The following article was taken from Powerboat 84 yearbook.
‘There are few milestones in the world of design, so each one tends to be extremely important. If one tries a new, different idea and it works, and there was a certain sort of logic to the idea, there is an enormous sense of inner pride.'
Renato (Sonny) Levi has had cause on more than one than a few occasions to feel, as his own words describe, that sense of inner pride. The designer has been the innovator of a number of new concepts within performance boating now considered standard, amongst them the first deep V circuit powerboat. But that represents a tiny fraction of Levi’s work of the last thirty years, which ranges from Skiffs to luxurious high performance pleasure cruisers for customers such as the King of Sweden.
Levi’s father was an accountant but he moved to India in order to escape Italy’s political climate and set up business on his own. Amongst other concerns, he owned a furniture factory, and specialised in marble and tiles. ‘In many ways my father was ahead of his time,’ Levi explained, ‘he was not particularly good at drawing but his mind was perpetually full of new designs for just about anything.’
When two friends became enthusiastic about owning powerboats, he suggested they build the craft in his factory, and a new industry was born. At the outbreak of WWII, several allied navies in the Far East needed vast numbers of admiralty motorboats, whalers and other specialised craft and asked Levi’s father to produce them. He set up a boatyard, which expanded rapidly until the Bombay company was responsible for ‘almost half the production in India at the time.’
Young Levi, meanwhile, had been called back hurriedly from school in the south of France when it appeared the borders would be closed, and sent to school ‘up in the hills’ at Darjeeling. He would return to Bombay for the school holidays and spend his time in the boatyard. But aeroplanes filled his mind in those days far more than boats and immediately on leaving school he joined the RAF. The war, however, had not waited for him and finished while he was still training.
After serving his country for two years in Iraq, he returned to London to continue his studies in aeronautical engineering. ‘I hoped to get into an aircraft factory,’ Levi explained, ‘but a well-
‘I was very fortunate that I was working for my father. He was always prepared to let me to try out any new idea I might have – we were always attempting new projects.’ One of his first jobs in India was a number of patrol boats for the police for use against smuggling during the days of prohibition. He experimented with a number of different hull designs, always using an adaptation of the deep V. ‘We began to have a reputation for producing fast boats,’ said Levi, and this reputation was boosted still further after the production in 1954 of a boat that is still one of Levi’s favourites. Speranza Mia, a 38 foot 6 inches cabin cruiser, matched the demands of performance and style equally well, and was one of the earliest boats to make considerable use of epoxy resins and glass mat.
Soon after, the yard patented a system of construction that was used on boats for a border war with China. ‘It was called plyglass. We would join two panels of wood with glass tape and epoxy resins,’ explained Levi. The same kind of system was used many years later in the production of Mirror Dinghies and similar products. It was just one of the ‘firsts’ that Levi could notch up. By the end of the fifties, the yard had expanded to such a size that a company expressed an interest in it and bought a portion. But for Levi it was time to move on. He had always designed for other boatyards, and was already a known figure within the designing circles of Italy and the United States. So it was not a particularly difficult step to join Cantiere Navaltecnica as a shareholder in 1961. He had done a considerable amount of work for the yard in Anzia already.
In the same year that he joined the yard, Levi designed the boat that was to attract a lot of interest, and began the onslaught of Levi designs within the offshore racing world. ‘A Speranziella, using the Neapolitan word for hope, was the prototype of a 30-
Levi supplied the two Midlands builders with the design from which they built the craft to lead their assault on the famous Paris six hours race in 1964. They caused a sensation: no one had seen anything like it. ‘The engine stuck up high at the back, and certainly made the boat look unbalanced,’ Levi admitted, ‘but it worked!’ Jim Wynne was the only other designer to put a deep V on the water for the Paris race, but ‘Wynnemill’ was a large boat powered by an inboard. ‘Mine was certainly the first outboard powered deep V circuit boat,’ Levi confirms, ‘and within one year the design of racing boats altered from uncomfortable and unstable flat-
‘The problem with getting a circuit boat right,’ continued Levi, ‘is the attention to detail that is so important. If a designer has a yard where boats can be put in and out of the water all the time, he has an enormous advantage. He can play around with a fraction of an inch each time, with spray strakes, propeller positioning, trimming the boat and so on.’ Levi did work with Melley and Merryfield to set up the Paris boat as a winner, but he was unable to spend as much time as he may have liked on further developing the little racing hulls. ‘Circuit racing represented a tiny part of my income and I couldn’t see that changing in the future.’
Of all his masterpieces, Levi looks upon Surfury, designed in 1963, as one of the most satisfying. ‘We raced her for five or six years and she was still winning at the end of that time. She could give 10 to 15 mph more than any offshore on the water when we first raced her.