Yachting Club Costa Smeralda
Yacht clubs in Italy are every bit as grand and impenetrable as gentleman’s clubs in London. And there is no yacht club tougher to crack than the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, the largest and proudest building in Porto Cervo, a deep-water cove tucked into the north-eastern fringe of Sardinia.
Significantly, when the Aga Khan sold Costa Smeralda, which he had developed as a jet-set enclave in the 1960s, he hung onto the yacht club and he remains its president. He has ensured that, unlike the rest of Porto Cervo, which is looking decidedly dated, the yacht club has kept up appearances. In 2003 His Highness engaged Peter Marino, the New York-based architect, to redevelop the yacht club at a cost of €60 million. The floor of the black-lacquered lobby is now inlaid with a dazzling mosaic of interlocking blue and white sails; the main staircase rises grandly, with two return wings, to the "main deck", with a large lounge, shaded terrace and pool; there are maquettes of famous boats in glass cases, and paintings of yachts heeling in tumultuous seas on the walls.
In short, Porto Cervo is the perfect setting for a regatta for super-yachts. And if anything can match the yacht club polished hull for polished lobby, it is a Perini sailing yacht created in Viareggio by the eponymous Fabio Perini. A Perini is the ultimate ocean-going extravagance, a byword for seafaring elegance, luxury, grandiose ambition and technological savvy. Glimpse a Perini and you’ll never forget it. Perinis are big – from 45m up to more than 80m long – and they cost €1 million per metre. They are also scarce: only 53 exist. And they’re strikingly beautiful, like a colour you’ve never seen before. The roster of owners is a roll call of wealth and influence. This makes the Perini Navi Cup, which takes place at Porto Cervo every other year, the world’s most glamorous regatta, an invitation-only three-day event for privateer yachtsmen.
Perinis are designed for comfort not speed. They come with bedrooms, lounges, galleys, bars, entertainment suites and dining rooms. You won’t find a Perini competing in the America’s Cup; they are competitive only when raced against each other. During the first Perini Cup in 2004, the owners treated the regatta as fun. The captains made do. "You could tell when the chef was deploying the MPS," Franco Torre, the head of quality control at Perini, says. (The multi-purpose spinnaker is the only sail on a Perini that has to be deployed manually, all the others being push-button.) But last year several owners shipped in professional yachtsmen; one even hired an America’s Cup skipper.
Day one unfurled in glorious weather. Saturated blues and brilliant whites startled the retina as the Perini fleet – Antara, Corelia, Helios, Heritage M, Jasali II, Nauta, Northern Spirit, P2, Panthalassa, Parsifal IV, Seahawk, Silencio and Zenji – set sail. In the wake of this billion-dollar armada, I bobbed along aboard Ardis II, the motorboat of Carlo Traglio, whose jewellery brand, Vhernier, was one of the sponsors of the regatta. The only snag was the wind. There wasn’t any. With limp sails, the Perinis idly consulted among themselves like giant butterflies. After a couple of hours a breeze kicked in. Flaccid sails swelled and bulged. The Perinis were on the move. Highly polished hulls with thrusting prows and billowing sails came at us from every direction, playing out some game of maritime chess. The Perinis began to cluster. The race was on.
Or was it? It was hard to tell. One thing missing on a Perini is the massed crew of men dressed in the owner’s colours, all working in unison to get their boat going faster, who lent a rugged glamour to the millionaires’ yachts of the last century. When Perini came up with the idea of a super-yacht, he really wanted to avoid crews altogether; they take too much money and space – and besides, they might eavesdrop on private colloquy.
"Fabio Perini’s main business was in paper, but he loved sailing," Giancarlo Ragnetti, the CEO of Perini Navi, says. "He wanted to build a boat with the space, comfort and handling of a motor boat but with the lines of a yacht with a long hull and low superstructure." In 1980, after several unsuccessful attempts with established boat yards, Perini decided to build his own 40m yacht. Having designed the hull, he looked for ways of sailing the boat with minimal crew. His brainwave was to replace crews with technology gleaned from his day job creating machines that roll up lavatory paper. This wrapping of hi tech in high aesthetics set the template for subsequent Perini yachts.
That evening, the lights of the moored Perini fleet twinkled galactically. I mounted the passerelle of Silencio (50m, 2001), the day’s winner. "Arthur", Silencio’s owner, welcomed me aboard. In his late 40s, wearing a white linen shirt and big glasses, Arthur is a television presenter, producer and comedian in France, and his real name is Jacques Essebag. Born in Casablanca, he grew up in France; his wife, Mareva Galanter, who was Miss France in 1999, is from Tahiti. "I love the yacht," she said. "It is our second home. We’ve had it for one and a half years. This is only our second race."
I boarded Panthalassa (56m, 2010). A tall woman with an American accent and the glassily impenetrable manner of minor royalty introduced herself. I looked around. The predominant motif of Panthalassa’s Norman Foster-designed interior seemed to be elliptical shapes and big curves with a flowing feel. I was about to inspect the cellar when the captain asked me to leave. "The owner wants to have dinner," he said.
