The owner of 63-metre Artisan tells Risa Merl how he moved from canoes to superyachts – and created a fine tequila marque along the way
Before owning his 63-metre Benetti Artisan, Todd Chaffee’s previous vessels were canoes, duck hunting boats and kayaks. The jump in size from canoe to superyacht is not the typical progression in yacht ownership, but it’s a fitting metaphor for Chaffee’s astonishing career trajectory.
He swiftly ascended the corporate ladder as the youngest-ever EVP of Visa International before moving on to become one of the world’s top venture capitalists (he is ranked at number six on Forbes’ Midas List of founder VCs, and regularly features in The New York Times’ annual list of Top 100 Venture Capitalists). Now, between focusing on charitable work and the launch of a multi-award-winning tequila brand, Cierto Tequila, Chaffee spends time on board Artisan with his wife, family and friends.
Currently residing in California (with homes in Lake Tahoe, Aspen and Cabo, Mexico), Chaffee hails from the upper midwestern state of Minnesota, the oldest of four boys in an athletic family. “We all played [American] football, hockey and baseball so essentially our family was a built-in sports team,” Chaffee says. Minnesota might not have an ocean nearby, but it borders Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, and is known as the “land of 10,000 lakes” – there are actually 11,842 dotted around the state. It was on these lakes that Chaffee was first exposed to boats and life on the water.
His earliest boating memory is of canoeing through the Boundary Waters, a chain of lakes in northeast Minnesota leading up to the Canadian border. Chaffee’s parents were outdoorsy and would take the family up to these pristine waterways every summer. “It’s an untouched series of lakes. You take your canoe up there, fill it with supplies, and disappear for a few weeks,” Chaffee says. “That’s where I started my kinship with being on the water, when I was only three or four years old.”
The first boats Chaffee owned in Minnesota were canoes and camouflage-painted duck hunting boats. “When I moved to California, I started kayaking, then I jumped all the way to superyachts!” he says with a laugh. He’s also been a long-time reader of BOAT International magazine, he tells me. “I’ve been into your magazine longer than I’ve had Artisan,” he says. “When I get the little brown package [with the magazine inside] my eyes light up and I tell my wife, ‘You know what’s in here? Happiness.’”
Chaffee came to superyacht ownership with a solid idea of what he wanted in a boat, forged during a decade of chartering experience. One of his early dates with his now-wife, Kat, was on a charter yacht named Le Rêve in the BVIs to visit Richard Branson on Necker Island. You know, your usual first-date fare. “I became hooked on yachting,” says Chaffee. “It was just the two of us, and we had a fantastic time. Ever since then, we chartered yachts every winter in the Caribbean and every summer in the Mediterranean.”
They tried a range of boats over the years – even a sailing yacht one summer – but usually ended up with Benettis. After many enjoyable years of chartering, Chaffee decided to buy a boat in 2021. He sought out a yacht with good performance that was large enough to host friends and family – he has three older children and an eight-year-old daughter — and it had to be aesthetically pleasing.
“I searched high and low – I swear to God, I saw every boat at the Monaco Yacht Show but I couldn’t find anything that was exciting to me,” he says. “Then a friend said there might be a 63-metre Benetti available that wasn’t on the market yet. I flew over to Palma to see it and said, ‘This is it.’ It took me less than an hour to decide I was going to buy it.” What struck Chaffee about Artisan (formerly Metis) was her blend of an elegant exterior with a spacious interior and powerful performance. “It’s hard to find that combination,” he says. “Often when a yacht is sleek and sexy, they are narrow and confined.”
Designed by Giorgio Cassetta, this Benetti is defined by its vertical bow and long foredeck. “It slices through the water beautifully. We will be moving sometimes and not even feel it – I’ll wake up in a new place and didn’t even notice we were underway.”
Chaffee has built six homes, so he has an eye for design and was particularly impressed by Benetti’s craftsmanship. “As you know in the yachting world, the Northern European brands have a tendency to be known as higher quality and the Italian boats have better style,” he says. “But the Benettis are solid and the artisanship is incredible. And Giorgio did an exceptional job with the exterior design.” Chaffee named the yacht Artisan as a tip of the hat to the team who created her and a gesture of gratitude for their hard work.
