Benetti
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Wednesday, 15 December 2004

Like many famous leisure craft builders, Benetti began by building fishing & cargo boats.

The “barcobestia” was a vessel, of between 30 and 40 metres, weighing between 800 and 1500 tons, with three vertical masts of almost equal height; the foremast being slightly taller. The foremast was square rigged and the other two gaff rigged with large topsails; three or four flying jibs could be carried on the bowsprit and a similar number of staysails between the fore and main masts. The advantage of this rig was that it enabled a master to choose a sail plan which best suited whatever winds the capricious Mediterranean had produced; thus enabling these vessels to compete with steam and motor powered vessels. They were also economical to run, needing only a crew of seven, including master, cook and cabin boy.

ImageThe history of Benetti is entwined with that of Viareggio, now a popular holiday resort as well as a major mega yacht building centre, for this story might never have been written but for an event which took place in the 15th century.

In the Middle Ages, Viareggio was a poor hamlet, mainly populated by peasants whose ancestors had drifted there from even poorer regions, or to escape from oppressions. Inevitably, these people earned what living they could from the sea, both by fishing and by transporting goods. Equally inevitably, this meant that an embryonic boat building industry developed.

The change from individuals, building and repairing boats in the open air, to the thriving community of well equipped shipyards that make up the Viareggio of today was precipitated by war. In 1441, the combined forces of Pisa and Genoa defeated the mercantile state of Lucca and seized its shipyards and slipways at Motrone. Needing such facilities, for its financial well being, Lucca invested in Viareggio’s port and ship building infrastructure. From then on, though some times were less favourable than others, largely depending on whose sovereignty Viareggio was under, the town steadily grew and with it its principal industry. When Italy became a united kingdom, in 1861, the port – though still quite small – was sufficiently developed for the new national government to consider it worthy of investment. A second basin – Darsena Lucca - was built in the early 1870s; the Darsena Italia was added by 1907 and three further basins, each bigger than the last were added by 1960.

The first boats built at Viareggio were based on designs that originated in Sorrento, but soon the town’s master craftsmen developed their own designs and started the port’s reputation for turning out vessels of unprecedented elegance, which still retained excellent cargo carrying capacity and sea worthiness. It is said that a length to beam to depth ratio of 30:6:4 was one of their fundamental rules for best combining beauty and functionality.

The Benetti legend started when young Lorenzo Benetti went to work in the Darsena Lucca shipyard. He bought the yard, which he would direct for the rest of his life, in 1874, shortly before his 30th birthday.

In those days, the most important people in any shipyard were the “maestri d’ascia” – masters of the adze – who shaped the surface of the wood; often working barefooted to show – so legend says – the utter confidence they had in their ability to use the razor sharp tool without amputating any toes! Below them, in the hierarchy, were the carpenters – who might one day become maestri, then the caulkers and their assistants who prepared the material; lowest of all were the sawyers, who toiled from sunrise to sunset for the lowest wages. They worked in teams of two – one above a log, one below, monotonously hauling the double handed saw back and forth, along lines traced out by the carpenters.

By the time he died, in 1914, vessels of all types and sizes had been launched from Lorenzo Benetti’s slips, from humble gaff rigged fishing boats to the boats for which Viareggio was perhaps most famed; the “barcobestia viareggino”.

The word “barcobestia” is said to have come from a corruption of the English expression ‘best barque’. Whether that is true or not, it is certain that the lines of these vessels were much admired, wherever they voyaged – from Scandinavia to America - and they became legendary for ‘riding the water like seagulls’.

In 1941, the Benetti yard launched two very different “barcobestia”; ‘Gerlando’ and ‘Maria’. The 43 metre ‘Gerlando’ a traditional wooden sailing ship, built to carry Italian marble to Egypt, was converted to a yacht in the ‘60s and can still be seen – with the name ‘Raphaelo’ and a 3 masted staysail schooner rig - at tall ships gatherings around Italy. ‘Maria’ was a landmark in the history of Benetti and  Viareggio for she was not just the first steel hulled, diesel powered ship to leave the yard, but the first to be built in the town; however, her hull form and traditional length, beam, depth ratio were those of a classic ‘barcobestia’.

The worldwide travels of Benetti’s “barcobestia” made the yard famous outside Italy and led to orders for yachts and, ultimately, to a division of one yard into two yards. In 1954, two of Lorenzo’s grandsons, Maurizio and Bertani, decided to concentrate on building commercial vessels at the M & B Benetti yard, whilst his son Emilio – assisted by his nephews Guiseppe and Virgilio - chose to only build sailing and motor yachts, under the name Fratelli Benetti. 

