“MAKE ME THE biggest yacht in the world – bigger than anyone has ever seen,” he commanded. It was a mold-breaking commission for the Benetti shipyard more than 40 years ago, from a client keen to tout his wealth. The Italian firm had already earned accolades for making fine yachts, but this was to be a new kind of vessel, a ‘superyacht’, if you will. Be netti’s designers embraced the brief with gusto and the resulting craft was the epitome of oceangoing glamour. At 86m, it had five decks equipped with 11 cabins, a cinema, and exhaust funnels sloped outward to allow helicopters to land on the helipad more easily. There was even a disco – it was 1979, after all.
The estimates for the cost went as high as US$100 million, a vast sum for the shipyard. More importantly, as the 1980s dawned, it launched a new category of aspirational goods. A simple yacht no longer sated the yen for cruising – only a superyacht would do. And the leading place to commission one was the home base of Benetti and its fellow generations-old Tuscan boatbuilders, a small seaside town called Viareggio.
In the decades since that ship’s momentous launch, Viareggio has become the world’s hub for building superyachts. There’s no formal standard for the class, but one rule of thumb defines it as any vessel larger than 30m. Of the 750 such ships built since 2016, 44 per cent were made in Italy, according to the trade publication SuperYacht Times, and the vast majority of those in this town of just 62,000 people. The phenomenon’s progenitor – now named Azimut Be Netti – is the world’s most active superyacht producer. At the start of 2021, it had 3.5km under construction. Not far behind, at 3.1km, was its Viareggio neighbor Sanlorenzo. Indeed, dozens of famed firms sit jigsawed together here around a street that’s barely 0.8km long: Mangusta, Rossinavi, Codecasa, and more. Via Michele Cioppino, next to the Darsena, or harbor, is often called the yachtsman’s answer to Rodeo Drive. The comparison seems a stretch at first sight: the nondescript strip, rimmed by higgledy-piggledy facades, doesn’t exactly ooze panache.
Perhaps that’s the point, as Monaco-based charter broker Paola Scala bring suggests. “They’re all next to each other, and you don’t know where one finishes and the other one begins,” she says. “It’s one of the most important hubs for yachting, but it’s in a very subtle way. You have to read between the lines.” Indeed, step into a cafe nearby and grab an espresso – walk, don’t drive, as parking is horrendous – and what powers life in this town becomes clearer. Rowdy or hushed conversations might involve brokers haggling over a deal or rival boatyards settling scores. “So many workshops, so many sheds, so many boats,” says another insider. “The whole town breathes yachting.”
Viareggio wasn’t always such a moneyed, jet-set nexus. When I visited throughout my childhood, I had no idea that the wealthiest yachting enthusiasts in the world were pouring cash into the rickety boatyards I’d see en route to the town’s park, more a pine forest, really. My focus was on the beachfront promenade, filled with shops, restaurants, and gelateria. Most of the major buildings are belle epoque, a nod to the era when the town transformed from a fishing village to a tourist destination. Viareggio is part of a 19km strip known as Versilia, where the beaches are wide and golden, a blank canvas for sandcastles constructed by the Milanese kids who spend the summer months here; a typical family books a suite at a hotel for several weeks, like a serviced summer home. The buildings hint at Cannes, but Viareggio is shot through with a brassy elegance that’s so distinctly Italian.
This corner of Tuscany also has an arty past. The quarries in nearby Carrara, for example, supplied the enormous block of marble that Michelangelo turned into David. That’s why the area became a fixture of my childhood, too. My artist father was drawn here in the 1960s by its history and my family would make the journey from our home in Britain regularly over the next 30 years, staying somewhere along the coast, in Viareggio or elsewhere in Versilia, embracing the rhythm of life. Yet, despite countless visits, we never once considered going out on a boat. If we had, I might have met Giovanna Vitelli.
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