Romano Pičuljan: The Craftsman of Rab

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The story of Romano Pičuljan is the story of passion for wood, boats and sailing – a true yachting island fairy tale

The Pičuljan family name is synonym for Croatian small shipbuilding. The builder from Rab island is the father of an enchanting fleet of motor boats sailing under his name – and much more than that. This name stands for quality, which doesn’t come as surprise once you learn shipbuilding has been this family’s business for 85 years.

After returning from Korčula, where he learned the trade in the local Depolo yard, Roman’s grandfather set out to create his very first ship, a Korčula-style gajeta. Roman’s father built many ships – and allegedly, never the same type twice – and Romano and his brothers continued the family business. Today, the legendary shipbuilding family of Rab is at a crossroads, almost ready to give the steering wheel to the next generation.

After surviving the 2009 economic crisis thanks to tenacity and a pinch of luck, Romano Pičuljan had to temporarily forgo his plans to open a new yard in the vicinity of Rijeka. These days, the situation is much better and the new yard just might sprout up on that very location, where all Pičuljan boats are built. Mr. Pičuljan is an active member of several shipbuilders’ associations in Croatia and abroad, and like a sturdy ship engine powers his shipyard, as well as several sister companies specializing in raw materials used in shipbuilding – and still has the energy to work on several iconic old vessels built by his father and grandfather, cherished proof of a glorious past.

His passion for wooden ships and for the noble material he knows so well he can tell types by their fragrance only, have spurred Mr. Pičuljan to open a ‘hospital’ for wooden ships on his island of Rab. During our visit, we saw a wooden ketch waiting to be retrofitted with a hybrid drive and several small wooden speedboats brought in for a glamorous facelift.

For a moment, we could imagine we were at Lake Sarnico, in the home of the legendary Riva, but then we came back to reality and sat down to talk to Mr. Pičuljan. ‘If I rented out my yard, I could earn a monthly profit and live a nice life, but I can’t quit my passion, I want to keep building boats. I believe we should spend our lives working, work as long as we can. My family have been small entrepreneurs for as long as we can remember. I can’t see myself doing nothing.’

This is photo of a Romano Pičuljan
Romano Pičuljan

You seem to be doing the opposite of nothing: your giant client family can rely on you to do everything.

Our goal is to offer clients a complete package, not just to sell boats. We want to teach them how to sail, help them choose the right kind of boat for their needs, have them come back for maintenance, give them advice on when to retire their boat, have them return it to us for disposal, then sell them their new boat.

We want to help our clients with everything they need related to their boat, offer everything in one place. In the future, we might develop apartments or condos in our marina, but for now we have a one-stop-shop for boat owners. They can bring their boats in for repairs or maintenance, and get everything they need from new curtains to Wi-Fi.

It’s been a while since you’ve launched a new model.

There are new models in development, but that story should be told by our next generation, as they are the ones working on modern version of our top-quality vessels, adapted to a broader spectrum of needs in terms of size and philosophy. We are working toward building larger boats, and we already have plans for a 15-meter boat, that’s our next project. There’s also a smaller vessel, to be launched next spring. That project is my nephew Toni’s brainchild, and for now we aren’t allowed to say too much about it.

Pičuljan Shipyard is ready for new success on the shoulders of new generation, after their new ‘mini’ model, Romano announces the possibility of building the 15 meter yacht

You are a boutique yard.

We’ve always been a boutique yard, ever since my grandfather founded the yard in 1936. Some of his boats built in 1937 are still in the port here on the island – for us, quality, design and performance have always been inseparable, and our product has always been a bit different. Our Rab series models have been the ideal of quality in their class – we mostly built fast semi-planning boats adaptable to all types of conditions and all seasons.

Also, we’ve always built true Adriatic boats – even though some of our models have been sold to Japan – and in the past few years, we have built on that Adriatic philosophy, that style. Another thing that makes us boutique is our approach to our clients – we offer everything from maintenance and repairs, to all kinds of support. The only thing they need to worry about is how to best enjoy their boat.

How many boats have you built in the new era?

I don’t know the exact number, but roughly four hundred.

You are expanding your yard near Rijeka?

There, we have almost 3000 sq.m. of indoor production halls, another 13.000 sq.m. of yard, and altogether 30.000 sq.m. of space. The reason we had to move production to Rijeka was simple: we could not get around zoning on Rab, there was no space for us to grow. Several months ago, when we started building in fiberglass, we received more inquiries than we could build there, so we had to partner up with SAS Vektor until we expand our yard.

Our future neighbor is MennYacht, which is great for us, as we can provide support in repairs and refits, basically in everything they need, but don’t have. MennYacht who are a top dealer, will also offer maintenance, repairs and refits, so that fits in nicely with our plans.

‘For us, quality, design and performance have always been inseparable, and our product has always been a bit different’

As a boutique yard, you are ready to build highly customized boats?

That we are, in almost everything but layout, as layout is determined by the molds we use. Every piece of interior is numbered and every piece can be customized. We’ve always been customization pioneers: back in 2010 we’ve built a Rab 720 with a hybrid Steyr engine, and a 7kW electric engine, perfect for quiet activities like fishing, or as an auxiliary engine. Nowadays we’re working on something new: we’re installing an additional electric engine with its own propeller, made by our partners in Norway, on another 720. I like that combination, as it’s fully independent and gives a bit of extra security.

It’s also ideal for fishing. Our boats are multi-functional, they can be used as work boats, as leisure boats, and can be easily modified for any purpose, as they are sturdy and powered by a sturdy engine. We have recently delivered two Rab 830 Patrol to National park service. They are ideal for such purposes; their size and features make them ideal for fishing inspectors or police.

Your order book is filling up. You’ve mentioned you are sold out for the next year. Are there any plans for another expansion?

We have adapted our production capacity to market expectations. Smaller, but top quality boats are current trend. We are sold out until summer 2022, which is new for us. Our next goal is to launch a larger model, but it’s too soon to talk about that. First we must find a stable production rhythm, and then everything else, as soon as we manage.

Is that the reason you’re adding to your numbers?

We now have a fourth generation of Pičuljan working in the yard; my kids and my brother’s. My older son is in management, my younger son is studying naval engineering, my nephew is in charge of development and repairs and my niece is in accounting and marine insurance. This allows us to offer everything, even damage assessment and repairs. We have had cases where the owner didn’t even need to come to the yard, they only needed to send in their skipper.

For example, we have an Eleven coming over every winter from Dubrovnik whose owner is a special friend of ours. That’s the greatest benefit of running a business like we do, working with people you understand and who understand you: business relations that turn into friendships.

Text & Photos Darko Šupuk

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