Wally founder Luca Bassani: The man at the cutting edge of yacht design

Luca Bassani, the visionary founder of Wally Yachts, created an iconic brand and shaped the trend for clean aesthetics in yachting. Mark Chisnell interviews Luca Bassani

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Photo: Guillaume Plisson

Try a game of word association with any superyacht industry professional and I’d be surprised if the word innovation didn’t bring the response Wally. Since 1994, Wally Yachts has – initially in sail and then in power – brought to the market a series of game changing initiatives. It’s often true that innovative companies (think Apple or Dyson) are driven by a singular mind, a powerful creative force and vision. In the case of Wally, Luca Bassani is that man.

“I had the freedom and the possibility, the financial possibility to realise my ideas,” he told me. “When you just have the ideas, but you never have the chance to realise the ideas because you have to find the finance to do the prototype and then the product… it becomes very difficult. I had this big, big chance to be able to finance my ideas, my innovations. That freedom was extremely important, because it put us at a completely different level from any competitor.”

Luca Bassani was born to a successful Milanese business family, and his early career followed a conventional roadmap. He was educated in Milan, attending Bocconi University where he earned a PhD in Economics. He then went to London for a year, to work at the St James’s office of McKinsey & Company before returning to Italy to join the family firm, BTicino, a manufacturer of residential and industry electrical equipment, where Bassani was CFO.

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The latest Wally, a 45m/148ft Frers design, is currently in build

The family sold up in 1989, and Bassani could then give more attention to his life’s real passion – and his path started to diverge from the expected. “Sailing has been my passion since I was very, very young because we were spending a lot of time in Portofino during the summer, where we had a house… I learnt everything about the sea. How to fish, how to sail, how to paddle, everything.”

Sailing roots

“My family always had a power boat and a sail boat, and when I was 12, the captain of the sail boat told me, ‘Hey, why don’t we spend more time aboard, because we are only using the boat during the weekend when your father is here?’

“I said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ We sailed 5,000 miles during that summer and the big passion started – from there I’ve been sailing, sailing, sailing.”

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The boat was an S&S 37-footer skippered by Tito Prato, and they would sail her from early in the morning to late in the evening. Soon the attention turned to racing. There were several of the top Italian boats in Portofino at the time and in 1971, when Bassani was 15, the S&S 37 was changed for a Swan 43.

“We started to race – I’m going to say seriously – but seriously for that time. Nothing to compare to what seriously means today. So, we started to build up a crew and were doing all the races in Italy, between Italy and France.”

They won the Two Ton Cup in 1972, and an Ericson 46 followed in 1973 and then in 1975 a C&C 66 called Phantom. “At that time, it was considered the first maxi,” said Bassani. “We raced two or three years with that boat. Then we went to the International 6-metre class and we had a long career and five different boats.” Bassani raced for almost 15 years in 6-metres, winning two European Championships (1986 and 1990) and placing third at the 1983 World Championships.

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Photo: Guillaume Plisson

During this time Bassani also raced a Laser, introduced the J/24 to Italy, and then moved into the Mumm 30 when it arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties. He won the world championships at Hilton Head in 1998 and was 2nd at the Europeans the same year. It’s a long racing pedigree and, unsurprisingly, when he came to build a cruising boat for his family, he looked for speed and efficiency.

The first Wally emerges

It was the tail end of the 1980s and the International Offshore Rule (IOR) still held sway over the world’s racing fleets. “Racing boats were absolutely uncomfortable. Also, [they were] not very fast, because the handicap system was producing slow boats. At the same time, cruising boats were just following this formula. They were racing boats just transformed into cruising boats and they were again, not so comfortable… and slow.

“I knew that… there were already technologies and materials that could have made the boats much faster, much easier. That’s why I decided to choose a naval architect to design and build the boat that I had in my mind. It was the first Wallygator [named after the cartoon character], the 83-footer, designed with Luca Brenta and built by Sangermani… That was the mother of all the Wally’s, actually.

“I built that boat only for myself and my family. I didn’t have the idea of starting a company, but I really wanted a boat that could be fast and comfortable, and easy to manage. Once I launched the boat in 1991, I used it for a couple of years and I was very, very happy with it; everything was beyond my expectations, in terms of reliability, in terms of performances and easiness to use.

