The Life Aquatic

Courtesy Pershing Yacht

A quick put-put over to, say, Sardinia? Or what about East Hampton? All aboard the new—and old—boats of summer.

Boats, especially big boats, arouse passions in otherwise levelheaded people who really don't care that much about, say, designer labels or even what kind of car they drive. For these individuals, it's boats that talk. And it's not a monologue but a conversation—about beauty and desire, about who you are, where you're going, and where you've been.

To think that motorboats were once dismissed as "stinkpots," interlopers on the centuries-old tradition of private yachting and sailing, seems almost incomprehensible. The powerboat has evolved, over the course of the last two decades, to something more than a mere vehicle. Advances in design, craftsmanship, and power have created vessels that some would say rival even the most elegant sailboats.

When trying to define what makes a perfect motorboat, there is no escaping sex appeal. A combination of line, size, curves, and cylinder capacity is on view in the Formula F-357 SR-1. This six-seater is a fusion of form and function representing the triumphant Florida "muscle boat." Designed in 1985 by Formula naval architect John Adams, the vessel is almost absurdly pretty, with a long and elegant downward-sloping sheer that meets the bow in a delicate point. Its 36-foot, 24-degree, deep-vee fiberglass hull handles Gulf Stream chop and ocean swells alike, while the twin V-8 engines make short work of long distances.

The F-357's pedigree couldn't be more impeccable: Formula was founded in the early sixties by the great playboy and boatbuilder Don Aronow, who almost single-handedly opened up the Bahamas and the Keys to pleasure boaters with his innovative designs. High speeds on the high seas had been brutal in small boats (as anyone who has gone deep-sea fishing knows), but with this beauty—and its many imitators—you could suddenly head from Miami Beach to Bimini for lunch and no one would expect that day's haul of marlin.

The Pershing 88 (also known as the Silver Bullet) made a similar splash when it appeared on the scene in 2000—though it tipped the scales more toward power than prettiness. A much larger craft at almost 90 feet, this Italian-made boat sleeps six in yachtlike splendor and is capable of long cruises. But despite its size and exquisite interiors, the 88 looks and feels like a racer. Massive 4,000-horsepower twin diesel engines bring the boat up to 44 knots, while a state-of-the-art Arneson Surface Drive steering system gives it the agility and mobility of a ski boat. Few craft turn heads the way the 88 does when it enters port, and its impact on nautical aesthetics is still being felt. Before Pershing, no one thought to paint a powerboat silver; after its debut, silver quickly became one of the colors most in demand. "Every bit of it is like a piece of sculpture," says Paul Goldstein, who keeps his Pershing moored in Sicily for frequent cruises to Croatia, Turkey, and France. "From any angle, you look at it and go, 'Wow!' "

The smaller but equally impressive Goldfish 32 Sportcruiser was built in Norway in 1999 by ex-racer Pål Sollie. This craft borrows from the best of the high-speed and high-design boats and is well on its way to becoming a modern classic. The seven-seater has a small cabin with two bunks, and, most significantly, capacity for twin diesels of up to a combined 1,000 horsepower. Its purposeful blend of curves and corners produces a subtlety of line that belies its performance and handling capabilities. In other words, the 32-footer looks just as good when it's tied demurely to the dock as it does when blasting over a choppy whitecapped ocean at a staggering 67 knots.

At the opposite end are the stately cruisers whose appeal stems not from speed (though some are quite fast) but from a graceful marriage of old and new. The best example is the Hinckley Picnic Boat. Originally known for wooden sailing vessels, Hinckley introduced the boat with the composite hull in 1994 in homage to the Down East lobster boats of Maine. Its elegant lines quickly found favor among the old-guard sailing yachtsmen of New England. The Picnic Boat runs on a single engine and has plenty of seating on two cushioned benches. While it may look antique, a unique water-jet propulsion system makes it decidedly modern—and fun. Nothing confers greater madcap, skid-turning maneuverability on a powerboat than a jet drive—the perfect counterpoint to the vessel's chaste looks.

