Unheard Of

So, you think you’re a boat nut who knows every builder?
Here are seven you’ve probably never heard of.

My son is in the music business. He’s just graduated from college, and is full of life and enthusiasm as he works all hours on measly wages for people who don’t seem to be much older than he is. I have learned from him that the music business isn’t what it was. For one thing, a “record label” doesn’t need an address on Madison Avenue or Denmark Street to be taken seriously. Today, a record label might be nothing more than some chancer with a smartphone. It’s just a brand.

It’s like the watch we gave him for his 21st birthday: a beautiful thing, with a renowned name on the dial. But that name is now just one of dozens owned by a huge Swiss corporation whose principal purpose is to shift the quartz movements that it stamps out by the million.

Praise be for boatbuilders. Sure, some areas of the marine trade are as beset by the branding mentality as any other business sector, but buying a boat remains too emotional a decision, and simply too irrational, for real boatbuilding to have been shoehorned into that cynical marketing model. There are still plenty of boatyards run with that passionate bloody-mindedness essential to the creation of anything worthwhile, by people less interested in building a brand than a reputation.

Some of them you might not have heard of. Cockwells is one. It’s so hidden away down country lanes in Cornwall, in the far South West of England, that there are probably people in the next village who haven’t heard of it. It’s a member of that endangered species, the full-service yard, where you can rent a mooring, get your deck re-caulked or sit down with them to draft the lines of your next yacht. Their highest-profile projects have been the superyacht tenders that you might have seen at the Monaco Yacht Show, none more jaw-droppingly beautiful than that built for Malahne, the recently restored 164-foot motoryacht built by Camper & Nicholsons in 1937. At 25 feet, with a hull of Brazilian mahogany over strip-planked cedar, chrome deck fittings cast from period originals and veneers of quilted maple, it isn’t so much a pastiche of a 1930’s speedboat as a better-than-new replica.

But while Cockwells is a yard that casts its own bronze fittings and once built a 45-foot Bristol Channel pilot cutter of larch on oak to the exact scantlings of an original vessel, it is equally at home with carbon fiber, titanium and resin-infused fiberglass. There doesn’t seem to be much they can’t do.

Walking down by the water in Sardinia a few years ago I stopped in my tracks. Some boats just have something—a certain presence, or an aura of effortless perfection that draws you in, like a Maserati 3500. This was a low-profile, 32-foot speedboat with a hardtop. It was fabulous.

Even though I recognized the name on the side, Colombo, I assumed it was some arcane classic from their output in the ’60s. In fact, it’s a current if long-lived model, the 32 Super Indios HT. With twin Volvo diesels and Duoprop outdrives it’s no technological throwback, although it offers little more than a comfortable cockpit, a double bed in the forecabin and a shower compartment. But thanks to its parallel spray rails, simple profile and modest conceptual ambition, it does somehow transport us back to a more stylish era. The 32 Super Indios is even available with a small flybridge, just big enough for two seats, which also manages to look just right, like an early-’60s Bertram.

Like Riva, Colombo is a survivor from the old-money days when boatyards would build runabouts to enliven the summers of well-to-do families on the lakes of northern Italy—indeed, George Clooney has an earlier-model 31 Super Indios which he runs from his house on Lake Como.

Another Italian yard offers an even more authentic taste of Sixties’ glamour for the select few. In a small shed just off the Venice Lagoon, a handful of craftsmen build the Levi Corsair to very high standards at the rate of about one a year. A 30-foot weekender originally designed in 1963 by the great Sonny Levi as a fast family cruiser, the modern Corsair has the same profile as the original and the same legendary deep-V hull, which made it a contender in many of the original offshore powerboat races. Modern technology in the form of stern drives and turbo diesels have only improved its handling and performance, and in spirit, as well as looks, the 40-knot Corsair remains true to its roots. Sonny Levi died in 2016, and Levi Boats is co-owned by his son Martin with Antonello Villa.

Just as Dick Bertram made his name in the early ’60s with the Miami-Nassau offshore race, Sonny Levi made his at the Cowes-Torquay in England. In those early days of offshore racing the idea that competition could “improve the breed” was being truly tested, and boats of all shapes and sizes would turn up at the start line.

On the other side of the Isle of Wight from Cowes, Peter Thornycroft was working in his Bembridge studio on a commercial design he thought might appeal to harbor authorities who needed agile, all-weather craft for the choppy seas of the English Channel. Narrow-beamed, with a very fine entry, rounded chines and a long planing run aft, he called them Nelsons after the yard of Keith, Nelson & Co., which built them. Entering the Cowes-Torquay seemed the logical way to show them off. They were never going to win because of their 16-knot top speed, but they could maintain it through the thickest of weather and gave plenty of deep-V racers a run for their money.

