The Swan Remains the Same

The 90-foot megayacht was nice, but what really impressed me was the little 36-footer over at the other end of shed—that and the autoclave.
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The 90-foot megayacht was nice, but what really impressed me was the little 36-footer over at the other end of shed—that and the autoclave.

Although I’ve had the opportunity to visit any number of boat yards over the years, none of them has ever been quite like the Nautor’s Swan facility in Jakobstad, Finland, where I spent two days touring this past spring.

Never mind the setting itself, surrounded by pine forests on the rocky eastern shore of the frigid Gulf of Bothnia: nor the fact that, in the middle of May at almost 64 degrees north latitude, it’s still broad daylight outside, even at 2300 hours.

For a sailor of my generation—one who as a kid would spend hours poring over back issues of SAIL Magazine in the early 1970s—a visit to the Nautor’s Swan factory felt like nothing less than a kind of a pilgrimage.

 Nautor’s Swan has long prided itself on the quality of its joinery work

Nautor’s Swan has long prided itself on the quality of its joinery work

This is the spot, after all, where the truly glamorous boats of my generation were built: a place that was in many ways the site of the creation of modern yachting; the yard where Nautor AB collaborated with Sparkman & Stephens in the mid-1960s to create a series of boats that not only led the way in terms of design, but also won a lot of races; a place where the past, present and future remain uniquely intermixed.

Back in 1973, for example, it was a Swan 65, Sayula II, that not only competed in but won the inaugural Whitbread Round the World Race, sparking a production run of 40 boats that made it one of the leading luxury yachts of the day. (No less than three Swan 65s would compete in the second edition of the race.) The year before that, in 1972, the Swan 48 Noryema won the Bermuda Race mere days after it delivery, and in 1976, a Swan 41 competed in the 1976 Ostar, back when a solo-transatlantic passage was still a very big deal.

To this day Swans continue to be a presence on the race course at some of the world’s most prestigious events. The Caribbean, the Med, the Solent: if there’s a major regatta going on, you’re almost sure to see a Swan—not bad for a company that first opened its doors in the early days of the Johnson administration.

Continual Evolution

Which brings me back to that 36-footer. When I first noticed the boat, I didn’t really give it much of my attention. Then, operations director Kjell Vestö explained that we were looking at Tarantella, the very first boat ever built by Nautor and an acclaimed S&S design that would ultimately enjoy a 90-boat production run between 1966 and 1971.

 A quartet of Swans battles downwind during this year’s Rolex Swan Cup Caribbean

A quartet of Swans battles downwind during this year’s Rolex Swan Cup Caribbean

Apparently, the boat found its way back to Jakobstad a few years ago where it was essentially adopted and now serves as a company boat for when employees want to get out on the water. The pride with which Vestö and the rest of the staff view this actively campaigned time capsule is evident in the care with which it’s been brought back to mint condition while retaining much of the original hardware. In a word, the boat is gorgeous.

Which is not to say that the Nautor’s Swan of today is resting on its laurels. Since its inception, the company has put a premium on remaining at the forefront in terms of both materials technology and design, and this boatbuilding philosophy is as true today as it was when Tarantella was winning her first races.

In fact, that willingness to continually reinvent itself is, if anything, stronger today than ever, thanks to the combination of the ongoing challenges in the boatbuilding market and the leadership of Italy’s Leonardo Ferragamo. The latter acquired the company in 1998 and, from the outset, placed an emphasis on breaking new ground in the areas of both styling and design. Coupled with an increasingly competitive marketplace, the company’s willingness to innovate now operates in a kind of overdrive.

 The massive Nautor’s Swan autoclave is lined with fans and vents that are used to ensure even heating across the laminate

The massive Nautor’s Swan autoclave is lined with fans and vents that are used to ensure even heating across the laminate

Long gone, for example, are the tumblehome, dramatic stern counters, aggressive overhanging bows and massive overlapping IOR-style genoas that were a hallmark of the S&S and Ron Holland-designed Swans of decades past. In their place are near-plumb bows, high-aspect underwater foils, keel bulbs and easy-to-handle rigs with large mains, smaller headsails, and A-sails, often flown from sprits. These features can be seen in boats ranging from the one-design Club Swan 42 (created in partnership with the New York Yacht Club) to the new 105RD and a 115-footer set to launch over the next couple of years—all courtesy of the Frers design office, which has been the company’s exclusive designer since the 1980s.

 Tarantella safe and sound back in Jakobstad

Tarantella safe and sound back in Jakobstad

Nautor’s Swan has also continued to evolve in terms of materials. Carbon pre-pregs and foam cores are now the norm, all employed to an incredibly high standard, as was evident in the 90-footer around the corner from Tarantella, which had only recently come out of its mold. Stringers, bulkheads—which like the hull were all carbon pre-preg with a foam core—vents, floors, tanks, some early plumbing: absolutely nothing we were looking at would be visible without the help of a flashlight when the boat was complete. Nonetheless, the finish was impeccable.

