The boats made by Vikings and sailed by royals
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Catching a glimpse of a sleek, mahogany-veneered vintage cruiser skimming through the waves is an unusual sight in the Baltic Sea. Typically made and manufactured in Italy, such a water-born representation of the Dolce Vita is usually found floating off the French Riviera, not between mainland Sweden and the Viking stronghold of Gotland. But the J Craft Torpedo isn’t your typical retro-styled day cruiser.
“My wife and I chartered a J Craft one summer and fell in love with it,” says the boatmaker’s German owner Radenko Milakovic. That model, the Cabrio Cruiser, had been the brainchild of Swedish entrepreneur Björn Jansson and Gotland boat builder Johan Hallén, the very first one of which was delivered to the King of Sweden, His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, in 2000.
“Having tried it, we wanted to buy one for ourselves,” says Milakovic, a former hedge-fund manager who has done so well he’s retired at 52, “but with changes – put simply, I wanted something that looked and performed like a 1957 Corvette but had the home comforts of an Airstream trailer.” In 2008, when J Craft came up for sale Milakovic bought it and, working with Hallén and the J Craft team, had his dream boat ready for the water by the following year.
Like the Cabrio Cruiser, the Torpedo borrows the style of the wooden sports craft of the ’50s and ’60s, but with a modern fibreglass hull and mahogany veneer. If the shape looks familiar, it should – it references the iconic ’60s Riva Aquarama, but is actually far more exclusive: fewer than 22 Torpedos have been made to date. Sporting an entirely new propulsion system in the form of two Swedish Volvo Penta IPS engines incorporated into a new, redesigned hull, Milakovic and Hallén’s Torpedo took Jansson’s vision of a classically styled cruiser and dialled it up – with more performance, modern comforts and materials. With a choice of IPS 400, 500, 600 or 650 engines, the most powerful J Craft can touch 47 knots and still pull off astonishingly tight turns given its size and stately ride.
With a curious mixture of Dolce Vita flair and the kind of robustness that can only be found in the rough and rugged Scandinavian environment, the Torpedo is an impressive all-rounder out on the open water. Step aboard and the sheen of the hand-finished mahogany details on the deck draws you back to a golden age of transport when style and substance took priority over speed and efficiency. At the helm, a beautiful Italian-made wood and steel Nardi steering wheel invites you to take control, while powering up the two Volvo engines triggers a growl from below deck as the torque gradually pushes you back against the soft leather seat.
Navigating the Baltic Sea, albeit on a calm day, is a breeze behind the wheel; Milakovic assures me that many J Craft have taken on much more arduous journeys, such as Saint-Tropez to Corsica, Ibiza to Sardinia, Miami to The Bahamas and Hong Kong to Hainan. With a 280-nautical-mile range, room for four adults to sleep at a squeeze and a generously proportioned forward cabin complete with separate bathroom and stand-up shower, the Torpedo is a capable cruiser. Like the upper deck, the cabin is beautifully constructed from hand-finished mahogany, polished steel and leather. Given the craftsmanship that goes into the Torpedo’s construction, there’s plenty of room for customisation, from a set of bespoke matching luggage to a 2,000-watt music system and a teppanyaki grill behind the front seats.
“We’re blending age-old techniques with modern-day materials – the good old-fashioned skills that are acquired over many, many years of civilisation on this island,” says Milakovic, walking through J Craft’s wood shop, stacked with beautifully shaped, highly polished mahogany pieces waiting to be added to the three hulls under construction on the factory floor. Buried in the hull of one of them is another key member of the J Craft team and Gotland native, Zoltan Antunovic. With an athletic build, neatly trimmed short back and sides, and Viking-like beard, he is the embodiment of the boats they craft here. Despite busily working on a wiring loom in one of the hulls, he spares a second to recount his experience, first his military service and then with Swedish boat builder Nimbus, before joining J Craft full-time around the time Milakovic acquired it.
With a history of boatbuilding dating back more than 1,000 years, Gotland and its Unesco World Heritage Site town of Visby have a nautical knowledge base like no other – something that remains in rude health thanks to its population, who were raised on a rich diet of sailing experiences and seafaring tales dating back thousands of years. “I’ve worked with boats my whole life in some way,” says Hallén, J Craft’s longest serving employee. “I renovated my own boat at the age of 16 with the help of my father, and before that I was always down at the harbour watching and helping the fishermen after school – the people of Gotland have always made their living by the sea.”
With each boat taking more than 8,000 man-hours to make, the J Craft Torpedo is priced accordingly. Starting from €1.36mn and rising depending on options, this day cruiser is not for the casual buyer looking for a cheap and cheerful day boat to get them around the bay and back. “We have clients that take it on long trips across seas. You have other guys who treat it like a piece of art but for me, it’s my peaceful place,” says Milakovic, referencing his very own Torpedo, which he named Natalia, after his daughter.
“I learned the hard way – you can’t really rush it,” he says. “It’s literally made by Swedes in Sweden.” Celebrating the delivery of three boats this year, Milakovic and the J Craft crew plan on keeping production limited. “We’re not interested in mass production,” he admits. “My only role to play is to act as a custodian and enable it to be on a trajectory so that Jansson’s vision lives on.” Milakovic and his team are busy tweaking and refining the design, ensuring the next generation of J Craft has less impact on the environment. From new, on-board technology and a removable hardtop next year, to switching to a fully recyclable material for the hull and deck, and even the new forms of propulsion on the horizon, the plot of the J Craft saga has twists and turns to come.