A Summer Classic

An iconic boat builder and its classic wooden craft evoke the luminous, sunlit season


Written by Jenn Thornton    Photos courtesy of Ferretti Group

Summertime conjures up many images, but none is more idealized than that of the glossy wooden boat skimming across cerulean seas at breakneck speeds, its pilot with one hand on the wheel and the other on a bikinied beauty taking shelter beneath a haloed sunhat and king-size shades, the paparazzi in hot pursuit. In this cinematic moment, the boat gleams, a beacon of the sun-drenched season and a marker of a bygone era when Mahogany meant motor boating and glamour was the game. 

Runabout, speedster, powerboat—a wood-clad boat is a highly collectible work of art, at once a masterpiece of design and an ambassador of fun in the sun, all varnish and move. Today, such vintage watercraft commands top dollar, with those branded a Riva causing devotion on par with a Steinway or a Stradivarius.

The crown wearer of the yachting world, Italian boat builder Riva is truly revered, its name synonymous with style, innovation and pedigree, and its clients (royalty, movie stars, leaders of industry, titans of sport) as glittering as the floating palaces it so consistently produces. Frankly, the brand knows no other way; even in rough waters, as was the case in 1842, when a sudden storm wreaked havoc on the boats of unassuming Lake Iseo, where a young carpenter named Pietro Riva had dropped anchor. Having arrived from Laglio on Lake Como, he performed a small miracle when, in repairing most of the beat-up boats, he also restored the spirit of the town, putting its fisherman back to work. Steeped in admiration, the builder proved equally prodigious in business, establishing a Sarnico shipyard and producing boat after boat.

The artisan operation would, over time, integrate technical innovations like the internal combustion engine and produce speedboats that smashed national and international records. But it was the 1950s that marked the golden age for Riva, by then an emblem of elegance and eminence in the world. Steering the ship at this crucial time in the company’s history was Carlo Riva, who watched over the launch of its coveted wooden craft: the Ariston, the twin-engine Tritone, the Sebino, and the Florida. Later years introduced the Aquarama with its promise of “Sun, Sea, Joie De Vivre!”; the first fiberglass cruiser; Avant-Garde models with major horsepower and aerodynamic edge; and day cruisers like the St. Tropez and Superamerica. 

Despite many innovations and design triumphs, Riva has, from the start, symbolized a classic timelessness that reflects summer itself—the promise of ease and carefree days spent on the water, the expression of something recognizable in an uneasy social climate. Summer is, after all, like a well-made wooden boat—both steady and steadying, its traditions and temperament unshakable in their familiarity. So, while we may not all be so fortunate as to find ourselves on board a Riva, we can all dream of its impossibly stylish sundecks, its sinuous lines, its sexy passage. Because what is summer if not the ultimate dream.