Johan Hallén, a burly Swede raised on the ancient island of Gotland, is a skilled craftsman, ex-navy captain and sailor who has been building boats since his teens. But his other passion is food. This is evident as he flips through photos of truffles on his iPhone. These coveted “black pearls” hail from Gotland itself, and Hallén regularly couriers them to a client overseas, between exchanging cooking tips and restaurant recommendations over WhatsApp. ‘The relationship with a client starts after they buy the boat,’ he says with a smile.
Hallén has worked at J Craft – a luxurious boat manufacturer also hailing from Sweden’s largest island – since its inception almost a quarter of a century ago. A couple of weeks after my visit, he is due to travel from the Baltic Sea to St Tropez to deliver J Craft’s latest creation, BABEBI, to its owner (the name derives from the client’s children) in person. It’s enough to make you want to quit your desk job and take to the high seas.
J Craft boats are made by hand, meticulously. Each one is bespoke and takes well over a year from start to completion. The 42ft (12.8m) J Craft Torpedo – the signature model, now in its 22nd edition – nods to the retro and unashamedly glamorous aesthetic of the classic wooden runabouts of the ’50s and ’60s, but with unparalleled performance. More impressive still, it’s seaworthy for wave heights of up to four metres. I’m reassured that two metres is precarious enough. Essentially, it’s a Rolls-Royce on water; the perfect symphony of speed, comfort, control and good looks.
It was the beauty of J Craft that first intrigued company owner Radenko Milakovic. With a background in finance and precisely zero experience or knowledge of boats, his head was nevertheless turned by the sight of a J Craft moored in Monaco in 2007.
‘I was looking down from my balcony and I saw this beautiful wooden (or so I thought) boat in the harbour,’ he says. ‘I literally ran downstairs and jumped up and down until I got the owner’s attention. He came over and told me about it and it was just one surprise after another.’ These ‘surprises’ included the fact that the boat was not wooden, but fibreglass with a wooden veneer, and that it wasn’t Italian but Swedish-designed and built. After renting a J Craft for the summer, Milakovic was smitten and wanted to buy one for himself, but with certain adjustments.
These changes, by his own admission, were to compensate for his lack of experience as a mariner, coupled with a desire to make the boat ‘user friendly, easy to handle and equally rewarding for every level of expertise’. When he found that going off-menu, so to speak, was not possible, his solution was to buy the company. This was a serendipitous move that changed the course of J Craft.
The company was founded in 1999 by Swedish businessman Björn Janson (hence the “J”), who had a vision to build a new type of boat in Gotland inspired by the vintage romance of wood-crafted vessels. Hallén, now chief technical officer, has been involved from day one, and J Craft was able to hit the ground running with a high-profile debut commission from King Carl XVI Gustaf. A keen sailor, the Swedish monarch purchased the very first original-series J Craft Cabrio Cruiser, and still uses it to this day.
Sadly, Janson had been battling ill health for many years, and by the time Milakovic came on board in 2008, he knew that J Craft needed to be in safe hands to secure its future. When Milakovic stepped in (Janson passed away in 2011), he redeveloped the boat ‘from scratch’, but maintained ‘two very key factors’.
‘First, it was going to continue to be built in Sweden,’ says Milakovic, ‘in Gotland, with the same team. Secondly, we wanted to maintain Björn’s spirit and the aesthetic of the boat, but make her slightly bigger and even more capable.’
Milakovic describes himself not as the owner of J Craft but as a ‘temporary custodian of Björn’s vision’. But the core elements of the boat have been, he says, ‘supercharged’.
Boat-building is in Gotland’s DNA; its medieval-era capital, Visby, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the island has more Viking artefacts than anywhere else in the world. Hallén and his team, meanwhile, are more than artisans and craftspeople: they are innovators. On a tour of the J Craft workshop in Visby – where BABEBI is in her final stages and the as-yet- unnamed Torpedo number 22 is in its infancy – Hallén takes us through the build process. He nonchalantly explains that if the team needs to perform a specific task via a piece of equipment that doesn’t actually exist, then they’ll make that piece of equipment.
Later, zooming around the island across twinkling blue waters during a sea trial on BABEBI, we are given an introduction to the boat’s deceptively simple Volvo Penta IPS throttle and joystick system. The boat is rapid and responsive to the slightest touch, moving forwards, backwards, clockwise, anti-clockwise and even sideways. A non-mariner myself, I ask Hallén if there is a technical name for the latter movement. ‘No,’ he shrugs. ‘We call it crabbing.’
BABEBI is the speediest of the J Craft Torpedoes, fitted with an IPS 650-RS engine. The joystick-controlled Volvo Penta IPS pod system is responsible for the effortless driving of the boat, with speeds of up to 47 knots. It is easy to whip the boat on its sides while making sharp turns, but you never feel out of control. Inside, it’s fitted with the latest tech and creature comforts, all tailored to the client’s specifications – the Torpedo can even sleep up to four people.
The company makes a considerable effort to minimise waste and keep production as local as possible. The joinery is built in-house and the upholstery is made a ‘few hundred yards’ from the warehouse. Milakovic plans to go fully recyclable in the next few years, and for production itself to go completely green. He has his ear to the ground when it comes to alternative solutions for new propulsion systems, and even synthetic fuels.
J Craft is constantly changing, but at a pace befitting its pedigree: like the graceful swan kicking wildly beneath the surface. The company motto is ‘evolution not revolution’. Still, Milakovic is keen to accelerate that evolution by increasing production, albeit to a maximum of three to four boats per year, and taking his exceptional product to the wider public. This summer, J Craft officially started its activities in the USA, and spent the summer in the Hamptons to showcase the Torpedo to would-be owners across the pond.
‘My mission is to take this very beautiful thing, this handcrafted tradition that’s been honed over so many years on the island, and bring it to the world.’