It’s a weekday in early autumn and the mediaeval fishing hamlet on the southern shore of Monte Isola is tranquil. Only 12.8 sq km, the island is the primary attraction of Lake Iseo, Italy’s hidden jewel that is 100km north-east of Milan.
Most of the villages in Monte Isola, which is largely a wooded mountain, and those around the lake, have been around since the 15th century at least. Yet, despite the beauty on offer, the picturesque towns largely escape the radar of the hordes of tourists that invade Italy every year.
But the charming lake is not all absent from the mind of the world, at least for boat aficionados. Amid the serenity, a legend, the Riva, was born 175 years ago. It lives on today at the tail end of the lake at Sarnico. The story goes that in 1842, a storm damaged the local fishermen’s boats, and their livelihoods along with it. The situation spurred Pietro Riva, a young shipbuilder and craftsman who had just moved from Laglio, to repair most of the vessels.
He went on to build his own boats. Business flourished and in the 1950s, it reached mythical heights under his great-grandson, Carlo. It was Riva’s second coming.
BOAT OF THE JET SET
The heir to the throne stamped his reign with the boatyard’s most illustrious creation in 1962. It came in the decade when the preoccupation with speed birthed the Porsche 911, Aston Martin DB5, Shelby Cobra and Maserati Ghibli Spyder, and the 40-year-old Italian had the presence of mind to hitch a ride on the momentum.
Out of that dizzy spell, he crafted the lines of the Aquarama, a luxury wooden runabout that had a hull of up to 8.3m in length, as the Ferrari equivalent of the waters. With the slogan “Sun, sea, joy of living!”, Carlo created an aura around his boat and it rapidly captured the imagination of the jet set along the riviera.
From Monaco to Cannes and Saint Tropez, the likes of Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg and a host of blue bloods craved the Aquarama that had a top speed of 40 knots. During its production years until 1996, other luminaries such as screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor, King Hussein of Jordan and James Bond star Sean Connery also owned variants of the boat.
It was on one of these vintage classics, Happy Days, that The Peak sailed in September from Monte Isola to Sarnico. Fired up by two V8 engines, the Aquarama easily cut the waters of the enchanting lake in the 9km hop to Riva’s headquarters.
A mythical air enveloped the boat’s birthplace. Carlo had died fi ve months earlier, on April 10 this year. In the era of Carlo, says Stefano De Vivo, chief commercial officer of the Ferretti Group that now owns the boat maker, Riva became synonymous with elegance, status and perfection.
“He selected materials of the highest quality and was meticulous, even down to the tiniest details, which is today the hallmark of Riva’s craftsmanship,” explains De Vivo.
ASIA COTTONS ON
Carlo sold his shares in 1969 and resigned from the company in 1971. In the intervening years, ownership of Riva changed hands twice between non-Italian boat makers. But the legend of the Aquarama lived on and had starring roles in several blockbusters, especially the 17th Bond installation, The Golden Eye. In 2000 the Ferretti Group bought over Riva and put the focus back on quality, design and style that were the hallmarks of Carlo and his predecessors.
Under these principles, the company began building bigger boats and super yachts at a new yard in La Spezia in 2004 and they attracted a new set of the well heeled. “If you are thinking about pure style, culture of sea and the richest in materials and so on, you are looking at Riva,” says De Vivo.
Today, the company’s catch phrase is “as it was yesterday, it will be forever”, epitomising the relentless pursuit of perfection that is making waves throughout the globe. At the Cannes Yachting Festival on Sept 12, the 100-foot Corsaro and 56-foot Rivale took centre stage.
They stay faithful to the legacy that Carlo infused into the Aquarama but are projected into a larger jet-set lifestyle on the seas. From hull to helm, and in the Corsaro, the flybridge, they morphed two different eras into one, with cutting-edge technology of the digital age such as GPS and Wi-fi.
It is a lifestyle that has caught on among boat owners in Singapore and Hong Kong, and picking up in the rest of Asia, says De Vivo. “Riva has great appeal in these two countries because both have interaction with Europe and its culture and taste. They have known Riva for a long time already and the wealthy among them have been to Europe during the dolce vita years (after Federico Fellini’s film ‘La dolce vita’ on Rome’s vices and virtues).
“In China where there is great demand for quality brands and high-end quality, Riva is also gaining immense traction. It is also making a return to the Japanese market.”
Not all, though, are sailing in their home waters and many are opting to position their Riva yachts in the Riviera. Among them are those from the Lion City, he adds. “While our customers from Singapore know what to do with their boats, they have to sail to the immigration checkpoints of Malaysia and Indonesia first, if they want to sail beyond the limited waters around Singapore.
“So many opt to buy their boats from us and berth them in the Mediterranean. They then travel up to Europe during their vacation to sail on their boats. ”
If there is a boat that truly mirrors the thoughts of Carlo, it is the Rivale, which is in every sense a mini superyacht. Built at Sarnico, it is the first Riva launched after the boating doyen’s passing at the age of 95.
With a full-beam master and spacious guest en-suite cabins, the 56-footer is well appointed. It combines the utmost attention to every detail with the use of the finest quality materials – from the high gloss mahogany of the interiors to the natural teak of the exteriors.
Perhaps, this is because at Riva’s home, the spirit of Pietro lives on through his great-grandson. Carlo designed the yard where everyone in it feels as if they are in a boat. In his office, which is still kept in its original form, it was constructed as a helm station. The office faces Lake Iseo and cannot but inspire the creative mind. From this command post Carlo dreamt of the Aquarama, brought it to life and guided his creation to reach cult status, even today.
On Carlo’s passing in the spring, Ferretti Group chief executive Alberto Galassi hailed the legendary boat builder as a brilliant craftsman. “The world has lost a brilliant creator of boats, a master of style, and a giant in Italy’s industrial and business history.”
MAKING A STATEMENT AT CANNES
The Ferretti Group arrived at the 40th Cannes Yachting Festival in September with 25 yachts. We pick the best.