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Icons & Innovators: Perini Navi

Marilyn M. Mower

On A Roll From The Beginning
Growing up in the 1960s in Tuscany’s Lucca valley, a center of Italy’s paper industry since the 17th century, Fabio Perini did as previous generations of his family had done and entered the paper-making business. Although demand for the products was skyrocketing at the time, Italy’s paper companies remained largely artisanal operations—small specialty companies operating slow, cumbersome machines. The young Perini, gifted with mechanical genius and possessing an aversion to the status quo, began sketching machines that would ultimately revolutionize the paper industry.

At age 17, he invented a machine for his family’s business that efficiently converted huge spindles of creped tissue into individual retail-size rolls. More significantly, he designed variable tension gearing for the machine so that it could process tissue one day and industrial toweling the next. The invention became the cornerstone of Fabio Perini SpA, which he founded in 1966 and which is now one of the world’s leading producers of tissue-converting machinery.

As Perini’s success grew, he began to indulge his passion for sailing by acquiring a series of successively larger boats. In those days, sailing required muscles and leather gloves to control flailing lines and sails that flapped over an obstacle course of deck hardware. The bigger the boat, the more able-bodied friends or professional crew members were required to control the beast. Perini wanted to sail large boats, but he also wanted to enjoy the serenity of the sport, which was difficult to do with such a crowd on board.

In the 1980s, he began searching for a boat large enough to cross oceans, but shallow enough to enter Viareggio’s harbor and designed for a single individual or a family to sail. When he found that such a boat did not exist, he decided to invent it. Perini’s primary goal was to replace with electric motors the muscle that harnessed the sails. From his paper business, he was familiar with how to roll material around drums, and he recognized that a winch is essentially a vertical drum. If a winch, he determined, could be made to hold all the rope of a halyard or a sheet instead of just a few wraps, it would simplify the process of harnessing the sails and eliminate all those flailing lines. And if such a winch could take up the line, it also should be able to let it out.

In 1983, Perini took the helm of his new 131-foot sloop Felicità, and when he pushed the levers, his electric captive winches rolled out all five sails and sheeted them home. While Perini is an entrepreneur and an inventor, he is not a naval architect or boatbuilder. To construct Felicità—and the boats that would follow once news of Felicità’s revolutionary design spread—he therefore assembled a team and named it Perini Navi. He recruited as its chief Giancarlo Ragnetti from Sangermani, which had built Perini’s previous boat. In Ragnetti, Perini found a kindred visionary spirit who prizes innovation, quality, and aesthetics.

Ragnetti understood that uniqueness and exclusivity needed to be part of Perini Navi’s business plan. “We had as our objective making not only a quality product but also one that identified us,” says Ragnetti. “So at least our first dozen boats were all designed and built as we had conceived them and offered for sale only when they were finished. We couldn’t back down on certain characteristics and interior details.”

Rather than lose control of the product, Perini Navi designed and built all the components itself and soon purchased a shipyard. While his boats continue to be made by hand, Perini has applied his business acumen to the process. For example, the steel hulls are welded in Turkey, where it can be done more efficiently and economically than in Italy, and then barged to Viareggio, where the shipfitting and joinery processes are performed.

More than any other builder, Perini Navi has been responsible for a rebirth of the large sailing yacht industry, a fact that was noted when the International Superyacht Society presented Fabio Perini with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In 1998, only 10 sailing yachts 120 feet or longer were under construction worldwide. In 2006, there are 24, and Perini Navi is building eight of them.

Captivating Inventions
perini navi managing director Giancarlo Ragnetti remembers when Felicità first sailed into Sardinia’s Porto Cervo, the summer headquarters of sailing’s cognoscenti. “People came aboard and they liked the flying bridge and the big decks but they said, ‘Where are your winches?’ ” recalls Ragnetti. “We showed them, but they were not confident in the results. Today all of our competitors have captive winches. They allow you to sail a 50-meter boat with four sailing professionals instead of 10 or more, plus four or five crew for the interior. That translates into more room for the owner and guests and less expense.”

