Sophia Wilson pays a return visit to a self-made American businessman known as much for his dealerships and hospitality outlets as he is for his affinity for yacht ownership. He tells her about his latest acquisition, the PJ DB9, and why he may already be on the lookout for his next refit challenge...
I’m not like your typical owner,” John Rosatti says. “I enjoy making a deal, buying a yacht, making it better and then selling it. That’s my fun.” Now in his seventies, the American businessman estimates he has owned more than 25 yachts, and when I meet him on board his current boat, 52.36 metre DB9, it quickly becomes apparent he isn’t done yet.
Docked right in the middle of the Monaco Yacht Show, the sporty Palmer Johnson is attracting plenty of interest. “She’s like a movie star,” Rosatti quips. He is now selling DB9 and already has his eye out for his next big project. “I have had a look at a couple, but I would rather have this yacht under contract first, rather than end up with two boats,”he says with a smile. “I have done that before and I have learned it’s much better to sell first.”
As he’s told us before, his love of boats started from an early age as his grandfather used to take him out on his fishing boat. “He would be out in the back of the boat with friends, and I would steer it,” he recalls. His grandfather’s guests included New York Yankees star players Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. “He [his grandfather] was on boats all his life,” Rosatti says, “and I started with them as soon as I could afford to.”
His first boat was a 10m Cigarette, which he raced on the circuit before moving onto a 16.7 metre Ocean Yachts sportfisher and then an 18.2 metre Hatteras. He then went on to build the 35 metre Denison Thunderball, which still holds the record for the fastest American-built twin-engine motor yacht over 100 feet in the 20th century. “We learned a lot from that boat; it did 50 knots and was a lot of fun,” he remembers. “At the time, in 1988, she was the 89th biggest yacht in the world. It shows how much things have changed since then.”
For the past decade or so, Rosatti’s yachting portfolio has focused more on comfort over speed. He built 49.37 metre Christensen Remember When in 2010 and, when we last checked in with him in 2016, had just refitted 65.2 metre Codecasa Double Down. However, power proved an enticing quality when it came to the Palmer Johnson DB9. “I have had a lot of much larger but slower boats in the past, but she is a whole different yacht,” says Rosatti of DB9, which has a maximum speed of 32.5 knots. “I had a dilemma with downsizing, but when I saw her, she was so beautiful and sexy, and size was no longer an issue.”
The first hull from Palmer Johnson’s PJ 170 SportYacht range, DB9 was launched in 2010 but was barely used by her owner. Rosatti’s wife, Zuzana, whom he married in St Barths in 2020, spotted the boat in the magazine. Their broker, YPI’s Peter Thompson, knew the yacht’s previous captain and arranged for them to see her in Istanbul. “The boat was really not used at all by the previous owners. I think she had less than 200 hours on her and that is part of what attracted me to it,” Rosatti explains.
After purchasing her in 2019, Rosatti undertook a six-month refit at Dunya Yachts, which included rebuilding all the pumps and engines and a full system upgrade, despite her limited use. “Sometimes not using a boat is as bad as using it too much,” he says.
While Rosatti oversaw the technical side of the rebuild, Zuzana transformed the interior, working closely with Turkish interiors group Ulutaş. “It’s a wow interior, with light wood decor found throughout. She is very impressive,” he says. “We added a bar because she didn’t have one before, and the salon now feels like you are on a 65 metre [213 footer]. She feels brand new, not like an 11-year-old boat.”
Zuzana’s input enhanced the refit experience. “I enjoy the refit, especially now that Zuzana does the interior and the decorating. For me, that was always something I couldn’t do, I like the engines,” he says. There is also a clear delineation in the partnership. “She has an opinion, and I don’t get a say,” he laughs. “Take the red stripe on DB9. She suggested it and I said, ‘Really? A red stripe on a champagne hull?’ but as soon as you see it you realize it looks great.”
Rosatti’s love of “fixing up” famously started with cars rather than boats. “My father was a mechanic for the [New York] Transit Authority, and he was a lover of cars. He would always be fixing them,” he says. “I bought one of my own when I was 16, fixed it up and sold it to my friends.” Rosatti carried on working on cars at night while working in construction and haulage before he decided to make it his career. In 1968 he opened a body shop; less than seven years after that he opened the doors to Brooklyn’s Plaza Auto Mall.
Rosatti still owns six dealerships, but with his son now predominantly looking after the automotive business, he can enjoy cars purely for pleasure. His collection currently stands at more than 100, most of them retro-mod American hot rods from the 1940s to the 1980s. With this sector of the market currently booming, Rosatti is now looking to slim down his fleet. “I think it is getting a little old for me, but I will keep maybe five to ten cars,” he says. “I bought a Bugatti a couple of years ago and now I have had three of them, including the 300mph one. I’m a speed nut and I love to go fast. No other car compares to it.”
Rosatti’s other business interests are centered around the hospitality industry, where again he has sought to fix problems. “When I moved to Florida in 1992 you had to wait in line to get into all the restaurants. I didn’t like having to wait and tip the maître d’ so I decided to open my own,” he says. He launched his first branch of fine dining Italian restaurant Vic & Angelo’s a couple of years later and went on to open another two, as well as a gastropub called The Office. The latter inspired his next business venture, BurgerFi, a fast-food franchise aimed at serving “better burgers.”
I wanted to create something healthy and tasty but for around the $6 mark,” he says. The first BurgerFi restaurant opened in Fort Lauderdale, on the site of what had been a Burger King. “It went like a house on fire,” he says. “The Burger King did $800,000 a year in gross sales; in our first year we did $2.4 million.” Now with more than 120 BurgerFi outlets, Rosatti has taken the company public, while remaining a major shareholder and advisor.
He admits the line between his hobbies and business is a bit blurred. “I’m dedicated to boats, cars and restaurants. Nothing else gets my attention – I’m not interested in golf or other things.”
Ultimately, Rosatti is hoping to be able to spend more time on board his next yacht. “I want to do some long-range stuff now,” he says. “There are so many places that I haven’t been to by boat. I haven’t been to Alaska, I haven’t been to Dubai, I haven’t been to Hawaii. I am more or less semi-retired now, so I can do longer trips.”
With blue water cruising in mind, Rosatti is now on the hunt for a 60 to 65 metre vessel that is less than ten years old. He is determined to stick with refit rather than taking on another new build. “I don’t think I’m at an age now where you want to spend three or four years building a yacht and getting the brain damage from that,” he says with a smile. “I have built maybe ten new builds and it is a job. Even after you are done with the building side of it, it still takes maybe six months to a year to get it to perfection.”
However, Rosatti is realistic about what he will be leaving behind with DB9. “It’s unbelievable the attention you get anywhere you go with her,” he says. “My problem is I always miss the one I had before, but being in the car and boating business, you sell and you buy.”
First published in the February 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW