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A Yacht For Every Harbor

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For the team of Nuvolari and Lenard, boats are a passion and a business.

I met Carlo Nuvolari at the front desk of my hotel in the Zattare neighborhood of Venice, Italy, in mid-May. Although it was early, the day was already hot—I was regretting my black pants—but Nuvolari looked remarkably comfortable in a tweed jacket, sweater, and long-sleeved shirt. After introductions we began walking to his station wagon.

Nuvolari is half of Nuvolari-Lenard, a naval architecture and design firm best known for three design products: production boats for the Wisconsin-based builder Marquis Yachts, custom megayachts for private clients, and semicustom yachts for Palmer Johnson. Nuvolari is the firm’s naval engineer and his partner Dan Lenard is the designer.

The exact path we took to the car is a mystery to me as Venetian streets weave and unexpectedly change direction, but I do remember the tiny cafe where we stopped for an espresso and to meet our photographer for the day, Oliver Haas.

Walking through Venice, Nuvolari explains how Venice’s fire department works—by pumping water directly from the canals onto the fire. He tells me all about the maintenance required for a Venetian water taxi—their bottoms need repainting every four months—and he outlines how trash collection happens in a city without large trucks—men with carts go door to door to collect it and then take it to barges on the canals.

There is one road into Venice, and it dead ends into the train station and the city’s parking garages, and that’s where we’re going to get Nuvolari’s car before heading inland. Nuvolari first drives us past some docked cruise ships and then through the coastal industrial zones, which soon give away to quiet, winding streets surrounded by fields of tangled vines. As he drives, he tells me about his firm’s philosophy of boat design.

“We try to design a boat that can be sold in Europe or the United States,” he explains. “There is one thing linking a successful boat—people’s appreciation. Boaters are enthusiastic people. We design a boat for us, but we need to look through their eyes.”

Nuvolari-Lenard has been honing that philosophy since it began 20 years ago when there was a more visible difference between American- and European-designed yachts. In the subsequent years, well-designed and well-crafted yachts are in demand everywhere.

Nuvolari explains: “Twenty years ago, Americans looked to ‘Made in America.’ Europeans appreciate American boats, [which are] more sturdy with better hulls. Europeans are attracted to beauty and external style. Now, Americans are more sensitive to design. We need to design a boat they will fall in love with.”

He continues talking as I furiously write: “The boating industry is 20 years behind the auto industry in coming out with niches and cutting the market into sections. Each group is looking for something more specific. I’m dreaming of building the Range Rover of the sea.”

As we reach the Nuvolari-Lenard offices, a building surrounded first by a high stone fence and then a man-made moat, Nuvolari recalls that it all started with the VZ-60, the pair’s first design that was dispayed at the Genoa Boat Show. Also attending that show was the late Mike Kelsey, Sr., president of Palmer Johnson, who asked the duo to come to PJ’s headquarters in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, to discuss a partnership. Nuvolari laughs when he recalls asking Kelsey, “When? Tomorrow? Do you want us to swim?”

Our first step is a tour of the offices. The downstairs is open and spacious, ideal for client entertaining, but the real work happens one floor up. As Nuvolari walks me through the upstairs, he introduces each employee, whose job represents a specific step in the yacht-design process.

Each Nuvolari-Lenard project starts with an analysis of the current market: what is being built and any gaps among the models. Then come hand-drawn sketches from Nuvolari and Lenard themselves, which are passed along to the staff in a process overseen by Simone Feltrin, a junior partner since 1997. From these rough sketches emerge interior and exterior renderings—also hand-drawn—that will be submitted for client approval. Unlike many other firms, computers don’t enter the equation until the designs are sent to the shipbuilders.

“A computer doesn’t allow more design than a pencil. It’s not a creative tool,” Nuvolari explains. “The art of rendering is lost. There’s no interpretation or dream. [Computer renderings] are hyper-realistic but cold.”

Interior designs are done by Valentina Zannier, who joined the firm as a junior partner in 2000. There are spaces in the office where furniture and fabric vendors can present their options to the clients so they can see all of their choices at one time; two shelving units are filled with boxes of samples from recent previous projects that clients can also look at. Each box contains the wood, fabrics, and colors used for a specific yacht. (Zannier’s marine interior designs are so well loved that many megayacht clients and guests request her services for their homes.)

Downstairs there’s a workshop where the hull models used in tank testing are crafted. Workbenches are covered in sawdust, and the broken models of rejected projects are scattered about like an overturned toy box. Unfortunately, the craftsman in charge of this area is out of the office on the day of my visit.

Nuvolari and Lenard have been growing with the megayacht market since the days when 38 meters was a jaw-droppingly large megayacht. This year their 85-meter Vibrant Curiosity is the fourth hull in the 700 series, which is being built by Oceanco. Along the way the duo has introduced innovative features to megayachts. Alfa Nero has a floor that rises to turn the swimming pool into first a wading pool, then a helicopter pad. Then there’s the infinity pool on the aft deck designed to bring guests closer to the ocean—you can see the horizon line from it. Nuvolari explains that the thinking was to create “a garden, a backyard, where life happens.”


  • Builder: Nuvolari-Lenard

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.