Hinckley helped kick-start boating's retro design boom and, in the process, gave the Italian boatyard Riva the best idea it'd had in years—to reinvent a classic. In 2001 the company introduced the 33-foot Riva Aquariva, based on the iconic Aquarama of the sixties. (For many the wooden Aquarama remains the ultimate powerboat.) Designers not only mixed materials and forms in a conscious imitation of the old mahogany boats but also added contemporary touches, such as a swooping symmetry of the windscreen and sofa, a pedestal table in the cockpit, and steps cut into the sloping transom that are indisputably modern. This is a classic that looks brand new; its greatest achievement is in surpassing the boat that inspired it.

Riva is one of the most famous names in the business, chiefly because of the delicious mahogany runabouts that were de rigueur in the glamorous hot spots of the south of France in the fifties and sixties. From Anita Ekberg to King Hussein, everyone who was anyone seemed to own one. (A photograph of Brigitte Bardot sunbathing aboard her Riva Florida is still an enduring image of the Riviera jet set.)

The Riva's design was almost as beautiful as the people; its old-style wooden construction had long been abandoned because of the prohibitive cost, so Riva looked back at its history, came up with a modern fiberglass homage to those glory days, and—incredibly—improved upon its originals.

It was the mahogany Chris-Craft creations of Michigan boatbuilder Christopher Columbus Smith that originally inspired Riva to get into the runabout business. From the twenties to the fifties, Chris-Craft runabouts got more Americans on the water in more style than anything before or since. Always a leader in aesthetics, Chris-Craft had no difficulty keeping pace with the car designers down the road in Detroit, and in the Harley Earl era the company produced its most outlandish design, the 1955 Chris-Craft Cobra.

Available in 18- or 21-foot models, with engines of 90 to 285 horsepower, the Cobra boasted a raffish snub-nosed bow and a famously radical gold fiberglass fin emblazoned with the Chris-Craft logo in gleaming chrome. This was the company's first experiment with the new wonder material, and it was a sign of changing times—before long fiberglass would re-place the premium-quality Philippines mahogany on which the Chris-Craft name was built. Nothing was ever quite the same, and although only 106 were constructed, the Cobra remains, unquestionably, the coolest Chris-Craft of all.

The WallyPower 118 may be the most photographed "new" boat around, and it certainly has not been press-shy. (Nor has the craft's owner and creator, Luca Bassani.) And regardless of how you might react to the vessel's almost ominous look, the story of its creation tells a tale of what the future holds for boat design.

The 49-year-old Milanese businessman founded Wally in 1994 and built the 118-footer based on his reaction to the other motorboats he had encountered. However graceful, elegant, and fast they may have been, Bassani saw homogeneity. Bored by the lack of innovation, he decided to create his own motor yacht and make it—quite literally—one of a kind.

Bassani enlisted the design house Lazzarini & Pickering and Intermarine, a construction firm specializing in warships. Some of the numbers associated with this phenomenal project are scarcely credible—three 5,600-horsepower gas turbines, two 370-horsepower diesel engines, and a top speed of more than 60 knots—and yet it is also a comfortable cruising machine, with a wonderfully light, bright saloon beneath the sinister tinted glass of the deckhouse. It is undoubtedly different, but it works.

The 118 was never going to be a mainstream yacht. Bassani still owns it; anyone else who wants one should be ready to part with upwards of $20 million. (Those who find the design irresistible might want to explore the smaller models—say, the 70-foot WallyPower 70, with a price tag of about $3.2 million.) One thing is sure: All WallyPower boats represent a change in direction—stunningly beautiful, brutally fast—and the beginning of a whole new conversation.

Seven Perfect Motorboats

Pershing 88

FIRST IMPRESSION It's a speedboat and a yacht. Amenities include a master suite, Jacuzzi, full kitchen, and onboard Jet Ski.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 2000; 88 feet; 4,000hp twin diesel engines; fiberglass hull; top speed of 44 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION "It's built for serious mileage," one owner says. "I take mine from Antibes to Croatia."

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at $5 million; no longer in production. Contact YCO Yacht Brokerage in Monte Carlo at

Formula F-357 SR-1

FIRST IMPRESSION The ideal to which other Florida muscle boats aspire; its deep-vee hull makes it especially smooth in rough seas.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 1985; 36 feet; twin engines of up to 1,150hp; 24-degree fiberglass hull; top speed of 63 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION The nautical equivalent of the Ford Mustang, it's most likely to be spotted in Biscayne Bay.

