Find out more about the origins of Nautor's Swan
from the founder of this legendary boat building company, Pekka Koskenkyla.
From WSJ by Finn-Olav Jones
The cult Finnish yacht maker Nautor’s Swan seduces sailors with sleek and speedy designs. Come aboard its latest, most ambitious vessel, Leonardo Ferragamo’s Solleone
ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO, Paul Glimcher, a New York City neurobiologist and lifelong sea dog, was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean when a storm hit his 54-foot Nautor’s Swan sloop.
Even such an experienced sailor, who already had a round-the-world tour under his life vest, had to give this storm some consideration.
“Here we were 1,500 miles from land. The seas were running 16 to 18 feet and the wind speed was 40 knots [46 miles per hour],” remembers Dr. Glimcher.
So what did he do?
“We went below and baked bread.”
Freya, 91 ft, Nautor Swan
An ideal yacht exists in two worlds: the exterior one, in which the bow gracefully slices through the “restless wave” of which the Navy hymn sings, and the interior one, which is so comfortable that when the going gets tough, the tough can bake bread.
Such wind palaces are rare, and so are the owners who can afford them.
As a result, the names of certain cult yacht makers—Oyster, Perini Navi, Wally, Royal Huisman, Nautor’s Swan—are whispered with the same hushed pride that 0.1 percenters exhibit when saying “my Gulfstream” or “my Picasso.”
The distinctive teak deck features boards laid in parallel lines.
Photo : Martien Mulder for WSJ
The gladiatorial communities that gather around each brand are as competitive about their choices as they are about the business endeavors that afforded them these boats in the first place.
Nautor’s Swan’s club includes tech billionaire and philanthropist Thomas Siebel and fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier.
“It’s a very strong boat. Both technically and aesthetically it’s great,” says Demarchelier, whose 53-foot Swan is called Puffy.
“Its lines are beautiful. I’ve used it for several shoots.”
“You can tell a Swan just by the feel of the wheel—they’re incredibly responsive. They carve the water really well, even in a squall,” says California oil magnate Donald R. Macpherson Jr., who, as a boy, sailed a Nautor’s Swan with his father and who recently spent a year and a half overseeing the construction of Freya, his 90-foot Swan.
“I wanted to re-create the experience I had with my father with my own family,” he says.
Odin Swan 90 of Tom Siebel
Whereas many other yachts are, like iPhones or high-end watches, amalgamations of state-of-the-art components supplied by other companies, including the latest push-button winches and sail trimmers, almost everything you see on a Nautor’s Swan—from the deck hardware to the bilge pump system—has been customized first in 3-D graphics on the company’s computers and then by Nautor’s Swan’s own craftsmen in the remote Finnish town of Jakobstad.
“You are creating self-contained worlds with each boat,” says Heini Gustafsson, the senior designer of Nautor’s Swan, where the smallest of the seven models currently offered is 54 feet long.
“It’s a unique place—where else can you get the chance to design everything from the sheets to the cutlery?”
Teak samples from the interiors of every yacht built are stored at the boat works so that repairs and modifications can be made later.
The Swan 115 S, the new flagship of the SwanLine, under sail in the emerald waters of Sardinia
So it’s no surprise that the boat builder’s newest owner is the chief executive of a luxury fashion and lifestyle brand.
Leonardo Ferragamo, one of the six heirs of Salvatore Ferragamo, recently built one of Nautor’s Swan’s most audacious boats yet for himself.
“I am so intrigued with it,” says Ferragamo, 62, his usually calm boardroom voice rising with excitement.
As he sits in his Milan office, his new racing yacht, the first Swan 115, Solleone, is undergoing its initial trial in the northern Finnish seas near Jakobstad.
“It’s already sailing at 15 knots [17.3 mph]—but I think it will reach 25 knots [28.8 mph],” he says of the boat. (An average sailboat usually cruises along at five or six knots.)
Jakobstad is a spotless, typically Scandinavian modernist town, built around a 17th-century core of buildings, yet it’s an outlier in Finland.
It’s located on the Gulf of Bothnia, across the gulf from Sweden, and most people here speak Swedish.
Visitors rarely hear the town called by its official Finnish name, Pietarsaari.
Locals pronounce “no” with an easy and joyous nej and “yes”—jo—with a hesitant inhale.
Blessed by tall forests of raw material and protected granite coves, this area has been a popular boat-building spot for three centuries.
“Everyone here has a boat project in their backyard,” one local woman told me.
“My father built our family’s 26-foot sailboat on our lawn.”
But the town was put firmly on the nautical charts in 1966, when paper salesman and serial entrepreneur Pekka Koskenkylä launched the yacht company that was to become Nautor’s Swan.
He had a vision of applying Finnish functionalist design to making the speedy yet comfortable boats that are today responsible for the private jets parked at the tiny local airport.
Using his formidable salesman’s skills, Koskenkylä convinced the world’s best-known naval architects, New York–based Sparkman & Stephens—which is responsible for eight America’s Cup winners—to work for his fledgling company.
Together they created yachts that could sail with the best on the regatta circuit.
In 1974, a Swan 65 won the first-ever Whitbread Round the World Race—an annual Phileas Fogg–type event, hatched by a group of thrill-seeking English tycoons and now called the Volvo Ocean Race—earning Nautor’s Swan instant prestige.
That inaugural half-year odyssey is still legendary among sailing aficionados: Despite facing epically challenging conditions that included 300-foot icebergs and 50-mile-an-hour winds, the Swan prevailed.
