Written by Clare Mahon
18 January 2024
Lorenzo Benetti, known as Lenci, lived in Viareggio, Italy, from 1844 to 1914. He went from being an apprentice shipwright in his uncle’s yard to opening his own shipyard in 1883 in Darsena Lucca, an area of Viareggio, when he was just 30 years old – and there’s still a Benetti shipyard there today. Between 1883 and 1904, Lorenzo built and launched about 30 wooden ships ranging from cutters to two-masted schooners and navicelli, a type of cargo boat used to transport marble.
While Lorenzo Benetti principally made small ships, in the early 1900s his sons Gino and Emilio began making three-masted schooners with high bows and sleek, rounded sterns. English sailors so admired them, they called them the ‘best boats’. Locals soon transliterated what they heard into ‘barca best’ and then barcobestia – a beast of a beautiful boat. The first barcobestia, named Adelina, was launched in 1902 and the last, Sandrina, was launched in 1919.
Gino Benetti (1870–1927) was the first in the family to study naval construction. Widely respected for both his creativity and his intelligence, Gino is credited with the first design for a barcobestia.
No less, his legacy as a boatbuilder was guaranteed by the long career of a brigantino he launched in 1921, which was called the San Giorgio. The ship was conscripted into World War I and fitted with engines in 1937. Conscripted again during World War II, she was bought by the Italian Navy in 1953 and rebaptised Ebe.
Decommissioned in 1960, she sat at a navy base in La Spezia for three years until she caught the eye of the director of the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. Immediately recognising her importance, he had her transferred to the museum, where you can still find her today, displayed alongside Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings – a timeless witness to the Benetti shipyard’s legacy.
Gino died young – as did most of his children – but Emilio later passed the shipyard on to his son Lorenzo, who began building steel-hulled yachts. The Benetti Delfino, Gabbiano and Mediterraneo series produced in the post-war years have become icons of style from the era of la dolce vita.
From Prince Rainier of Monaco to the Beatles (as guests aboard their manager’s Benetti Delfino) to David Bowie, who used to holiday aboard his 39-metre Benetti Deneb Star in the company of Mick Jagger, Benetti yachts were the top choice for the jetset. Probably the most famous Benetti of the 20th century is the Jon Bannenberg-designed custom yacht Nabila.
Built in 1980 for the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, at 86 metres she was the world’s largest private yacht at the time, boasting five decks, three elevators, a 12-seat movie theatre, two saunas, a swimming pool, a discotheque, a jacuzzi and a billiard room.
The sundeck was enclosed with bullet-proof glass, and there was a three-room clinic on board. She had secret passageways and was equipped with no less than 296 telephones. Her 11 guest cabins had hand-carved onyx bathroom fixtures and gold-plated doorknobs. The master suite of four rooms had a solid gold sink in the bathroom.
While Freddie Mercury sang about Nabila in the Queen song ‘Khashoggi’s ship’, the world only got a glimpse of her when she starred in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again as the evil Maximillian Largo’s headquarters at sea. She was then sold to the Sultan of Brunei and later Donald Trump. Rumour has it that the current owner of Nabila (now called Kingdom 5KR) has added more gold to the interiors and has had her fitted with an arms system.
While Nabila brought fame to Benetti, Khashoggi’s business acumen sank the shipyard. In 1985, Paolo Vitelli took on the challenge of bringing the shipyard back to life through his newly founded Azimut | Benetti Group.
In 2003, the Azimut | Benetti Group bought the vast shipyard in Livorno that had formerly belonged to the Cantieri Orlando, and began transferring production of their largest steel-hulled yachts to this site. The full potential of this 260,000-square-metre production site was displayed in 2019 when Benetti launched three huge yachts in just one season – the 107-metre Lana, the 107-metre Luminosity and the 108-metre IJE, owned by Australia’s James Packer.
Anticipating what is now considered indispensable, Paolo Vitelli’s Benetti built the first diesel-electric yacht Ambrosia in 2006. He also created a research and development department focused on reducing consumption and developing sustainable construction materials.
In 2010, Benetti opened its first office in Hong Kong, which was recently followed by a Singapore office. “Benetti has a firm commitment to understanding and serving diverse markets,” says Peter Mahony of Benetti Yachts Asia. “They recognise the importance of staying attuned to evolving customer preferences and catering to regional tastes, connecting with clients on a deeper level.
“The sector is evolving rapidly, and we’re seeing many changes in the type of yacht and expected use that new owners are considering,” he continues. “With Benetti’s ability to accommodate these personal requests, we are always very active.
“In Asia, for example, the yacht will spend time in conditions where outdoor space must be shaded and cool, and the indoor design must provide entertaining spaces.
“There are also some specialist needs, such as custom galley equipment for Asian cooking, and social areas for karaoke and treatment rooms. The success of the Benetti Oasis family in the Asia-Pacific region proves that Benetti knows this market.”
In 2022, the 37-metre B.Yond was awarded for its innovative hybrid propulsion system, while in 2020 the shipyard had launched a new concept of onboard lifestyle with the Oasis Deck, complete with stern and side wings that open to the water. “We see strong appeal for products with the Oasis Deck,” says Mahoney.
“It sets new standards and redefines the concept of luxury, especially for owners who want a Mediterranean-style yachting life, which the Oasis 40M, the B.Now 50M and the B.Now 60M are perfect for.”
Most recently, in 2023, Paolo Vitelli named his daughter Giovanna president, continuing the history of two families who, across different eras, have shared both values and a passion for innovation.
A century and a half of history, more than 350 boats built, over 300,000 square metres of production facilities – these facts and figures confirm Benetti as a powerhouse driven by its clients’ confidence in the strength and solid technology behind the brand.
But, Benetti is Italian, so style also comes into play. “Collaborative excellence is one of the cornerstones of the brand,” explains Mahoney, “and our strength lies in collaborations with renowned designers who bring fresh perspectives, diverse ideas and unique design aesthetics to Benetti yachts.
“By partnering with these talented visionaries, Benetti has created iconic yachts that captivate the imagination of enthusiasts worldwide. Some notable talents we’ve collaborated with include François Zuretti, RWD, and Lazzarini Pickering Architetti, among many others.”
But it’s not just about looks. “Customers are becoming more environmentally conscious, hence we are investing more and more in R&D. This new generation of owners is concerned about sustainability, so designers are including more eco-friendly solutions in their work while responding to new regulations that are introduced almost every year,” says Mahoney.
“We believe that listening to our clients’ needs and feedback is paramount, and we value our customers’ preferences. We can create bespoke yacht experiences that ensure an unparalleled level of personalisation.”
On top of a long history, Benetti has a firm commitment to understanding and serving diverse markets. “Our presence enables us to connect with our clients and ensure we deliver precisely what they desire,” Mahony concludes – and this sounds precisely like the mindset that will speed the Benetti shipyard along for at least another 150 years.