The lingering aroma of the lake water mixed in with the smell of the wood.
Visiting the Ernesto Riva Boatyard is like taking a step back in time. Savouring the know-how of the manual work. Slow and precise. Rhythmic and poetic.
Eight generations of veritable Master Boat builders.
Almost 300 years stand between Daniele, the last descendent, and his great-grandfather Giovanni the “sepultun” and the founder of the boatyard! That’s a long time, marked by an enduring philosophy: to never build a boat that is the same as any other, because every client dreams about their boat and how they would look, and this never would be the same as any other.
“Of course, you have to master the skills but the most important thing of all is being humble if you really want to understand the important lessons that the past can teach us”, Daniele Riva says. And that’s not a flippant catchphrase; it’s a genuine belief, the driving force behind the work he does, day after day, at the boatyard.
Their story goes back over a hundred years, with many tales of exciting adventures involving the boatyard, as it continued to build and refit wooden hulls. Looking into them demands a step back in time, back to 1771, the year when this ‘sciostra’ – or workshop in the local dialect – was set up, today run by Daniele Riva, the sixth generation of the family.
The ledgers from the late nineteenth century are still jealously preserved at the boatyard today, authentic vestiges of its past containing the details of all the orders and types of boats built by the ‘sepultun’ (boat builder in local dialect), the sizes, technical details and correspondence. The measurements in the ledgers are in the system used before the metric system was introduced!
Since Cantieri Ernesto Riva was first founded, the boatyard has built boats, launches, “Inglesina” and “Lucie” favoured by Manzoni, typical boats with large canvas-covered rings used by fishermen or merchants to transport their wares up and down the lake. In the 1920s, Canottieri Timavo of Monfalcone and Reale Società Canottieri Querini of Venice also ordered some of its rowing boats for two or four oarsmen.
Ernesto Riva was born in 1930 and passed away in 2007. He was the one who introduced the family business to the world of pleasure craft, mainly by reworking and building the 12′ Dinghy, the famous English keelboat built in clinker mahogany. In 1948, when he was just 18, he also built the “three point” racing hull powered by a 250-horsepower outboard engine that Emilio Osculati drove to victory, winning the European title on the River Seine. As time has gone by, another fifteen boats have joined it, with different hulls, from 2.50 m to 10 metres long, including rowing boats, yachts and motor yachts.
And needless to say, they are all built by hand, and all are made strictly in wood.
Ernesto’s son, Daniele Riva was born in 1967 and has always preferred building boats to being a manager sitting behind a desk. He likes getting his hands dirty, and the glue, the nails and the sawdust are the tools of his trade. Every boat that leaves the boatyard bears is signed off in blood, sweat and tears. As he grew up, he learnt the traditional techniques and secrets behind the construction of wooden boats, starting with the delicate cambering stage. “It’s the most delicate moment when you are making a wooden hull”, he tells with true passion, “beginning by leaving the oak or ash boards to steep in water over night. They are then placed inside a long wooden parallelepiped-shaped box, which is filled with steam produced by heating water in a barrel. The steam softens each individual plank, which is then taken out, bent and inserted quickly into the hull, before it can cool down and become stiff. It is also called bending by heat or steam”.
Over the decades, Cantiere Ernesto Riva has built a long series of boats alongside the classic Dinghy 12’, that can be built and customised completely to satisfy the specific demands of the future owner.
From the Guscio, just 3.85 metres long and weighing 90 kilograms, the 5.50 metre Lancetta and the 4.70 metre Canotto that can carry up to 6 passengers.
Another small hull is the Arrow, similar to a launch but built to a design based on a rowing boat. From 4.50 to 5.50 metres long, it has a sliding seat and can also be rigged with a small sail. Then there is the Fedro, a replica of a small, 4.04 metre long American sandbagger rigged with a fore and aft sail. The Istar is a 5.70 metre motor launch and then there is the Eos, Lancia, Inglesina and the Juju, the latter a small 2,70 metre tender.
The Zeus is top of the list of small cabin cruisers, a replica of a typical English “cutter pilot”. Made of crossed mahogany planking, it measures 6.50 metres in length with a 2.40 metre beam. The transom, the vertical bow, the low coach roof, the bowsprit and the cutter rigging with mainsail, staysail with boom and jib, puts it straight into the new classics category.
Among the motor yachts, the Sirio is a planing launch built in clinker mahogany planking. 6.40 metres long with a 2.20 metre beam, weighing 1000 kilograms and carrying up to 7 passengers.
The Ernesto Riva Daysailer 25’, the Jetto 5.3 and the Inseparable 398 are just some of the most representative boats in the recent history of the boatyard.
The first is a sailing hull approximately 7 metres long, made with a self-supporting shell in mahogany strip-planking, with sandwich bulkheads. It can be sailed in solitary or with a small crew. Its features include a removable keel, a generous cockpit, four berths, a galley and concealed WC below deck. The auxiliary propulsion system, inboard or outboard in the pit, is powered by electricity for zero emission sailing. It can be towed on a trailer and can be launched and masted without the need of a crane.
The Jetto 5.3 is a modern-classic motor yacht, inspired by the lines of 1930’s American runabouts. 5.20 metres long and weighing about 150 kilograms. The perfect assemblies are guaranteed by CNC machines with CAD / CAM programmes. Powered by outboard engines providing between 25 and 60 horsepower, it can reach speeds between 18 and 30 knots. The boat is ideal for short coastal cruises or as an onboard tender for a megayacht. A boat with timeless appeal, with the added virtue of never going unnoticed.
And then there is the Inseparable 398, a sailing hull in marine plywood that is just 3.98 metres long. This compact boat has a removable keel and can easily be towed on a trailer so that it can become the mini-cabin cruiser for short trips in lagoons or archipelagos.
But over and above these unique gems, the authentic values of a family of true Master Boat builders are worth understanding, admiring and preserving.
“I can’t remember the exact moment when I started working at the boatyard; it feels like I was born at the boatyard, among the planks of wood. The lake has always been part of our history, we have learned to love and respect it. You cannot afford to build a boat that can’t handle storms or high winds. I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else in my entire life. Even if there were times when despair overcame me, and a voice inside me was screaming at me to stop, to shut up shop and go away. But where could I go? This is where I was born, and the water has always meant everything to me. I breathed in the smell of the sawdust, listening to the cracking of the wooden planks as they were being bent. I watched the storms shattering the surface of the lake and boats pitching in the wind. I saw the amazed look on my son’s face, the one who would take over after me, and I realised that all of this, everything I have done and built, would not be lost. Even if life becomes a little wearisome, something you have done properly will last forever”, words spoken by Ernesto Riva in an interview about ten years ago.
Words that are inevitably echoed by those of his son, Daniele: “For me, my family has always been a sort of treasure chest, capable of caring about the past and preserving our memories. Almost 300 years stand between my great grandfather Giovanni, the founder of the boatyard, and me. 300 years during which we were guided by an ambition, to guarantee a future for the history of our fathers and grandfathers. I have always loved drawing, I studied to become a draughtsman but after seven years working outside the family firm, doing repetitive work, I realised I wanted to spend my life carrying the family tradition. Our history, our roots, our culture, and our values!”.