It was Emilio’s son Lorenzo who was to make the fundamental changes, which would lead to a Benetti becoming THE motor yacht to own – from the early ‘60s to mid ‘70s - and to Italy becoming Europe’s leading luxury yacht builder. The post war years produced a new ‘elite’, which had accumulated vast wealth, wanted to spend a lot of money quickly and demanded greater luxury.

The second Lorenzo Benetti’s response was to turn from wood to steel and build in series, whilst allowing for customisation according to an owner’s tastes.

Thus the successful Tirreno (1962), Mediterraneo (1966) and Delfino and Super Delfino (1969) series were born. Though best known for its motoryachts, the yard also built some very successful sailing yachts; including the 13.5 metre ‘Vanina’, which won the 1978 Admiral’s Cup on corrected time, and the glorious 46.7 metre motorsailer ‘White Gull’.

The success of the Benetti yard was, ironically, to lead to its downfall. When Adnan Kashoggi decided he wanted a yacht only the best would do; that not only meant a Benetti, but the biggest and most luxurious yacht that Benetti had ever built. The 86 metre ‘Nabila’, as she was to be called for Kashoggi’s daughter, was to push the yard onto the slippery slope leading to bankruptcy.

In the days when the first Lorenzo had gone into ship building, he and a prospective owner would cost a boat, agree a suitable profit for the yard and that would be the price. It wasn’t quite the same in the yacht building years but it was still largely a matter of honourable gentlemen doing business with other honourable gentlemen and understanding the unwritten rules. Kashoggi was not only a master at the art of bargaining, but neither knew nor cared about the rules. His negotiators pared the contract price down and down and insisted on severe penalty clauses for failing to meet the time table, launch date and promised performance. Worst of all was that the Benetti family, used to unspoken agreements, did not ensure that those penalty clauses would be null and void if the client wanted changes made during the build. Kashoggi demanded many extensive changes but when the yard said this would need a time extension, the response was that there was nothing in the contract to allow for this.

Even as they watched Nabila Kashoggi break a bottle of Mecca water on her namesake’s bow and saw the world’s most famous yacht slip into the water, the Benetti management was wondering how it could recover from the losses it had incurred in building her. The answer was that it couldn’t. 

Four years after handing over ‘Nabila’ in Monaco and 110 years after it was started, the yard asked the Lucca court for a bankruptcy decree.

Enter Vitelli

Paolo Vitelli’s entrepreneurial days began when, as a teenager, he succeeded in selling skis in all Turin’s secondary schools, causing the regular traders to bitterly complain to his father; then President of Turin Chamber of Commerce. At University, he and five colleagues converted a cellar into a night club, called Tempo Sei, which became the haunt of many pleasure seeking young people. When the friends graduated they sold the club and Vitelli used his share of the proceeds to set up a yacht charter business, called Azimut, with his long standing friend Luciano Lenotti.

Working out of rooms in Luciano’s uncle’s business, they first chartered through Portofino Yachts of Milan – splitting the commission 50/50 - and, in that first year sold every charter week they could get their hands on. The next venture was into brokerage, which began to do so well that Moncada of Milan – sole dealer for both Benetti and Baglietto - made an offer for Azimut, which Vitelli turned down. (Lenotti had already decided the business was not for him and been bought out.)

In 1970, Azimut represented a Dutch yard at the Genoa boat show and, though the yard’s products were not good quality, sold quite a few. In fact, the small stand was so busy that Franz Felix, number two at Amerglass – then the most modern shipyard in Europe – offered Vitelli the dealership for Italy. Other dealerships were soon added; Broom motor yachts, Westerly sail boats, the famous Halmatics and the Tarquin 60; the first large yacht to be made in GRP.

By 1973, Vitelli was thinking about exporting as well as importing and his ideas happened to suit Amerglass, who were having problem with high production costs in Holland. A new company – 50% Azimut, 50% Amerglass was set up and production of the AZ 43 Bali began, with the work being subcontracted to various Italian firms. Between 1975 and 1983, 45 were sold worldwide but only a few in Italy, where fibreglass was still viewed with some suspicion.

The next major step in Azimut’s development came, in 1982, when Vitelli sold the first Falaika 105 foot yacht – sketched on a serviette – to a Kuwaiti prince. Like all Azimut boats at that time, the work was  subcontracted out but demand for Failakas was such that Vitelli began to think seriously about buying a yard, capable of constructing mega yachts. When Benetti came on the market, he only needed a few hours of inspection to know he wanted it.

Under Italian law, a court looks after the affairs of a company which has applied for bankruptcy protection and four other companies were competing with Azimut’s bid. Pledges to retain 130 of the workforce and invest in  improvements, together with the managerial skills and financial soundness of Azimut made it the winner.

Words Marian Martin Photos Azimut-Benetti

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 December 2004 )
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