Working at J Craft on the Swedish island of Gotland is not just about building beautiful boats. It’s about being part of history.
At 109 miles long and nearly 33 miles wide, Gotland is probably the largest island you’ve never heard of. It is a picturesque piece of Sweden plonked down in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The main town of Visby has cobblestone streets dating back to the Middle Ages. Sandy beaches and limestone sea stacks punctuate the low shoreline.
Like most islanders, the people of Gotland have close links to the sea. Descended from Vikings and German merchants who settled there in the 12th century, many come from farming families who were part-time fishermen. The coast is still dotted with the red-painted wooden huts of old fishing stations.
Gotland is also home to J Craft, which builds the Torpedo runabout. The boutique brand is moving into a new construction facility in Visby, where it will continue to draw on the island’s seafaring heritage by fusing classic style and robust construction with modern power and efficiency. The Torpedo RS (the RS stands for Racing Supercharged), for example, is fitted with Volvo Penta IPS650 engines for a redline speed of 47 knots and lower fuel consumption at cruising speed.
As many as six master craftsmen take more than 8,000 hours to build the 42-foot Torpedo by hand, to order. That’s around 190 hours per foot. Only a small number of boats are delivered each year, and there is a waiting list, so patience is a prerequisite for prospective owners. The construction process is unhurried, exacting and very different from the mass-production methods used to build most modern-day runabouts.
“For me, building a J Craft is almost a state of mind,” says yard manager Zoltan Antunovic, who with his shovel beard and tattooed forearms looks like a hipster Viking warrior. “It’s nothing like producing series boats in big batches where you just repeat the same procedures every time. Building a J Craft takes a long time, and I’m involved in every step of the way, right up to the hand-over. You can’t help but be proud and passionate about it.”
It helps that everyone working at J Craft owns (or has owned) a boat and spends time on the water. This firsthand experience sometimes leads to small but significant improvements being introduced during the build—something that can’t be done on a production boat. Access to an oil filter, for example, may be tweaked to make maintenance easier.
“Because we’re so involved, we take more interest in producing a better product,” says Antunovic, who has a RIB that he uses to take his two daughters waterskiing and wakeboarding. “That’s when boatbuilding becomes personal.”
When Nicklas Jacobsson was growing up on the island, he wanted to be an airplane pilot, but ended up following in his father’s footsteps to become a carpenter. Boats are in his blood. Both his father and grandfather owned fishing trawlers, and Nicklas has a 32-foot sailboat that he uses for summer cruises in the Baltic with his family, voyaging as far as the Swedish mainland and Latvia. It is his job to ensure that the Torpedo’s glossy woodwork, fashioned from sustainably sourced West African mahogany and finished with 13 coats of varnish, is of a superlative standard.
“It’s a joy to create something so beautiful out of a ‘living’ material like wood,” Jacobsson says. “The trickiest part is steam-bending the solid wood for the curved transom using techniques that have changed little since the Vikings were building their longboats. You have to understand how the tree grows and work with the grain to select the best pieces for the job. Sometimes, I don’t get the results I want and have to start all over again.”
Other parts are made using wood veneers. These can vary considerably in color and texture, even when they come from the same log. If a tree is felled improperly, hairline cracks can appear when it hits the ground, and sap stains can cause discoloration. Jacobsson is an expert at spotting these subtle variations to ensure a perfect match between leaves of veneer.
“If you choose the wrong veneers, the result can look cheap and flimsy,” he says. “The idea is to make the Torpedo look like it’s made of solid mahogany throughout.”
The Torpedo is a thoroughly Swedish product, but a few classy fixtures and fittings supplied by leading brands from overseas, such as the steering wheels by Nardi in Italy and interior fabrics by Hermés in France, add a touch of Mediterranean chic.
The person ultimately responsible for quality control at J Craft is master boatbuilder Johan Hallen, who is also the chief technology officer. The longest-serving staff member, Hallen renovated his first wooden boat at age 16. He has worked with J Craft since its creation in 1999, when he helped build the brand’s first boat, the motoryacht Polaris, for Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Polaris remains in service for cruising the Mediterranean.
For many years, Hallen lived on a boat moored in the center of Stockholm, and commuted each week to J Craft on the island where he was raised. But a couple of years ago, he decided to move back to Visby with his family.
“My father was a historian, and I live in a medieval, Hanseatic town where the cobbles in the streets may have been laid down 700 years ago, so I feel very connected to the past,” he says. “I think we have a responsibility to preserve our heritage, and J Craft is a part of that. Fifteen years ago, there were 300 boatbuilders on the island. Now, there are six of us. Luckily, I managed to keep the best ones.”
Hallen says the hardest part of his job is finding the right balance between perfection and profitability. With a team that is always striving to build a better product, there comes a point when he has to intervene, or risk seeing already slim profit margins go out the window.
The best part of his job, he says, is interacting with clients to make the ownership experience as simple and pleasurable as possible. From insurance and transportation to finding a captain and stocking the fridge with champagne, J Craft offers all-around customer service. Hallen has often delivered Torpedoes, or accompanied their owners, around the Mediterranean. If a client wants to use his boat on Italy’s Lake Como or the canals of Venice for a weekend, it can be arranged.
“The logistics can be challenging, but the results are always rewarding,” Hallen says. “One client sent me a photo of his feet up on the woodwork and the sun going down behind. All he wrote was ‘thank you.’ That gives me goosebumps every time.”