If you’re thinking of commissioning a Perini, certain protocols must be observed, the main one being that the exterior aesthetics must be signed off by Perini. But below deck, anything goes. Ship in your own designer? Fine. Besides Norman Foster, Perini has worked with John Pawson and Christian Liaigre, who designed Rosehearty, recently put up for sale at $29.7 million by Rupert Murdoch. "We offer a package with all the best people on the market, but controlled by us," Ragnetti says.
Next up, the Maltese Falcon. At 88m the Falcon is the pride of the Perini back catalogue, the longest, grandest, most audacious and best-known private sailing yacht in the world. Dispensing with the classic configuration of triangular sails attached to one or two masts, the Falcon has three "free-standing" 58m masts. Each one holds five near-rectangular sails, stacked one on top of the other. Bearing down on you, she looks like a trio of giant Chinese lanterns about to topple tipsily over. She is immense.
I mounted the passerelle and picked my way from the transom towards the main superstructure. The lines of the Falcon stretched away into the night like an exercise in endless perspective. When I finally made it indoors, a large circular bar faced me. I tried to take in the surroundings, but could hardly see for looking. Everything seemed to be airbrushed to perfection, an escapist’s utopia. Wandering around her is a bit like losing yourself in the mechanism of a giant Swiss watch, but the Falcon has something I didn’t see on any other yacht: the owner’s family photographs decorating the main bar area.
Finding the bridge, I confronted banks of computer screens, buttons, lights, knobs, a glorified barber’s chair and a joystick. Noel, the chief engineer, who is ex-Irish Naval Service, and Lee, his number two, explained how the Falcon works. There are screens displaying pictograms of the sails, all 25,833sq ft of which can be deployed within six minutes. "The sails are alarmed in case the loads become too great," Lee said. "To change the direction of a sail, we touch the screen, and the mast swivels automatically. Each mast has 360-degree movement." Where’s the helm? Lee pointed to a knob the size of a petrol cap on a vast console. What, this? ‘"Don’t touch. Oh, my God!"
The Falcon belongs to Elena Ambrosiadou, the co-founder of the Ikos hedge fund, whose split from her husband, Martin Coward, was dubbed "the bust-up of the century". Ambrosiadou, who is 55 and feisty, with blond hair and spangled jeans, bought the Falcon for a reputed £60 million in 2009. I asked her what she loves about her. "It comes from a passion for the sea," she said. "Being Greek, I am interested in triremes. Their sails were similar to the Falcon’s. So there is a link. Triremes also had oars so that they could ram other ships." In my mind’s eye I saw Ambrosiadou on the bridge of the Falcon yelling, "Ramming speed!"
After the doldrums of day one, day two opened with a descent of fire and brimstone from heaven; rain lashed down from plum skies, and a gale whipped up to 45 knots. Crews scrambled to protect their yachts. Parsifal IV and Heritage M suffered minor scratches that could cost the price of a new car to have repaired.
That evening was the highlight of the regatta, the owners’ dinner. Dress code: yacht-club smart. Women were sheathed in gowns by designers from Roberto Cavalli to Lanvin, from Emilio Pucci to Gucci. Although one item that is never worn on a yacht is high heels, tonight heels were out in force since the party was held on dry land.
For days beforehand the boutiques of Porto Cervo had sent emissaries on board the Perini fleet so that the owners’ wives could choose their outfits exclusively. In his salon on the ground floor of the yacht club Aldo Coppola, an influential hairdresser from Milan, coiffed 40 bejewelled heads. "It is like the Oscars," the fashion editor of a Milanese newspaper says. "Except that they buy. In Milan people very rarely dress up like this," she continued. "The only comparable occasion would be December 7, the new season at La Scala. But to show your legs like that would be very difficult in December in Milan."
I met Remo Ruffini, the founder of the Moncler sports fashion label, which is the main sponsor of the Perini Navi Cup. The company’s recent highly successful float on the Milan stock exchange must surely put Ruffini in the market for a Perini. "The sailing world is free-spirited and therefore everyone is free to wear anything they like," he told me. "Similar to skiing, sailing brings out the values of individual style beyond the rules of fashion."
Gliding among the tables was Fabio Perini himself, his wife Milena at his side. Low-key, self-effacing and, at 74, the epitome of elegance, he has a gimlet eye for design faults and lapses in taste. At his headquarters in Viareggio, Perini exhorts his staff to keep quiet about yachts under construction. "Let the yacht speak for itself," he tells them.
On day three racing was once again hampered by storms. A sudden squall can rip a sail causing thousands of euros’ worth of damage, and captains had to take a view on glory versus insurance headache. At the awards ceremony afterwards, the eventual winner was Silencio, although so many secondary gongs were handed out that every owner went away happy. But there is no doubt who came away happiest of all. Perini has created an international yacht brand synonymous with luxury and elegance in a country traditionally hooked on go-faster motor boats. Thanks to modern technology, he has realised the fantasy of a luxury ocean-going super-yacht. Most remarkably, until he sold his paper-rolling business in 1994, yacht-building wasn’t even his day job.
"If you want to upset Mr Perini, just tell him, 'It is not possible'," Burak Akgül, his head of sales, says, "or, worse, 'We have never done it like this before'."