Here Are Ships Built

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The old map of the region had the words written ornately on it, Hic Fabricatur Navalis, Here Are Ships Built. I was sitting in a small café in Jakobstad, Finland, on a quiet street in the old part of the town, sipping coffee in front of a fireplace, watching the snow fall outside. It hadn’t seemed to stop snowing since I had arrived in Finland a couple days earlier. Finland in February—not the first place you might think of when you’re going to check out boats. But if you want to check out the facilities for Nautor’s Swan, the storied builder of some of the most beautiful sailboats afloat, this is where you come.

Jakobstad is an old boatbuilding city situated on the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Finland, and while it might not seem to at first, it makes perfect sense that Nautor’s Swan has its building facilities here. The area is steeped in shipbuilding (in the 1700s Jakobstad was the number one shipbuilder in Finland) and building boats is deeply engrained in the culture, with the people taking a sense of pride in their workmanship that is evident in the vessels they produce.

Arriving at the Nautor’s Swan Boatbuilding Tech Center, the company’s main facilities for design, building, research and development, one can’t help but be impressed, and that’s even before getting inside and checking out the boats. The large finishing sheds loom high above the surrounding trees and can be seen as you approach. When I visited, the first two hulls of Nautor’s Swan’s new flagship 115 were making their way through the various final stages of assembly. (Four Swan 115s have been sold; I would see the second two in their varying stages of development when I visited the laminating facility the next day.)

A 115ft boat is impressively large in the water, but out on the hard, it seems massive. Hull #1 of the 115 has the racier, flush-deck configuration, with a forward master stateroom and the crew quarters aft, while hull #2 has a bit more of a cruising layout, with the master stateroom aft and the crew quarters forward. This showed one part of the Nautor’s Swan construction process that has owners returning—working with the owner, the designer and the broker, Nautor’s Swan is able to offer a personalization for perspective owners. Nautor’s Swan develops everything needed to make a good boat, what the company refers to as “the platform”—the hull, mast, bulkhead location, etc.—and then on top of that makes a great deal of customization available. Like most things in the boating world, the larger the build, the higher the level of customization is available.

At the other side of the shed, there was a boat about as far from the high-tech 115 as you can get, the original Swan 36, Tarantella—the very first Swan. Nautor’s Swan purchased Tarantella in 1996 and brought her home for a refit. While walking around Tarantella and getting a look at her interior, I was introduced to Ralph, the shop’s current foreman. Ralph himself is a testament to the boatbuilding heritage of Jakobstad. In 1966, when Ralph was 13 years old, he helped his uncle build Tarantella. He officially started his career at Nautor in 1970, when the Swan 36 was replaced by the 37 after 90 hulls were built. Out of the 75 models that Nautor’s Swan has built, Ralph has worked on 70 of them.

One of the most interesting places we visited was the Nautor’s Swan joinery facility, located in the original Nautor’s Swan factory. (The company moved to its current location in 2001.) There I was introduced to Petri Wikström, the head of the joinery department. He is a meticulous man, and the high-quality, nearly flawless joinery produced by the company is no doubt a result of his attention to detail. Every year, for example, he travels to Burma to pick the teak that the company uses. (Burmese teak is used in all Swans.)

Equally impressive is the joinery shop’s materials “library,” where Nautor’s Swan has a sample piece of wood from every each boat it has built—more than 2,000 since the company’s inception—so that if a customer needs a new door or panel, it can be fixed or replaced with the exactly same kind of material, retaining the uniformity of the cabinetry.

Then there’s the lamination facility, with its massive molds and plugs and huge curing ovens. When I was there, the laminating team was beginning to work on the hull mold for the Nautor’s Swan 95, the company’s latest model with an estimated splash date of summer 2017. As they did so, I was also able to watch as an outside inspection team evaluated their work using a combination of a powerful vacuum, lasers and a modified form of ultrasound, to apply pressure to each inch of the surface and then measure whether the mold flexed or not. If it flexes, then Nautor’s Swan knows its have a problem. (Stay tuned for a full behind the scenes look at the Swan boatbuilding methods and a look at the materials used in an upcoming issue of SAIL.)

Swan’s facilities are no doubt impressive, as are the people who work there, and the boats they produce. The community and the employees take such pride in what they do, it is no surprise that the boats they produce are of such high quality. Sure, are there better times to visit Finland then the dead of winter? I imagine so. But for the opportunity to tour the Natuor’s Swan facilities, I’d go again whenever they’d have me.

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