He and Kat fine-tuned the existing Bannenberg & Rowell interiors with furnishings and artworks to make it their own, and reimagined some of the ways the spaces on board are used, such as the forward deck. “The front helideck is used as a seating area on Artisan,” he says. It is outfitted with chaise lounges and is a popular place to hang out. Another favourite area for Chaffee is the forward fly deck, set just above the bridge deck, which has an enclosed gym and a forward “love nest” – a lofty area with a round outdoor sofa. “The views are spectacular and it’s a fantastic place to work,” he says. “My family and friends know that if I’m not around, I’m up top.”
Though Chaffee keeps an eye on work while on board, he plays plenty, too. He and his guests are always active, whether exercising, doing yoga or playing with Artisan’s water toys and tenders. He’s recently added a brand new Fjord 44 chase boat to the fleet. Chaffee loves nothing more than a tender ride back to the boat in the evening, when the sun has set and the light of the yachts at anchor twinkle like waterborne stars. “Seeing the yachts in the harbour all lit up at night from the tender is magical,” he says, likening it to stepping out on the playa at Burning Man at night and seeing all the art installations and bicycles aglow in the open desert.
The ethos on board Artisan is enjoying life and spending quality time together, and Chaffee relishes getting to share the experience of yachting with his loved ones. This past winter Kat’s whole family joined them for a week on board, then the next week he brought his whole family. “We had so many guests, I had to rent a second yacht and another chase boat!” says Chaffee. “I didn’t realise I’d get so much satisfaction seeing friends and family laugh and smile and enjoy their time on board. Our guests often tell us that their trip on Artisan was the best week of their life. I thought I was buying a boat for vacation and freedom – I didn’t realise it would also be so rewarding to share my love of yachting with others. That’s the hidden pleasure of this whole experience – it’s a way to bring joy to people. The secret of living is giving.”
It’s a joy that he wants to share with those beyond his inner circle. Artisan was used privately the first two years Chaffee owned her, but she has recently joined the charter fleet. “It’s crazy to have a superyacht of such high calibre sit empty with no one enjoying her,” he says.
And, through his NobleLight Foundation, Chaffee is in the process of planning a charitable program that would bring exceptionally talented underprivileged children on board to spend a week enjoying Artisan as guests. NobleLight supports a long list of nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Much of the foundation’s work is connected to environmental causes, and Chaffee envisions the visits on board Artisan as having an environmental connection as well. “I donate to a lot of environmental organisations; it’s especially important when I have a plane and a superyacht, I have to atone for my carbon footprint,” he says.
Fostering successful teams, it seems, is built into Chaffee’s DNA. He joined the venture capital company IVP as managing director and general partner in March 2000, building it into one of the most successful VC firms in Silicon Valley. IVP invested in big-hitters such as Twitter, Netflix and Coinbase. “We have some of the best and brightest people in the venture industry, and have a great culture of teamwork,” says Chaffee. He also founded the luxury adventure travel company Grand Expeditions.
Whether it’s entrepreneurship, philanthropy, tequila or yachting, Chaffee’s passion and spirit shines through. “I’m not really a person who values material things, but when it comes to yachting, that’s the one place where I’m wowed by the art, design and science behind superyachts,” Chaffee says. “I love the yachting community, too. Everyone is so friendly. I think it’s something about having to take your shoes off. You can’t get too serious when you’re barefoot!” Chaffee might finally own a superyacht, but at the end of the day, this Minnesota kid is as laid-back as they come.
First published in the August 2023 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.
Success in the VC world has allowed Todd Chaffee to step into his next chapter of philanthropy and also launch a luxury tequila. “When I researched the spirits industry, I discovered that most tequilas are full of fake colours, artificial sugars and glycerin,” he says.
This inspired Chaffee to create a 100 per cent natural, additive-free tequila that was smooth and easy to drink. He and his team met with the top distilleries in Mexico, eventually collaborating with Enrique Fonseca and his nephew Sergio Mendoza, two of the most respected master distillers in the industry. “Enrique and Sergio have deep, multi-generational knowledge of the agave plant. This gives them a great advantage when crafting a luxury tequila, and we are honoured to partner with them,” says Chaffee.
Thus, Cierto Tequila was born – cierto meaning “true” in Spanish, referring to the pure nature of the tequila. Initially, the tequila was a private passion of Chaffee’s. Then his team started entering Cierto in spirit competitions. It’s now racked up more than 700 international awards, making it the most awarded tequila in history. Cierto launched in the US in February, and several of the top bars and restaurants in St Barths already stock it for their high-end clientele.