milling machine shapes what appears to be a giant banana peel, which, when joined to its mate along its longitudinal axis, will become a hull more than 100 feet long. Nearby, an oven the size of an airplane hangar bakes carbon-fiber hulls for custom-made yachts. When the yachts are closer to completion, they will be suspended by gantries in midair, seemingly balancing like ballerinas on their keels. Workmen will crawl over them, installing hand-finished teak and hydraulic winches and painting along their flanks the arrow that will mark each as a Nautor’s Swan.
A sense of energy is evident all along the Nautor’s product line. When Ferragamo bought the company, it had not introduced a new yacht in 10 years. Since then, 15 new Swans have made their debut. These include a modernized version of the Swan 46, a luxurious, comfortable cruiser that can sail with a crew of two or compete with pure racing yachts. While the hull remains unchanged, a bulb keel has replaced the fin of the original 46-footer to afford a lower center of gravity and allow the mast to rise two feet higher. The rudders have been fitted with elliptical blades, like those on the wingtips of jets, to minimize drag. Also new is the Swan 45 that is tied up to the dock at Newport, a model that won the Giraglia Rolex Cup a month after its debut in June 2002.
There is, of course, only one way to experience what a Swan feels like under sail, and so, with the race 24 hours off, the 45-footer’s crew heaves off for a demonstration spin. We are an hour out of Newport when a squall kicks up. The yacht accelerates, skimming across the waves. Belowdecks, the guests seeking shelter from the rain are bounced from side to side by the g-forces of the turns.
However, for me, with my hands on the big wheel, the experience is exhilarating. To be sure, a seasoned sailor would find the conditions mild, and the Swan is traveling at far less than its top speed. But surely I would be forgiven if, squinting against the wind and the rain, I were to proclaim to the crew, “This is sailing, boys.”