In a new book that chronicles the illustrious career of his father, Dickie Bannenberg looks back over the yachts, relationships and milestones that made Jon Bannenberg one of the most celebrated yacht designers of our time. One key figure in the designer’s early years was businessman and philanthropist Gerald Ronson CBE. Ronson talks to Dickie about his relationship with Jon, charting the progress of their long association.

“I met Jon through Harvey Soning, the property agent. He’d designed for Harvey in Oxford Street, the Arcade, in the late 1960s or very early 70s. Harvey said, ‘You should meet Jon, you’ll like him, you’ll get on with him.’ And when I met him I did like him and I did get on with him. And then I wanted a boat and at that stage he’d not done very many. He had a great flair and a lot of good chat and we built the boat – Heron III, a 27 or 30 metre – at Chiavari in Italy.”

Dickie Bannenberg (credit: Geoffrey Simpson)

Gerald recounted how, while the boat was moored in Monte Carlo, a stranger walked on board and announced that he wanted to buy it, but Gerald, unconvinced that he could afford it, told him, “Go and see the broker from Navigator, and if you can convince him you’ve got the money then I will talk to you about a deal.” “I sailed off to Saint-Tropez, and guess who’s waiting for me on the jetty? The broker’s waiting there and he said, ‘You know the man who came to see you, he’s a prince, son of an Arab sheik, and he has the money and he will give you what you want for the boat because he loves it.’” The deal done, Gerald was now without a boat, so he told Jon he wanted him to design not one but two boats, “bigger and faster”, one for himself and one for fellow property developer Jack Dellal. As with their first collaboration, both wooden-hulled boats were built at Chiavari, and Gerald named his M/Y Gail I, after his wife.

Gerald now found himself in the boat-building business too, working with Jon and the yard in Chiavari to build four 21 metre Herons: “Good little boats, built on a semi patrol boat, did everything they were supposed to do. I sold one to Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.” For Ronnie Lyon, head of the eponymous international property empire, he and Jon collaborated on the 57 metre Majestic, but when the property crash of 1974 claimed Lyon as a high-profile casualty, Gerald sold it on his behalf to help pay off the banks.

On Gerald’s 40th birthday in 1979 he signed a contract for a 44 metre boat to be built at De Vries in the Netherlands, with a hull designed by Frits de Voogt and Jon designing the superstructure and the interior of what was to become M/Y Gail II: “very nicely decorated, beautiful boat.”

A visual of M/Y Gail I by Jon Bannenberg

He remembered celebrating that milestone birthday in style. “For my 40th birthday, which was in Monte Carlo, I had a great party. Jon and Beau were there. It was at the time of the Grand Prix and I was friendly with Texaco at the time, James Hunt was there, David Niven – those were the days. We had a big party at the sporting club and it went on until 4 in the morning, friends came from all over the world. Jon had had a cake made in the shape of the boat – you know Jon, a great showman.”

Gerald owned M/Y Gail II for a couple of years before selling it to the Sultan of Brunei. Boatless once more, he turned to Jon and “I said, ‘Jon, let’s build a proper boat.’ And that’s how we then designed the 59 metre M/Y Gail III at Amels, which was a great sea boat. It gave us a lot of pleasure, went to a lot of places round the world, skippered by Jeremy Dawson-Hall, who was with me for thirty years. Very good man, very loyal and he ran a good boat for me.”

In 1986 Gerald and Jon worked with another prominent businessman: Robert Maxwell, the controversial media proprietor. “I was building M/Y Gail III, which originally started off as a 52 metre boat but we extended it. It looked better. A good-looking boat in its time. Another boat was being built at the same shipyard, but the client ran out of money, and Amels said to me, ‘We’ve got this boat…’ My friend Bob Maxwell told me he’d like a boat like mine and I said there’s a deal here to be done, and that was Lady Ghislaine, which Jon did. It was 90 per cent finished, but the layout inside was not good, so Jon took over.”

Gerald’s covetable connections proved invaluable to building up Jon’s client list. “In those early days when he didn’t have much money and he wasn’t what he ended up being and as successful as he was, we would talk two or three times a week. He’d come over to me for dinner with Beau and vice versa, I’d go to the house in Carlyle Square. We were good friends.”

Assessing their considerable list of collaborations, Gerald summed up what made their partnership work  : “Jon built more boats with me than with anyone else ; I had the confidence to do these things with him in those days. When you go back to those days, he was way ahead of any of the other designers with what he produced. He was very talented. He was a man who was ahead of his time.”

Extract taken from Jon Bannenberg by Dickie Bannenberg (Julian Calder Publishing), which is available from Bannenberg & Rowell Design.

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