Published – Sailing World
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
On Finland’s rocky western coast, along the Gulf of Bothnia, Petri Wikstrom keeps an extensive library of wood samples from every specific Nautor’s Swan ever built. The sandy-haired Finn, known as the “teak hunter,” scours the planet for marine grade tropical hardwoods, and when necessary, has only to walk through his rustic and sawdust covered workshop to the library in order to match grains and coloring whenever any Swan is in need of deck or cabin repair. Surrounded by the dense, electric-green woods of Finland’s rural coast, Nautor’s Swan has three facilities scattered around the rustic town of Jacobstad, dotted with numerous båtklubbs (yacht clubs). The Finns, like most Scandinavians, it seems, have a deep and undeniable connection with the sea. As they should: They’ve been building boats since the 16th Century.
For 32 of those years, the Swan name was all about the Finns and their coveted artisan craftsmanship. It’s what gives Nautor’s Swan the panache it enjoys to this day, but in 1998, when Italian businessmen, led by Leonardo Ferragamo, took control and management of the company, skeptics questioned whether the cultural divide between the deliberate and stoic Finnish engineers and craftsmen would mesh with the fiery Italian design house.
Housed in one of the bays in the covered boatyard, which resembles more of a giant airplane hangar, the first Swan ever built, Tarantella, resides amidst the hive of new-boat production, as hulls are snaked with wiring, plumbing, and mechanicals before being joined with their decks. At 36 feet, the “little” Swan’s presence among the construction typifies Ferragamo’s keenness for keeping one foot in the past, while the other steps into new technologies, such as 3D modeling and production-line robotics, which have become integrated into the builds.
More than 2,000 Swans have been built since the company’s founding in 1966. With the Swan 53 now the smallest hull in production, the bulk of the builds today push well past 90 feet. Only one order was cancelled during the most recent economic downturn, but orders for new maxis are now on the rise, including four new 115-footers, with U.S. owners commissioning the new builds.
Finland is snowbound and dark for much of the winter, but during the unending sunlight of the summer, when I first visit their facilities, employees pedal bicycles back and forth across the sprawling boatyard in Jacobstad, rigging two new builds, including a newly splashed white-hulled 90-footer Panacea. Considering the value of their respective investments, owners commonly travel to Finland throughout the build process. Some clients rent flats in the town of only about 15,000 and assimilate themselves in the culture, regularly dining alongside the employees and their families. Management is fully entrenched as well, including Enrico Chieffi, the CEO and a former Star Class world champion. Chieffi works closely with each new owner during what inevitably becomes a two year relationship, from initial design through to sea trials and beyond. “These are not custom boats,” he tells me, “but more of a collaboration of what’s possible.”
As Panacea eases away from the dock and into the deep waters of the rocky archipelago shared with Sweden, the new boat’s owner and his captain stand aside as the commissioning crew takes the helm. The boat is a beehive of activity above decks and below. Its deck and rigging are mostly complete, but below, the cavernous cabin, galley, and staterooms have exposed wiring and rough carpentry, only hinting at the state of the art luxury that eventually will be.
On deck, there’s an air of friendly tension between the two young captains, with the boat’s future charge chaffing to take the helm of his new steed. Rightly so, but he adheres to protocol and has to only wait a week until he takes the boat on its maiden voyage to the Mediterranean. For now, he remains a bystander as hydraulic winches raise its large laminate sails. Once they’re at full hoist, the boat slips along at about 4 knots in the light breeze as the rocky, forested coastline slides past. On the sprawling foredeck, with its pristine Burmese teak, the new owner, who protects his anonymity, has a grin common to anyone taking delivery of a multi-million dollar sailing yacht.
After this sea trial, the build team swarms the 90-footer again. We disembark, don our shoes, and are whisked off to the quaint and low-key Segelsällskapet YC in Jakobstad, Finland, just down the coast from the yard. As the summer’s Wednesday night racers sail in to the sound of cannon fire, we settle in to the small “Swan” dining room. It’s filled with old trophies and half models that are dedicated to the long history the boatbuilder has with this small community sailing organization. Through the windows, normally covered in frost and icicles, sailors secure docklines and enjoy post-race beverages. I’m told they’re all somehow connected to Nautor’s Swan in one way or another, and the connection runs far and wide.