“I said, ‘Oh, why is nobody trying to copy this boat?’ Something that I wouldn’t say today… at that point we had sold the family company, so I had more time, more finances available, and I said, ‘OK, why not start a small business around this idea?’”

The first Wallygator was sold in 1993 to an Italian owner, becoming Mr Gecko. Luca Bassani then built another two boats to his own specification to get things moving. Wallygator II (now Nariida) a 105ft ketch that was launched in 1994 and was sold in 1997 to a Norwegian owner. It was this boat that introduced the hydraulics-led push-button handling that enable the sweeping, open and uncluttered decks that have become synonymous with Wally design.

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Bassani describes the 32m Wallygator II (now Nariida) as “the first big sailing yacht with a modern racing hull, changing the look with a plumb bow, a very beamy hull and stern, a very flush deck and carbon fibre construction and sails”. Photo: Guy Gurney

In 1995 the ketch was followed by Genie of the Lamp, a 79-footer also sold in 1997, this time to a Swiss owner. “Between these two boats,” said Bassani, “I finally convinced the market that that was the way to go.”

The proof of that was really the first person to commission a Wally: former Chairman and CEO of L’Oreal, Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones. He saw a photo of Genie of the Lamp and knew almost instantly that it was what he wanted.

Bassani explained how Owen-Jones asked if he could test the yacht and how he then lent it to him for a week’s cruising. “He came back saying he wanted to buy the boat. I convinced him to build a sister ship, which was the first Magic Carpet.” Owen-Jones is now on his third Wally, Magic Carpet3.

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“The first new generation yacht, [Magic Carpet 3] brings very high performances, but also a lot of comfort for cruising,” says Bassani. Photo: Nico Martinez

It would be easy to think that the original look – and 25 years on, we must remember just how startlingly different they were at the time – of the Wally yachts was driven by aesthetics. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The form has been driven by the function, by the technology and the essence of the Wally brand encapsulated in Bassani’s slogan: fast and easy.

It’s an ambition that has always found its expression in the boats, through the wide range of designers and shipyards that have been involved in the Wally yachts.

“I think, let me say, sorry, but we influenced them,” said Bassani, of the designers he has worked with – a list that includes Luca Brenta, German Frers, Bill Tripp and Reichel Pugh.

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Bassani in his office in Monaco in January 2019. Photo: Toni Meneguzzo

Function before form

“What is today recognised as Wally design style was a result of the systems that I wanted to build for our boats… always to be faster, to be more comfortable, to be easier to manoeuvre, easier to maintain, and the aesthetic was a result, it was not a target.

“It’s what they call the fault of function… I just applied my personal style when I was deciding that I liked that line or the other line, this kind of finish or a different finish… but it was not a target for me to do something stylish. I wanted beauty – for my eyes – but mainly very functional.”

Luca Bassani can identify three core features of the boats that have driven much of the design. The first is the sail plan. In the dying days of the IOR when the first Wallygator was designed, a big overlapping headsail and a small mainsail was the norm. “We abandoned the big, overlapping genoa because we wanted to have self-tacking and we wanted the boat to be fast.”

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The serious racing side of Wally – a big fleet start at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup 2017. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

That concept at that size required a carbon fibre mast. It was the only way to make a mast that would stay up without runners and an inner forestay. “If you have an inner stay, you cannot have a self-tacking [headsail],” said Bassani. The carbon fibre mast was inspired by the Kiwi big boat [KZ-1] that was built for the 1988 America’s Cup. Laurent Esquier sailed with Bassani in the 6-metre, was with the Kiwi Cup team and told him about the impressive new material.

The second and third features were the hull, and the appendages. “We wanted the boat to be wider, to be much faster reaching, but with the right appendages to have good performance… so they surf easily, but they are still very, very fast upwind. This was made possible by all the new materials, the composites, carbon fibre and titanium.” And it’s really the materials that have enabled the innovation in all these three areas and driven the journey that Wally has been on for the last 25 years.

“Innovation is based mainly on the new materials. The computer, cars, aeroplanes; it’s just the materials that have allowed the big steps forward. I come from an industry where technology and engineering are fundamental; the electrical industry, and also from the entrepreneurial philosophy of my father, who always said that the product is the company… I mean, you cannot make a product by a brand, but you can make a brand by a product. The product, in this case, is based on engineering and materials.”