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at $50,000; no longer in production. Models often listed on

Goldfish 32 Sportcruiser

FIRST IMPRESSION The ultimate marriage of speed and style: A cozy cabin that sleeps two makes the ride a perfect weekend boat.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 1999; 32 feet; gas or diesel engines of up to 1,000hp; fiberglass hull; top speed of 67 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION Geared toward those who once owned a megayacht but now want something smaller to keep in Saint-Tropez.

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at $247,000; no longer in production. Contact the Yacht Corporation at

Hinckley Picnic Boat

FIRST IMPRESSION Looks like a lobster boat, handles like a Jet Ski, and has a unique water-jet propulsion system.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 1994; 36 feet; single engine of up to 435hp; computerized JetStick steering; top speed of 29 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION The motorboat that won over many a diehard New England sailor; Martha Stewart owns one.

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at around $590,000 (includes driving lessons). Contact company directly at

Riva Aquariva

FIRST IMPRESSION A drop-dead gorgeous reinvention of the mahogany classics that cruised the French Riviera.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 2001; 33 feet; twin 740hp engine; fiberglass hull; top speed of 42 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION Another favorite of Europe's jet set; Stefano Gabbana gave one to Domenico Dolce for his birthday two years ago.

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at $513,000. The U.S. dealer is MarineMax, 954-618-0440. More information available at

Chris-Craft Cobra

FIRST IMPRESSION Iconic example of old-world technology and classic American design of the fifties.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 1955; 18 or 21 feet; gas engine from 90 to 285hp; mahogany hull; top speed of 34 to 48 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION Vintage powerboats have developed a recent cult following among lake-house owners across the States.

PRACTICAL DETAILS Starts at $85,000; only 106 were made. Check or for nearby dealers.

WallyPower 118

FIRST IMPRESSION Razor-sharp lines, black exterior, and tinted windows make this the stealth bomber of luxury yachts.

VITAL STATISTICS Debuted in 2003; 118 feet; five engines that yield 16,800hp; carbon-fiber and fiberglass hull; top speed of 63 knots.

SPIRITUAL ORIENTATION Built by Wally founder Luca Bassani, who said he was bored by modern boats; he mostly docks it in Saint-Tropez.

PRACTICAL DETAILS At a price of more than $20 million, only one has been made. Inquiries (and other similar boats) through

The Boats that Launched 1,000 Trips

For the most part, the vessels that yachtsmen obsess over today are not racing boats. But these three specific one-off models set trends that redefined the way powerboats were built.

Long before designing Chris-Crafts, Chris Smith constructed multiengine race boats and record breakers with the Miss America series. One of the designs, the 1932 Miss America X, was the ultimate prewar speed machine, created at a time when a fast boat that could also turn corners was a rare beast. The tenth design by owner and driver Gar Wood, this vessel helped establish the Detroit River as one of the world capitals of waterborne speed and Chris-Craft as one of the most prominent boatmakers around the globe.

In 1988 the great engineer Fabio Buzzi crafted the Cesa 1882 to compete in the offshore racing circuit. At the time, no one believed a single-hull vessel could take on the more stable catamarans that had dominated the high-speed competitions. It turned out, though, that the Cesa, with its innovative airfoil wing and much-copied hull, was a vision of calm efficiency. She won everything in Italy, Britain, and the United States in 1988—and then came back the next year and took the prize again.

Buzzi's dominance recalled the revolution of 1960, almost 30 years before, when American yachtsman Dick Bertram won the roughest-ever Miami-Nassau race in the Moppie. The boat, which Bertram had built for that contest, was an unremarkable-looking, stripped-out plywood 31-footer. But it had a secret: a deep-vee hull designed by Ray Hunt, which sliced through the waves instead of slamming into them, allowing the vessel to maintain high speeds in rough waters without pounding itself and its crew to pieces. After Bertram won, everyone wanted a Moppie, so he used the hull as a mold and started producing fiberglass replicas. "There were so many damn yachtsmen waving checkbooks at me," Bertram says. "I had to go into business."