As for the hull layup itself (as well as that of the deck, which had yet to be installed) the pre-preg layers had been first vacuum-bagged and then “cooked” in a precision autoclave that had to be seen to be believed. Not only was it large enough to contain a 100-footer, it was lined with dozens of fans and vents, all computer-controlled to ensure every inch of the structure reaches the optimal temperature so that the resin cures correctly.

The result is a hull structure that is as stiff and light as it is robust. By comparison, the flush-decked version of today’s Swan 80 displaces just over 79,000 pounds, nearly 30 percent less than the 112,400-pound Swan 77 produced in the 1990s.

And remember, we’re not talking stripped-down racers here. These are Swans, boats that are as much about aesthetics as they are about performance. As evidence of this fact, one need only look at the company’s joinery and laminating shops, where the Nautor’s Swan keeps samples of the woodwork from every one of the 2,000-plus boats it has built over the years.

That having been said, this is another area in which materials and technology are continually evolving in an effort to make the boats as strong and light as possible. While it’s true there is a lot of handiwork going on here, Nautor’s Swan has also made major equipment investments in the form of CNC laser cutters, pneumatic laminating machines and robotics.

“The goal is high quality and consistency,” explained composites production manager Thomas Lill, noting that at Nautor’s Swan, the process is as important as the materials themselves when ensuring every boat performs as designed.

Nautor’s Swan CEO Enrico Chieffi added that while Nautor’s Swan will eschew some of the more exotic materials employed by some custom, one-off boatbuilders, it more than makes up for that with its attention to detail and the experience it has gained over the decades. According to Chieffe, “With a Swan it’s all about a combination of comfort, style and performance. It’s all about feeling secure and yet enjoying the boat’s sailing qualities.”

On the Water

Later that day, I had a chance to see for myself what Chieffe was talking about when we went for a sail aboard a recently launched Swan 80FD. A truly exceptional yacht, with a jet-black hull and cabintrunk, the boat was midway through a week-long commissioning process and is a striking example of Nautor’s Swan’s recent emphasis on bigger and more extravagant boats. (During my visit, the yard was starting work on its first 105, and Chieffe proudly outlined his plans for the company’s first 115-footer, the flagship of its new “cruising” range, which places an even greater emphasis on creature comforts afloat.)

 The author at the helm of a Swan 80FD during commissioning

The author at the helm of a Swan 80FD during commissioning

Out on the water, I was struck by how, in contrast to the forest of winches, blocks and pedestals that would sprout from the deck of a typical Swan in years past, the deck on this 80-footer was elegantly sparse and functional. A “working cockpit” aft housed twin helms, with a powered mainsheet winch in between and a low-slung pair of powered primaries immediately forward. Otherwise, the “lounging cockpit” forward was completely hardware free, as was the rest of the deck, with the exception of a couple of low winches alongside the base of the mast.

As for actually sailing the boat, it was almost too easy. Although it was blowing around 15 knots and there was a slight chop, you would have never known it. The boat’s fine entry sliced cleanly through the waves with the rest of the slippery hull following close behind at 12-plus knots. Tacking couldn’t have been easier, and in the puffs, all I had to do was feather the boat up ever so slightly to slough off any excessive heel. Despite the feeling of massive power coursing through the rig, hull and underwater appendages, I could do all these things with my fingertips. I only wish I could have had a chance to go out again when it was blowing stink and there was a vicious seaway running, so I could have had more to do.

Afterward, as the commissioning team and professional crew were exchanging notes back at the dock, I went to pay a visit to another recently launched boat, a Swan 53 that had been built for a recently retired German sailor. At the time, he and his friends were provisioning for the first leg of a voyage that will eventually see him circumnavigating the globe, and watching them at work was as impressive as sailing that 80-footer.

Despite the language barrier, the entire ship’s company was eager to show me the ins and outs of their new boat right down to the smallest detail. There was, of course, plenty of beer on board, and I don’t think I saw the skipper stop smiling for even a second. I couldn’t help wondering if he was even aware of the fact that there was an 80-footer a couple of slips away, so enamored was he with what was clearly his own dream ship.

Equally refreshing was the way the Nautor’s Swan people working the docks also seemed to light up whenever talk turned to “the Germans.” The same infectious enthusiasm that had possessed the crew of this “little” 53-footer seemed to captivate them as well—which I admit came as a bit of a surprise.

These were, after all, riggers, boatbuilders and electronics experts who regularly work on some of the most extravagant boats in the world. Yet here they were, smiling at the thought of a bunch of guys setting out in a boat that, while beyond the reach of most, is still within the limits of most people’s imagination. On the one hand it seemed to humanize the place—a boatyard that can sometimes feel almost otherworldly with all its glamour and history. On the other, it served as a vivid reminder that, for all the glamour and history, it’s ultimately people who make a Swan a Swan and the people at Nautor’s Swan remain as enamored with making Swans as ever.

Adam Cort is SAIL’s Executive Editor.

He lives and sails in Boston.


Read more about Swan here



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