Sightlines - June 2017
The Father of Modern Powerboat Design
How chance encounters with Sonny Levi left a lasting impression.
Renalto “Sonny” Levi revolutionized boat design.
One of my favorite stomps as a kid was the old boatyards down by the port in San Pedro, California. I had a fascination with hull design even at that age, so I cruised these yards looking at the undersides of boats blocked for storage. I learned a lot about hull design this way, and ran across some very curious boats at times.
Wandering through a yard in San Pedro one day in 1972, I came across a mothballed offshore race boat unlike anything I had ever seen. This boat had a single shaft sticking out several feet behind its deep-V hull and on top of its tubular stainless steel rudder extension sat the driver’s seat and throttles. The hull itself was about 28 feet long, but its bow had another tubular structure running well forward of the bow that supported an arrow-sharp hull extension. It was a mystifying contraption by any measure, and I hadn’t a clue what it was.
A year or two later I was reading an article in Rudder magazine about the newly launched, super futuristic Riva 2000, designed by Renalto “Sonny” Levi. The boat sported a “delta” deep-V hull and three fixed-shaft surface drives. All of this was new and exciting to me, so I headed for the downtown library and found a single copy of Levi’s book Dhows to Deltas. My world opened up with this book and I began my own design career with it as my bible to powerboat design.
As I began to read Levi’s book, I ran across a race boat he designed for the land-speed record holder, Craig Breedlove. It was a classic Levi delta design that after some testing and racing, was modified to seat the driver aft of the transom for a better ride and a bow extension to improve its rough-water running. I realized this had to be the boat I had discovered sitting in storage in the San Pedro boatyard a couple of years before. Knowing the significance of what I found, I drove back to the port to take another look, but it was gone.
In 1982 I moved to Sarasota to establish my own design studio, referencing my Xeroxed copy of Dhows To Deltas many times. I had only ever seen one of Levi’s boats in person, but I was well versed in what a delta looked like. One day I was driving south on the main highway and I came up behind a boat being towed. I knew there weren’t many deltas in this country, but this boat had to be one, so I followed the guy to his house. I jumped out behind him and asked, “Is that a delta?”
The young man answered, “Yeah, my father used to own a boatyard in San Pedro and I towed it to Florida.” The bow and stern tubular extensions had been removed, but it was the same boat I had lost track of years before. A full decade and almost 3,000 miles later, the mysterious Levi “Delta 28 with Ram” had ended up in my new hometown. What were the odds of that?
In 1994, we were visiting the build of the 117-foot motoryacht Lady Tiffany in Portsmouth, England, and my wife and I decided to take a side trip to the Isle of Wight. I knew Sonny Levi had retired and lived on the island outside of Cowes, so on our last day we gave him a ring.
He had us up to his house and I had great fun relating the amazing story of his long-lost race boat. I also told him I had a tattered Xerox copy of his book that I had cherished for years. He grabbed a second edition copy of Dhows To Deltas from the shelf and autographed it for me along with his new book Milestones In My Designs. He and his wife drove us back to Cowes and asked us to join them for lunch at the Royal London Yacht Club.
As we walked up the steps to the club, we were stopped by a trio of gentlemen, one of whom was the club commodore. Asked if he was a member, Levi introduced himself to the quite astonished commodore. Perhaps one of its most famous members, he had never actually been to the club and nobody had ever met him. Sonny Levi, Royal Designer for Industry and father of modern powerboat design died in November 2016 at age 90. I am honored to have met him.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.