"The sport today is diverging"
Pelle Petterson, born in Stockholm in 1932, is designer of the Maxi Class sailing boats, still the most common sailing boats in Swedish waters, and the Volvo P1800 sports car, recipient of numerous awards including Olympic medals and the King’s Medal, and all-round sailing legend and style icon.
Swedish Press sat down with Pelle on a pleasant spring morning in early April at his beautiful house in Kullavik which is decorated with sailing memorabilia from 70+ years of sailing.
Swedish Press: How did you get started with sailing?
Pelle Petterson: It started right here in Kullavik in the early 40s when we rented a house for the summer from the local farmer. In those days the farmer would rent his main house to “summer visitors” like us from town. I found something that looked like a sailboat and put it together with a few friends and off we went. It was very basic in those days. We made do with what we could find or build and enjoyed being on the ocean. A few years later I met someone a little older and joined as second mate and later on as first mate on a “Stjärnbåt”. We learned by doing and there was a lot of sailing going on in the bays around Kullavik, we would race to the regatta, participate in the regatta and race back again… so racing was big.
SP: Were your parents supportive and did they participate?
PP: My father was really a car and engine guy and coached me a lot in that aspect. Initially he was not a sailor, but he did help me buy my first Starboat, which was the beginning of the Olympic adventure. Speaking of racing, in my early years I also built box cars and box car racing in the 40s was a big deal and attracted thousands of spectators. One of the biggest races was the Grand Prix in Stockholm. I ended up winning the Grand Prix in 1943, which was a big deal. Thanks to the support from Volvo where my father worked, I had pretty good wheels and even had ballbearings from SKF, so my box car was pretty fast.
SP: Did you start with boat designing right away?
PP: I was fortunate to go to a technical school in Sweden and later studied industrial design in the US, before design was even known in Sweden. I graduated in transportation design and worked with an Italian design firm and also a German car builder. My father was in charge of developing a new sports car for Volvo. A number of design firms were part of the design competition, including the Italian firm I was working with. As it happened the firm I worked for was selected and it was my design. It was a wonderful experience to be part of the process of developing a new car.
SP: How did you move from car design to boat design?
PP: I freelanced as an industrial designer and designed lawnmowers, motor-cycles and outdoor equipment and in the process came in contact with Monark, who needed a boat so that they could sell their outboard engines. With them I designed one of the first small mass-produced plastic boats.
During that time our sail racing hobby was getting more expensive so we needed to develop a business that could finance our sailing interest. The answer was the Maxi 77 which was launched in 1969. It was a huge success and made family sailing a reality with an affordable, functional boat with sufficient space. It was the 70s, everyone was optimistic and it came at the right time and was offered at the right price.
SP: How did you decide to enter Americas Cup?
PP: Americas Cup is the top level in sailing, and fuelled with success from Olympic classes and with Maxi doing well it gave us a platform to find more sponsors and put together a challenge. In 1977 we made it to the challengers final and lost to Australia. The same thing happened in 1980 and we never got to challenge the Americans, which was disappointing. The overall experience, however, was absolutely unique and we enjoyed a wonderful time during the races in the US.
SP: How did you influence Swedish boating and racing?
PP: Sweden became the leader in family boat manufacturing globally at the time and we got the Swedes interested in the sport. With the Americas Cup we showed that even a small nation can take on the big competition. Today the Swedish Americas Cup challenge for 2017 in Bermuda is a big budget production and I think the Swedish entry will have a good chance. When we look at the sport today it is diverging, there are very fast match racing events that are like sprints with superskilled and fast sailors, and then there is the Volvo Ocean Race type long-distance racing, which is more about endurance and dealing with challenges, like a marathon. Neither one is very close to family sailing so the sport and the recreational aspect are also diverging.
SP: Are you still designing boats?
PP: Yes, the Polish company that purchased Maxi Yachts convinced me to keep on designing and in 2015 they will be launching the Maxi 1200 which I have designed. It is built for comfort and easy operation and the hard work is now done by electric winches and by pushing buttons.
SP: It seems like you have been fortunate to start sailing in very basic, partly self-made vessels, then went on to race, and designed family yachts that got Sweden sailing, and now as you are maturing in age you have designed a yacht suitable for your own needs. Is there anyone that you see in the industry that will have a similar impact on the industry that you have had?
PP: Oh, I have never really thought about that… but no, I do not really see anyone who will have the opportunity to influence the industry in that way. Perhaps it is because of the modern computerised design process or…because most of the boatbuilding industry has left Sweden.
SP: Through your wonderful yachting career what are you most proud of?
PP: That will be the P1800 car and the Maxi 77.
As we finished the interview Pelle also shared that he has indeed designed a passenger ferry, which has yet to be built, and his daughter designs a clothing brand (Pelle P) which happens to carry his name, which is something he is “lite mallig för”.
Photos © Pelle Petterson