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If you saw Katrin Theodoli and were asked to guess what kind of business she runs, it would be easy to say finest jewellery. She is classy and soft-spoken with impeccable manners but she builds and sells high-performance luxury speedboats, whose Magnum marque makes them the Rolls-Royce of the world’s marinas.

Thirty years ago, she moved to Miami from Switzerland when her husband, a boat enthusiast, decided to buy a small boating company. “He saw a Magnum in a boat show and at the time it was a tiny standard boat. He had a vision. He said: ‘In the Mediterranean we need a race boat that has the comforts of a real yacht you could live aboard. You could still sail at speed but you would have a comfortable home inside. You could have a wonderful bedroom, staterooms.’ He asked me one day: ‘Why don’t we buy this little boatyard in Miami? Would you mind going and living in there?’”

Her reply: “Fantastic!”

“No one thought that you could go from Italy to Sardinia in a couple of hours. It was revolutionary,” says Theodoli.

Now, three decades later, she manufactures and sells high-performance 50-100ft luxury speedboats that have a price tag of $3m-$10m, along with smaller 27ft boats that she sells to the military as patrol craft for a mere $200,000.

Miami has a tradition of making fast and durable motor boats that dates back to the days of Prohibition, when rum-runners would speed past the coastguard bringing in contraband booze from the Bahamas. Just as the Hummer has become an ostentatious civilian vehicle on land, affluent customers like the idea of a fast boat with a durable hull that offers smooth sailing. It offers most of the thrills of speed, with few of the dangers.

The list of celebrity owners includes King Juan Carlos of Spain, the rock singer Lenny Kravitz, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and various royal dignitaries from the Gulf.

A 100ft boat provides as much liveable space below deck as a spacious one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, but the main attraction of such a plutocrat’s toy is that you can really play with it.

“A lot of owners enjoy Magnums more than their big yachts, where maybe they have lot of cabin and crew, but they relish the fact that they can drive this machine themselves,” says Theodoli. “We build high-performance yachts that are big and luxurious but, at the same time, they are extremely fast. They will run at a cruising speed of 60-70mph and handle extremely well, seaworthy even in adverse sea conditions.”

Each luxury Magnum is built to order and individually customised with cabins prepared by famous interior designers. “It’s a lot fun to build one because money is absolutely no object – the difference between people who can afford the best and everyone else is becoming much bigger. The number of people who want exclusive, something special, is growing.”

Each Magnum is built to order and an 80-100ft craft can take up to two years to build. If you are in a rush, however, a smaller boat can be launched in six to 12 months from ordering.

“The more we customise, the fewer boats we build. Revenues are increasing, but the quantities are decreasing. Thirty years ago we built production boats and now they are extremely customised and much more expensive.

“We have a niche market of clients from all over the world. But one denominator for our clients is that they know the sea; they go out to sea. They want the most seaworthy and safe boat in the world,” says Theodoli who takes pride in having a close relationship with her clients. She personally gives a tour of the shipyard to a prospective client, all the while explaining what materials she uses to build the hull and what engines are used to race a 60-70ft boat at the speed of 60mph.

An 80ft Magnum weighs 120,000lb, or 60 tonnes. But, remarkably, you do not need a captain’s licence to operate such a craft in the US. Giovanni Theodoli, heir to the Magnum Marine business, says he would like to see tougher rules. “In the US you can go out, buy a 100ft yacht and crash it into a wall. Many people have killed themselves, not in Magnums but in ‘cigarette boats’. [Don Aronow, the previous owner of Magnum Marine named his 32ft racing boat ‘Cigarette’ after a Prohibition-era rum smuggling boat. Now, go-fast boats of that type are commonly called ‘cigarette boats’.] In Europe there are regulations.”

To order a Magnum a client has to pay a 30 per cent deposit. After the engines are installed the client pays a further 40 per cent and the balance upon completion. The engines, which primarily run on diesel, are manufactured either by MTU/Detroit or Caterpillar.

Can these toys possibly make any sense as an investment? Cars, after all, are notorious for losing their value almost from the moment they are bought. Perhaps surprisingly, given how much the boats are customised, there appears to be a healthy secondary market, particularly in Europe.

“There is quite a demand for secondhand Magnums,” says Giovanni Sancristoforo Cattaneo, president of the Italian-based Santa Marina Yachts. He sells two or three new Magnums every year, along with about 20 used models. Magnum boats have lower depreciation than the competition because the manufacturer has always been following a family style that hasn’t changed in 20 years.”

But he is sceptical about buying a Magnum as an investment. “A boat for personal use is not an investment. However, owners of bigger boats can make them available for charter after using them for their own needs. In those cases, there are ways of making a little investment out of it.”

Magnum Marine is one of the few successful luxury exporters from the US. With clients all over the world, crafts built at the Miami shipyards are sold in the Mediterranean, Russia, Asia and the Middle East.

Most fans of Magnum boats are in Europe, while they sell quite a number of boats in the US and Asia. As Katrin Theodoli puts it: “Most of our clients seem to come from Italy and Greece, I think because the Mediterranean is such a wonderful playground to use the Magnums in.”

Philip Levine, an entrepreneur who owns a 57ft Magnum called Cruise Control, heard about the boat from a friend who knows the Magnum-owning Spanish King.

“I had walked into the factory anticipating to order a Magnum and Katrin Theodoli said: ‘I can build you a boat and it will take 6-12 months. However we have one client who has this boat right here. They love it, but they decided they wanted a 70’. So, I was able to buy right from them. It was a very unique situation.”

Mr Levine, who made his fortune from the cruise business keeps his boat behind his house in Miami Beach. “I can get to the Bahamas on my boat in 45 minutes, and drink coffee up on the deck, that’s how quiet it is. It is powerful and fast,” he says.

A long-time sea enthusiast, he commends the durability of the Magnum. “What’s amazing about it, the main cost is fuel, it’s a diesel engine but, from the maintenance point of view, it’s truthfully built like a battleship. Every part of the boat is reinforced to the highest standards. You don’t have the same maintenance issues because you are paying upfront. There is one word to describe sailing in bad seas when you are in a Magnum, ‘comforting’.”

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