Elaine Bunting reports from the ice-bound coast of Finland, where Nautor’s Swan build their famous range of luxurious Swan yachts, including the latest Swan 115

At Nautor’s Swan’s yard, new yachts are not launched during the winter. Lying at 63°N, just short of the Arctic Circle, Jakobstad (Pietarsaari) in Finland is hemmed in by ice until the spring. Not until the upper reaches of the Gulf of Bothnia thaw out will any Swans fly south.It is still very snowy in February, temperatures are well below zero, and beside an expanse of frozen sea, the yard where the Swan yachts are built looks as if it lies a long way from the water. On first impression it seems a strange place to build yachts, but the town has been a centre of shipbuilding for over 500 years, and for the last 49 of them Nautor’s Swan has been producing one of the world’s most distinctive, admired and expensive yacht brands.The owner's cabin on the Swan 105 opens onto a private deck

In 2015, Nautor’s range is one of the broadest of any yacht builder. It stretches from the Swan 53 to the newest model, the Swan 115, the first one of which will be launched this spring. The new design crosses the threshold into super-yacht territory and involves a new realm of complexity. Already this €15 million model is an unexpected success as two more are in build and another on order.

The first design, a Swan 36 from 1968

However, Nautor’s Swan needs and cherishes its range and is, it is hinted, looking at the possibility of a smaller Swan. German Frers, who has drawn all the Swan designs since 1988, has made no secret of the fact that his wishlist includes a modern version of the venerable Swan 36.

High-quality yachts

Swan’s success has always rested on fast, good-to-sail yachts of high quality built with modern techniques. The story began in 1966 with a Sparkman & Stephens-designed 36-footer commissioned by local boatbuilder Pekka Koskenkylä. The first yacht, Tarantella, was one of the earliest glassfibre yachts. In a moment of inspiration Koskenkylä picked on the name Swan for its association with strength and elegance, and because the word was equally well understood in Scandinavian languages, German and English.

S&S Swans 48 and 44 from the Seventies

Swans truly fledged in 1973, when Nautor launched the 65 ketch, a yacht so large for the time that you could argue it counted as a superyacht. The Swan 65 was modern and fast. She could be sailed anywhere – and did so famously. The Swan 65 Sayula II was bought by Mexican businessman Ramón Carlin to take part in the first Whitbread Round the World Race, and he won. In those early days crews played Russian Roulette among the icebergs in the deep Southern Ocean and legs were weeks long. But it was not as uncomfortable then as now; Sayula was fully fitted out with proper berths, a saloon, galley and even had a full-time cook.

One of the reasons for the continuous appeal of Swans is that the method of build has evolved exclusively in-house. Nautor’s Swan is unusual in undertaking almost all elements of a build itself, including laminating the hulls and even making the veneers for the joiner work, giving it control over quality.

 

Immaculately tidy yard

Nautor’s facilities would be the envy of most yards around the world. They are enormous, modern and immaculately tidy. The work starts in a series of five huge halls outside the town of Kållby, where the plugs are carved out by a robot milling machine, moulds are made and hulls laminated and cured. The hulls of the pure cruising Swan 53 and 66 are still hand laid-up rather than vacuum-infused, but Swans of 66ft and above are in foam-cored carbon, or in some cases with a skin of carbon on the inside and another of glass on the outside – heavier, but easier to repair.

The attention to weightsaving here is extremely impressive. Every bulkhead is made with holes for wiring and plumbing conduits built in rather then being cut out later, and each is weighed before being taken into the hull and bonded in. This verifies that the material quantity is correct and allows teams to become more consistent in laminating.

The first glassfibre yacht ever built by Nautor, Swan 36 Tarantella, is being restored in the yard at Pietarsaari

The build material used in the carbon hulls is a mixture of pre-preg carbon and Sprint, depending on where it is to be used. The woven carbon of Sprint fabric sandwiches a toughened, hot melt epoxy resin. It makes a good bond with foam core, but not with honeycomb, so pre-preg is used on honeycomb-cored bulkheads and for components that require fine, sharp corners.

At one end of the laminating shed is a room Nautor calls ‘the lab’ where new materials and components are tested. A sign on the wall declares in Latin ‘non progredi est regredi’ – not to go forward is to go backwards. Imagine it as the engineer’s and physics teacher’s favourite room: there is a machine for testing the breaking strength and distortion of fittings such as backstays, a homemade climate cabinet constructed from a sunbed and a steamer where new varnishes are being tested. There is an experiment under way using connectors made with a 3D printer.