Two months later, the boats sit as majestic in the azure waters of the Mediterranean as they did back in their birthplace 1,000 miles away. The entire leadership and senior engineers of Nautor’s Swan have relocated to the sun blasted Italian rocks of Sardinia for the Rolex Swan Cup in Porto Cervo, a nostalgic gathering of Swan owners and crews held every two years. Teams from across the globe have made the pilgrimage for a week of racing and post-regatta events. While not unusual in the sailing world, it has a sort of acolytes to a sailing church feel about it. It’s a community of style and speed, one that still has crews with matching uniforms, but with the electricity of a red-carpet walk.
Nearly 2,500 sailors, with only about 10 percent of them professionals, saunter the quays outside the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, accented by bougainvillea and wine bars. Scooters stream down the hilly, narrow streets leading to the club. Swan flags fly from the 95 boats from 21 countries. Most owners here, I’m told, have regularly sailed or owned a Swan in the past. Nearly 50 percent of new hulls are produced for existing owners looking to upgrade.
Don Macpherson, of California, is one of them. He started out sailing by distance cruising on his father’s Swan 57 on the West Coast, but after his 90-foot Swan, Freya, splashed in 2012 he began an active racing program and was spotted all over the European circuit in 2014. “At first, there was a perceived cultural issue between the Finns and the Italians,” he says of Freya, one of the new builds under the new regime and the builder’s 2,000th hull, “but it’s been a fantastic merger. Leonardo Ferragamo is a sailor to his core, but he also brings a lot of style and passion. He was a Swan owner before he bought the company, and he’s dedicated to sailing and to the boats. Since Ferragamo, it’s impossible to not recognize a Swan when it pulls into port.”
The warm, blue Mediterranean is a perfect canvas for these collectibles, as they carve the water in the heavy breeze, but the event doesn’t have the air of a billionaire’s club and hired guns. With piles of cruising gear covering the docks and exhausted sailors rehashing the day’s events on the decks, the week long event boils down to its essence: gorgeous boats cast in a stunning setting.
Jim Thompson, on his Swan 47, Ariel, has been cruising the Mediterranean for seven years and he had last raced in the Fastnet in 2007, but for the Swan Cup his crew of friends and family flew in from Maryland to compete. “I was feeling old and the boat was already in Sardinia for the winter,” he says. “My crew didn’t hesitate to join me.” Racing in a mixed class of 22 Sparkman & Stephens-era designs, his crew of 15, with none younger than 51, jokingly call themselves the American Association of Retired People’s boat. Back in Maryland at the Tred Avon YC’s clubhouse, the banter every winter is who among them is “Thompsonizing.” In other words, who gets to sail the Med on the classic Ariel.
Costa Smeralda’s Commodore, Riccardo Bonadeo, past president of the 1979 Azurra challenge for the America’s Cup, is beaming every morning when I arrive at the club before the races. “The egos and the Euros made us lose interest in the America’s Cup,” he tells me one morning as the fleet exits the harbor and into the open waters, passing by the 12-Meter Azzura, which is on display at the harbor’s entrance. “It was once a dance that captured the imagination. We once slept onboard, and now they have psychologists onboard. However, we are keeping that old racing spirit alive here with the Swan Cup.”
As the sailing season winds down on the Mediterranean Sea with the award presentations on Sardinia, the Swan Cup organization and many boats from the fleet will make preparations to cross the Atlantic and down to Virgin Gorda for the Swan Cup Caribbean in March. While it may be a privilege to own, and certainly to crew on a Swan, the sense of an international community and the love of fine sailing machines cutting their way down to the windward mark is something that all can admire. It can also be something timeless.
– For images of the Rolex Swan Cup – Sardinia click HERE.