While several large boatbuilders and winch makers today favor hydraulic-powered winches because the motors are smaller, lighter, and faster, Perini chooses to stay with electric power. As Ragnetti says, the trade-off in weight is not consequential for yachts in the 50-meter range. “If an electric winch goes haywire, it’s no problem. You bypass all the electronics and you have a normal electric machine,” he says. “If a hydraulic winch quits, so does the sailing.”

Through the years, Perini Navi boats have debuted a number of technical and design innovations. The following is a selection of those:

• In addition to automated sail handling, the twin-engine Felicità, launched in 1983, debuted a ballasted swing keel that retracts into a shallow fixed keel and is raised by an electric winch.

• In 1985, Perini Navi delivered the 141-foot Andromeda and, at owner Tom Perkins’ request, painted it navy blue, which has since become the boatbuilder’s trademark.

• Xasteria, a 151-footer launched in 1990, featured an interior helm station that was positioned forward on the superstructure so that the crew could access the wheelhouse and flying bridge without intruding on the owner’s area.

• The 154-foot Andromeda la Dea, Tom Perkins’ second Perini Navi boat, was launched in 1990 and became the first Perini to circumnavigate the world.

• Corelia, a 158-footer launched in 1993, was the first Perini to feature a tender garage, which cleared the deck of dinghies and water toys.

• When it debuted in 1997, the 171-foot Liberty was the first sailing yacht with the cockpit positioned forward of the superstructure.
 
• Perini’s first contract to an outside naval architect went to Ron Holland for the 210-foot Felicità west, which was launched in 2003. She was Perini’s first all-aluminum construction and is currently the world’s largest all-aluminum sailing yacht. More than 37 miles of cabling control 19,000 square feet of sails.

Sailing Celebration
perini navi celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2004, and the company might have noted the milestone quietly if managing director Giancarlo Ragnetti had not mentioned the date in passing to Gianni Miscioscia, who was at the Perini yard in the late fall of 2003, refitting Felicità (which he acquired and then renamed La Numero Uno). Ragnetti noted almost wistfully that he had not found time to plan a celebration, and that it was now too late to do so.
 
Miscioscia, a broadcasting industry entrepreneur, thought otherwise and quickly lined up such sponsors as Bentley, Bulgari, Credit Suisse, and Loro Piana to help commemorate the anniversary with what would be a most memorable party. Then he tracked down the owners of 33 yachts and asked them to alter their summer cruising plans to attend a regatta in Sardinia that was scheduled to happen in less than six months. The RSVPs soon began arriving, and more than half of those invited said yes, they would be able to attend.
 
In July of 2004, the Perini owners, accompanied by their guests, docked their boats in a line—stern-to, from oldest to newest—at the tiny Porto Rotondo Yacht Club. Every boat was shined to a mirror finish by crews donning their best livery, the quay sported hospitality tents as thick as mushrooms after a spring rain, and chauffeur-driven Bentleys squired feted guests to and fro.

Although Perinis are not built to race, the company enlisted a panel of international race judges, who handicapped the fleet before it started its race to the finish line at Porto Cervo, as seriously as any NYYC race committee would. Naval architects and sailing stars were sprinkled among the crowd to offer racing tips to the owners, many of whom had never before competed in a pursuit race.
 
Appearing after the race, among the tuxedoed crowd dining on the lawn of the Cala di Volpe hotel, Fabio Perini seemed truly humbled by the guests when they gave him a standing ovation. “The Perini Navi Cup regatta was a fantastic conclusion to our anniversary year,” says Ragnetti. “For us it is important to treat our owners like family. We know that sailing is fun, but we believe building the boats should also be a pleasure, and we are proud to know that we have a group of owners who are also our friends.”

 

Perini Navi, www.perininavi.it

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