In 1980, Germán Frers—a one-time Sparkman & Stephens chief designer who had left to found his own eponymously named firm—took over as Nautor’s Swan design guru, a position he retains.
He had already created renowned crafts of the day including Beau Geste, Wizard of Paget, Quest of Paget and Simba, and soon he designed a new Nautor’s Swan.
Swan 80 deck
Its shallow hull, vertical bow and narrow fin keel made the boats into clean and efficient sea missiles.
Now, a half-century since its founding, Nautor’s Swan has produced, hand-screw by hand-screw, some 2,000 boats, from the relatively chubby cruising yachts of the ’60s and ’70s to the more recent distinctive flush-deck, blue-banded boats.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
In 1972, after a fire in the boatyard that proved costly, Koskenkylä was forced to sell his company to the local paper mill, and by the late ’90s it was suffering losses.
In 1998 Ferragamo, the chief executive officer of Palazzo Feroni Finanziaria S.p.A, the holding company for the family’s diverse businesses, stepped in and bought a controlling interest in Nautor’s Swan.
A passionate sailor, he already owned two Swans before taking over the boat works, and he has since added another six to his stable.
“When I first got married, my wife wanted a summerhouse and I wanted a Swan—I bought the Swan first,” says Ferragamo, who visits the yard every two or three months.
“So when I acquired the company, I already had such respect for the brand. I recognized the enormous pride and craftsmanship that went into building a Swan.”
Leonardo Ferragamo on board Sailing Yacht Solleone
After he became chairman, “initially there might have been some suspiciousness from the Finnish side,” says Ferragamo.
“They might have thought that I was just a decorator rather than someone with a long-term plan.” Since he has arrived, more than 15 new Swan models have been introduced, such as the popular yacht Swan 45, which was unveiled in 2001 and could be built in under a year, faster than the average Swan.
Meanwhile, carbon fiber soon replaced the older fiberglass hulls.
“There were some rough patches,” agrees Marcus Jungell, the company’s sales director.
“We Finns might seem a little introverted. They bring Italian flair.”
The carbon fiber mast of a Swan 115 measures more than 150 feet
Photo : Martien Mulder for WSJ
The new 115-footer, of which Solleone is one of four thus far, has been the most ambitious project resulting from the Italian-Finnish collaboration.
A yacht of such enormous size is challenging to design to racing specifications, and each one will cost $16 to $22 million.
(But the company seems confident of its success—there are already plans for a 130-foot Swan.)
I drove to Kållby, 8 miles inland, to have a look at one of them in what must be Finland’s most unusual sauna: a long white-painted hangar where boat hulls and other carbon fiber elements are electrically baked in the vacuum of giant temperature-tolerant plastic bags.
Workmen in overalls were carefully stretching out mats of laminate on the hull before wrapping the whole thing in plastic, pumping out the air from beneath and warming the ovens to 195 degrees.
It was as if Arthur Treacher had captured Moby Dick.
This baking process is one of the first steps in a 115’s 20-month design and construction schedule. Carbon fiber is the material of choice for anything designed for speed, from Formula One cars to racing yachts, thanks to its enormous strength-to-weight ratio.
However, air is the great enemy; bubbles can create cracks and weaken the overall structure.
“The old-fashioned way of hand-basting laminate will still have 7 to 8 percent air content, even if you are good at it,” says Thomas Lill, who oversees Nautor’s Swan’s composite process.
“Baking our hulls like this can reduce the air content to 0.5 percent.”
Swan 115S, Solleone
photo : NautorSwan Sept 15 by Carlo Borlenghi
Down at the company’s harbor facility, Solleone is tied to the harbor dock, its hull dwarfed by the 151-foot mast.
Workmen are still sanding the already-smooth teak deck.
Anders Bertlin, the yacht’s project manager, pointed at our feet.
“See this? The planks all line up straight. They don’t curve with the boat like others do.”
Indeed, the entire deck is lined like a bowling alley from stern to bow, across all hatches.
This unusual aesthetic flourish, coupled with white caulking, gives the deck a gleaming, elegantly minimalist feel—a fantastical white saucer that floats a few feet above the choppy lead-gray waters.
There’s also a practical reason for the smoothness of the deck: fewer rope snags—the bane of sailors.
For the interior, Ferragamo worked with his frequent collaborator, the Florentine architect and interior designer Michele Bonan, to add Mediterranean touches: Glossed teak paneling with customized wood shutters set off by silver picture frames; door latches and drawer pulls cushioned with stitched leather; stateroom headboards done up in red and blue percale; and the all-important galley, set in the prime spot just forward of the yacht’s center.
Perhaps most important, Solleone’s 11.5-foot keel can be raised, allowing the boat to enter the shallower waters of most harbors.
The 450-horsepower Scania diesel engine is muffled thanks to a complex system of insulation—not even the silverware vibrates when it’s fired up.
Ferragamo would doubtless like to have the same sense of stability in the current world financial markets, which are choppy waters for sales of super-yachts.
“Traditionally, our market was evenly divided between the U.S., Northern Europe and the Mediterranean,” says sales director Jungell, who adds that the current Mediterranean economic climate is pushing them to pursue emerging markets like Russia and China.
But looking at the new 115, one can’t help but suspect that this newest venture is about something more than quarterly financial statements.
There’s comfort in the fact that both Ferragamo and Nautor’s Swan hail from cultures that take very long-term views of the business of design.
“My family has a saying,” says Ferragamo.
“ ‘Heritage is the foundation for the bridge you want to build.’ You need to respect it but not just maintain it. With Nautor’s Swan, we want a stronger drive toward evolution—never a revolution.”
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