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The clean lines of the Wally 110 Barong D. Photo: Kurt Arrigo

An innovative future

Twenty-five years ago Bassani had to rely on himself and his team to find the materials that could drive the next innovation. “Today, there is a huge movement of people that are inventing, that are proposing new ideas and new materials. We have a position, an image in the world, and everybody looks at us as real innovators. So, we receive, practically every week, some new ideas and, at the end, we find some that are very, very interesting. So, not only do we have our own team, but we have the world helping us.

“Today, there are so many new ideas in naval architecture… they will allow it to be more sustainable, to be more comfortable, but you have to be brave enough to follow this path, otherwise you remain as everybody is now… There are innovations that will be applied both on the big displacement yachts, or in the medium semi-displacement, and in the planing yachts. In sailing, you see from the America’s Cup that there are extremely interesting new ideas about the sail plan. In a few years we will see yachts that are very, very different from today.”

I talked to Luca Bassani during the Düsseldorf boat show, not long after the announcement of the sale of Wally to Ferretti. Bassani was clear about his motives.

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Photo: Toni Meneguzzo

“I realised that I didn’t have any more of the energy, the finances that the size of the market today needs, and I realised that was the moment to have a big partner. Alone, I was no longer strong enough to go on with the development of the company.

“I found, in the Ferretti group, the right mentality. A very young group of managers, very motivated, who were loving what we did. They love Wally, and they are very confident that together we could do a lot of things. So, I think this is the next step that Wally deserved to go on.

“I will be doing what I love to do. Inventing and designing, and promoting the development, promoting the innovation.”

And, let’s hope, doing it for another 25 years.

Luca Bassani on his milestone designs

“The sailing yacht would be Genie of the Lamp. On the power boat I would take the 118 Wallypower. They both looked very crazy when they were launched but, after many years, you can recognise they radically changed the industry.”

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1995Genie of the Lamp [24m/80ft] “In terms of deck layout [this boat] changed the market. Today, practically 95% of the yachts up to a 100ft are a copy.” Photo: Guido Grugnola.

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1998Tiketitan [27m/89ft] “Tiketitan was the first boat with the ‘terrace on the sea’ — today, you see all of the boats, mainly the motor yachts, need to have the famous beach on the stern. There were also the metallic colours, a fully battened mainsail, and a canting keel.” Photo: Guy Gurney

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2001 – Wallytender [14m/46ft] “The Wallytender opened a huge market that didn’t exist 15 years ago.” Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

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2003 – 118 Wallypower [36m] “This was commercially a flop… but in reality, everybody else in power boats then changed following the Wallypower. Both in the hull, with the vertical bow, in the superstructure and with all the glass.” Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

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2006Esense [44m/143ft] “It was kind of a traditional boat with the high bulwarks, and inside the bulwarks the boat is absolutely flush. So, I created a kind of open space cockpit, instead of having the usual little cockpit on the traditional big yachts.” Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

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Photo: Pedro Martinez

Luca Bassani Biography

Born: 24th November 1956

Nationality: Italian

Education: 1980, graduated in business/economics from Bocconi University, Milan, Italy; 2004, honorary degree in industrial design from the University of Architecture, Genoa, Italy.

Honours: Two-time winner of the Compasso d’Oro (in 2004 and in 2008) – the leading industrial design award.

Inspirations: “He [Tito Prato, skipper of the family’s yacht] was my teacher. He was really the person that, more than anybody else, introduced me to the sea and to sailing, yes… and then, also, to racing.”

Career highlights and lowlights

“On the sports side, OK, I can say the things that I won; the world championships or the European championships. From the business side, it’s difficult to say because it’s a high when you are able to sell a new boat, not just because it’s new but because it’s different, it’s innovative.

“When you find a client who accepts your new idea, this is a fantastic moment, this is a real high in your career. And it’s a low when you don’t find a client accepting or understanding your new ideas. So, you cannot sell it. I mean, ideas are the base of everything for an entrepreneur, and if you’re able to sell your idea, that’s a high. If you’re not able to sell it, that’s a low.”

First published in the April 2019 issue of SuperSail World.

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