Soon virtually every harbor authority in Britain, and most of those in Europe, had a Nelson in their fleet, and many still do. Over the years the company Thornycroft founded in Bembridge, TT Boat Designs, has modified the original lines and increased the beam to make hulls that are more practical as pleasure boats, without compromising their rough-weather capabilities.

Dale Nelson is one of few yards permitted to use the Nelson name, producing an exceptional range of boats from the TT Boat Designs studio, from the engaging little single-engined Dale 28 up to the powerful Dale Classic 45, which is perhaps the ultimate cruising motoryacht of its size in terms of build quality, 30-plus-knot performance and seakeeping.

Another quietly successful British yard is Hardy Marine, based in Norfolk, the democratic heartland of British boating. Where the moneyed went to Cowes for their yachting, the people went to the rivers and lakes of the Norfolk Broads to disport themselves every summer in thousands of locally-built private boats and hired craft. Many of the designers who laid the foundations of modern British boatbuilding cut their teeth working for Broads boatyards.

With a longstanding reputation as the builder of a popular range of seamanlike little motor boats with blue hulls and rope fendering, Hardy has moved upmarket in recent years and turned its gaze out to sea, with an impressive range of Andrew Wolstenholme-designed motoryachts—the smallest of which wouldn’t fit under any of the bridges on the Broads.

The Hardy 65 is the flagship. Classically styled with a high freeboard and an imposing bow, it has the authority of a vessel designed to go places. Fitted out in standard form with just three cabins and plenty of living space, including a huge service lazarette aft of the engine room, it also has the generous fuel capacity required of a serious cruising yacht. Twin engines of up to 1,200-hp apiece are good for 30 knots.

The fine level of finish in the interior with its European charm might just tempt American buyers to take a closer look at Levi Corsair.

The fine level of finish in the interior with its European charm might just tempt American buyers to take a closer look at Levi Corsair.

Across the North Sea in Scandinavia they have their own boating traditions, based on short summers, sheltered waters and thousands of little holiday houses on thousands of private islands. Packing as much as possible into a couple months of warm weather involves getting where you want to go, fast. Few boatyards cater to this frenzied impatience to sit in the sun, eat prawns and drink aquavit as successfully as Goldfish in Norway.

Established in 1991 just south of Oslo, the yard specializes in uncompromisingly quick open boats up to 38 feet, with stepped deep-V hulls built to withstand the stresses of high performance. It builds for the military, too. The fact that the 28 Bullet RIB, the latest addition to the leisure range, has a 50-knot top speed with the lowest power option says a lot about this yard’s priorities. Of the 650-plus leisure Goldfish built so far, apparently all but one are still in use. Which does make you wonder what happened to that one.

Although Goldfish hull designs are state-of-the-art for high performance machines, steps and deep-Vs do belong to an old-school tradition. At the southern end of the North Sea in Holland, the Jetten shipyard has taken inspiration from Dutch superyacht design to move hull design forward—not with speed as the objective, but efficiency.

While most of the yard’s output consists of archetypal Dutch boats, the Jetten Beach range is elegantly styled by the Cor D. Rover studio and uses hulls drafted by Van Oossanen naval architects, whose patented “fast displacement” designs have been used in megayachts such as Heesen’s 230-foot Galactica Supernova. The principle involves complex curvature at the stern designed to generate pressure as the yacht moves through the water and direct it not downwards, as you would expect, but forward—in essence, giving the hull a push.

In the case of the 17-ton, shaft-drive, aluminum Jetten Beach 45, the result is a displacement hull that can not only reach 22 knots with a pair of 300-hp Volvo D4s, but cruise at 12 knots—well above its theoretical hull speed—while burning just 11.4 gph.

Importing a boat into the U.S. for private use is no simple matter. The currency exchange rate might make it look tempting, but there are significant extra costs to consider. The first conversation to have should be with the yard, to ask if it would be willing to build the boat for you in the first place. It will need 110-volt electrics, rather than 220. Areas such as the engine room and galley have to be fitted out in accordance with stateside Coast Guard requirements, along with safety equipment. The boatyard will also need to familiarize itself with manufacturing certification that satisfies the USCG.

Even if the boatbuilder agrees to all that, it’s unlikely that it will be prepared to give you a build warranty, and if you want the warranty on the engines to be valid in the U.S., you’ll need to have them inspected by the engine manufacturer’s U.S. dealer. Of course, the engines themselves must meet EPA requirements, or they won’t be legal. Then there are freight costs, excise duty to pay on arrival—1.5 percent for inboard boats, 1 percent for outboards—and local sales taxes.

There is nothing straightforward about it. But when you see some of the extraordinary craft on offer from these little-known yards, run by people who might raise an eyebrow at the idea of “branding” but who know everything about passion and commitment, you might just be tempted to give the idea some thought.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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