The teak hunter

Some kilometres away along snow-packed roads, near the town of Kronoby, is the joinery factory. Here 35 people, including 18 carpenters, make furniture for the yachts and, as at the laminating facility, what they produce is for Swans and only Swans. In most cases, the process begins with Pietri Wikström, a man they call ‘the teak hunter’ because he travels out to Burma to select the timber that will be used for veneers on the majority of Swans.

Nautor’s Swan is unusual in stitching the veneer skins onto the plywood itself (all the furniture is foam-cored). Many builders buy this ready-made. It’s a similar story with areas such as bunk corners and table trims. It would be cheaper and quicker to buy and fit ready-made inserts for the corners, but here they are all cold-moulded in situ to achieve the best possible timber colour match. It is an intricate process and the attention to reducing weight is highly impressive, and time-consuming. Making the major components of furniture for the new Swan 115, for example, takes between six and seven months.

Joinery modules a preassembled at Kronoby

The joiner work for each cabin is pre-assembled for checking, then taken apart so the wood can be given its surface treatment, such as gloss varnish or wax on oak, and finally attachments such as lockers and hinges are added before it is taken to the BTC facility at Pietarsaari where it is fitted into the hull.

Swans have always had a hallmark clean, minimal style, which has been updated and finessed since the purchase of the company in 1998 by an investment group led by Italian fashion group magnate and Swan owner Leonardo Ferragamo. It is telling that even at the top end of the range today, where custom fit-out is an unquestioned expectation, owners have gone for the quintessential Swan look.

That is, presumably, part of the attraction: if you are buying a Swan, you want it to look and behave just like one. Custom details requested can nevertheless be very intricate: one owner’s wife wanted white leather panelling on a master cabin bulkhead to be sewn with the same type of running stitch as her designer handbag.

First of the Swan 115s

Back in the BTC sheds, the work on the first of the 115s progresses. The deck is fitted, the twin rudders are in place, the engine is installed, as is the huge propshaft and massive Hundested controllable-pitch propeller, a work of art all of itself. The crew will arrive before the launch to familiarise themselves with the yacht and systems and, when the sea thaws, the first of Swan’s biggest superyacht will be launched and sail south on her maiden voyage.

A rendering of the Swan 115, which launches this year

Since modern glassfibre yachts began to be built here almost half a century ago, yachts have grown in size and complexity. Only a handful of brands worldwide have survived these changes. But Nautor’s Swan was never a mass producer of yachts; the company has built an average of 10-15 a year, and of the 2,000 or so Swans ever made, over 95 per cent are still sailing.

How the company can preserve these attributes and increase the volume of boatbuilding is the question for modern times. As gratifying as it is to be in demand as a creator of superyachts, the Swan line needs its diversity. Enrico Chieffi, former Olympic sailor, top helmsman and after 17 years at Nautor’s Swan now its vice president, thinks there are lessons from premium car makers.

Many of these have learned that they can produce greater volumes without tarnishing their brands, and this in turn provides economies of scale to develop new models.

“If you look at most luxury car builders,” he says, “they have decided to develop a small range. That’s where we’ve come from: the 36, 42 and 48. I believe this will come back and there is room for these sizes. There is a huge market of wealthy people who want a boat they can sail in their home waters and they are looking for high-quality yachts.”

At the moment, the smallest Swan in the range is the older, classic Swan 53. But at 45ft or below, Chieffi says, “handcraft is not suited and we would need a completely different mindset on the industrial process”.

Nautor's Swan 80 Chessie

Nautor’s Swan is, he hints, exploring the possibility of a sister brand. “We are one of the brands with the widest product range, from 50-115ft, but also this is not very efficient. So the step could be to double the range. There could be another brand within the Nautor Holding Group, to take advantage of existing investments.”

What this range will be he will not say, only that “the next very important project in the company is being developed now”. The story of Swan may be about to take another turn. The superyachts are soon to take flight. Are there some cygnets on the way?

Famous Swans

Sayula II. Mexican businessman Ramón Carlin won the first Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race (1973-74) in this production Swan 65. She took 152 days to sail 32,500 nautical miles and was one of the few yachts to have a freezer and full-time cook on board.

King’s Legend. The Swan 65 sloop raced in the Whitbread in 1977/78, crewed among others by Skip Novak, as navigator. She came 2nd, behind Conny can Rietschoten’s Flyer. King’s Legend is owned by Dutch sailor Gijs van Liebergen, who has lovingly restored her and charters the yacht.

Design and build

  • Sparkman & Stephens designed approximately the first 1,000 Swans to launch, from 1966 to 1978.
  • Ron Holland was the designer from 1978 to 1981 and since then German Frers has been responsible for the design of more than 700 Swans.
  • The most popular model to date has been the Swan 38, of which 116 were built between 1974 and 1979.

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