Lunch with... superyacht owner Paola Trifirò

28 January 2015By Mark Chisnell

I’ve agreed to meet Paola Trifirò at her apartment for a coffee before we head out to lunch, and my plan is to meet the photographer outside so we can go in together. I’ve not reckoned on the efficiency of the doorman, however; he quickly pries out of me the reason for loitering on his pavement and phones up to announce my arrival.

Yacht owner Paola Trifirò in her home in Milan, Italy

Once in the lift, I call the photographer to let him know where I am – only for the doors to open directly into the penthouse apartment where Paola Trifirò is kindly waiting to greet me. I hastily put the phone away. This time, my lunch guest definitely saw me coming first.

Paola and her husband, Salvatore, live in a beautiful apartment in a 17th Century building at the centre of Milan. They are both lawyers, in a partnership that bears their name and employs more than 80 people. Today, Salvatore can’t escape from work, but Paola is a most gracious and entertaining host, remarkably so, considering she has very recently had an operation and is still struggling with the bronchitis she caught during her stay in hospital.

The illness has left her short of breath, and after an espresso we lunch in the apartment. I could write an entire story solely about the couple’s stunning home, with its gorgeous modern interior, art collection, library and the skyline views of San Marco’s church, Brera Art Gallery and Academy, Milan city centre and the distant snow-capped Alps – all of which can be viewed from an extraordinary glass cupola. It’s also an interesting place to start the conversation about boats.

‘I wanted to study architecture,’ says Trifirò, ‘and my father said, “You don’t understand anything about mathematics,” which was not true, really. My mother was a Latin and classics teacher, and was always pushing me towards Latin. When I had the occasion many, many years later to put myself to the (mathematics) test, I saw I could have done it, but it was too late.’ Instead she chose law, which is where she met her husband. The urge to design and create had to find another outlet, and sailing boats were the ultimate beneficiaries.

Superyacht owners Paola and Salvatore Trifirò

Salvatore was already a sailor when Paola met him. ‘He was passionate about boats, and I was passionate about him, and so [put] one passion with the other and I was passionate about boats!’ she explains. ‘He had a small boat, a dinghy, and it was on the lake, which is dangerous. So we bought a seven-metre boat from France, called Calife. A very strong boat, not too big. I had one burner (in the galley), but always had something hot – I was always organised for fantastic food.’ Good galleys have been a feature of the Trifiròs’ boats ever since – vital for such a famously passionate cook.

They cruised as far as Capri and Corsica in this boat, while Paola learned both sailing and astro-navigation. They kept it for about three years, until 1973, before feeling it was time to upgrade. They briefly replaced _Calife _with a Swedish-built 8.5-metre yacht, before settling on something a little bigger, at 11.5 metres. The couple kept her in Saint-Tropez, France, and drove the 250 miles there and back every weekend to cruise her along the French coast. The next step up was a 14m Dufour yacht bought in 1978; the pattern of buying something a little bigger every few years had been established.

The Trifiròs were committed cruising sailors and the Dufour significantly extended their range. This time they ventured much further afield, visiting Tunisia and North Africa. A Jongert was next, found with the help of Herbert Dahm. ‘It was called Black Shark; the name was not mine, but it looked like a hotel, like a first class hotel,’ says Trifirò. ‘But there were problems. The beds were positioned in a stupid way, so we [only] kept it a couple of years.’

At this point the Trifiròs had their first real brush with boat building. ‘We were enthusiastic to have an old Italian boat, a masterpiece, and so we started looking,’ recalls Trifirò. They found what they wanted in Val III, originally built by Cantieri di Pisa at their Cantieri Navale Italiano yard in Porta a Mare on the Navicelli channel. The yard only built sailboats for a few short years from 1957, and the 21m ketch was the last it produced, in 1966.

When the Trifiròs bought her they called her Kalea, and embarked on an ambitious renovation. Paola had the opportunity to exercise her design outlook. The exterior was rebuilt as original, but the interior was given a modern look with mahogany finish, red leather, a small library, a proper galley and even a dishwasher.

One of the Trifirò’s first sailing yachts, Kalea

‘It took one and a half years, very, very intense. The quality of artisan in Cantiere Valdettaro was superb,’ she remembers. In Kalea, their cruising reach moved out again to include the Greek Islands, North Africa and Turkey. The Trifiròs kept Kalea for about four years, and were very pleased to see her again recently. ‘And still the boat is superb. We were on board Rrose Selavy with the Commodore, sailing around Porto Cervo last year and we saw Kalea. It was like an apparition – we had a look and I was so happy and so surprised, it was perfect.’

Paola would have liked to keep her for longer, but in 1990 the couple had their heads turned by a Jongert available at a particularly good price, a 26m boat called Happy Taurus II. ‘It [had] a super kitchen; you can’t imagine how beautiful the kitchen was, like a professional one. And with this boat we did a lot of things, it was a splendid boat, very tough. So strong, all steel.’ The motivation was once again to extend their cruising range, and this time they hoped to reach their ultimate goal of sailing around the world.

The Trifiròs cruised north with Happy Taurus II, across the Bay of Biscay to Normandy, before crossing the English Channel to Southampton and heading west along the south coast, before taking in Wales and Ireland. ‘Beautiful country, the south of England, and we didn’t eat any longer ham or chicken, just clotted cream. Everyday. This was a fantastic holiday,’ she says with a laugh. They took Happy Taurus II up the Thames to St Katherine’s Dock, to Norway and Sweden, and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and then up the east coast of the US to New York and New England.

_Anamcara _moored in Portofino Bay

Happy Taurus II kept the Trifiròs happy for a lot longer than any of her predecessors, staying with them for a decade until 2001, when she was replaced by a version five metres bigger, called Anamcara, which means ‘soul friends’ in Gaelic. ‘This boat was absolutely beautiful,’ says Trifirò. Anamcara crossed the Atlantic and the couple went through the Panama Canal for the first time, to visit Baja California. In 2003, they cruised north with her and visited Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia and Alaska.

On returning to their base in Antibes and Porto Cervo in the summer of 2004, they had their first contact with the yacht racing scene, at the Rolex Cup. ‘My husband said, “What boat can we do regattas in?” It [Anamcara] was very, very strong, but too heavy, it was all steel. So we said, let’s see if there is a second-hand, more performance-orientated boat.’ The boat they found was Lang Walker’s first 40m, Kokomo of London, an Ed Dubois design built in 2000.

In 2005, the Trifiròs went to look at _Kokomo _with the agent. ‘The boat was beautiful, and there was nothing I wanted to change,’ says Trifirò. They got her that year, sailed in Sardinia, Turkey and Greece, competed in Rolex Cups, and in Palma, before crossing the Atlantic, cruising the San Blas Islands, Costa Rica and back to the Mediterranean. ‘We were entering this world of racing and competition, and it was exciting. I had never thought about [doing] it, but never say never. And my husband was passionate to have a better performing boat.’

Kokomo _had been a great success, so the pair inevitably gravitated towards Ed Dubois when they – equally inevitably – thought about a new boat. They met at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2008 and _Zefira was proposed, with construction in New Zealand. ‘My husband was concerned because he doesn’t speak English,’ she says, ‘and second because his job has the first call on his life – there are 85 people in the office, and often on Saturdays, [so] it wasn'’t possible for him to follow the work. I said, OK, I can do it.’

_Zefira _was built by Fitzroy Yachts in New Zealand; she’s a 49.7m fast-cruising sloop and the largest Dubois Naval Architects had designed without a flybridge. It started cutting aluminium in early 2009 and Salvatore visited just once, six months later. Paola was there regularly.

Lunch with… superyacht owner Paola Trifirò in her home in Milan, Italy

‘I was in New Zealand every month and a half, a total of seven times, staying three or four days, sometimes one week, sometimes 10 days, knowing the life of the shipyard and treating the 175 workers as friends,’ she says. Although there were language problems: initially she wanted help to translate from New Zealand English into plain English….

The interior design was done by Rémi Tessier, but only just, as Trifirò explains. ‘I wanted Rémi, but Ed (Dubois) thought he would be too busy, and when Ed tried calling Rémi, he told him, “I have three babies, I have a lot of jobs, and I can’t (do this job) because I hate travelling and New Zealand is too far for me. Thank you.”’

Eventually she called Tessier directly, holding the conversation in Tessier’s first language, French. The initial response was the same, but Trifirò had an answer ready. ‘I am sorry for you, because you can’t do with me what I did in Milano in my new apartment. Come and have a look.’ Two days later, Tessier travelled to Milan. ‘He didn’t say bonjour, just entered and said, “OK, we can work together.” And the collaboration has been very positive, Rémi is really great.’

Zefira _was launched in August 2010 and sailed for Fiji where she was met by the Trifiròs and their first guests. She cruised back to the Mediterranean via Panama and the San Blas Islands, and subsequently picked up a slew of awards: Sailing Yacht of the Year 2011 and Best Sailing Yacht 45m+ at the World Superyacht Awards 2011; and Exterior Design and Styling (sailing yachts) at the ShowBoats Design Awards 2011. She was also awarded the Art de Vivre Prize by La Belle Classe at the Boat International Rendezvous in Monaco, awarded to pay tribute to owners and their philosophy and way of life aboard their yacht. _Zefira headed back across the Atlantic in 2012 and recently survived Hurricane Sandy in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Trifirò’s award-winning sailing superyacht, Zefira

The Trifiròs have also raced Zefira at the Caribbean Superyacht Regatta and Rendezvous, Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta and the Dubois Cup. Everywhere, the boat has turned heads and garnered admiring reviews. And having created such a beautiful, fêted boat, it is surprising to learn the Trifiròs are already considering replacing her; but then, change is the pattern of their yacht ownership.

Trifirò explains her philosophy: ‘If you have a splendid house, a beautiful house, you don’t think about changing; but even with a beautiful boat, there are things you could do in a new, different way. This is the dream.’ The world’s economic circumstances may be against it, however. ‘The general situation is difficult, there are problems and risks. We must clarify our ideas. Everybody has ideas, but at the moment the final result is just the splendid dream of a new, mysterious creature.’

As I prepare to leave, I can’t help but think that the evidence Paola Trifirò still has a powerful urge to design and create is all around me. And somehow, I doubt a little thing like the global financial crisis will stop her finding an outlet for that ambition. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not that means another superyacht.

Originally published in Boat International March 2013

Photography by Carlo Borlenghi