On Location: Enmity on the jet-ski Bounty

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The Independent Culture
THE BOAT Show looks innocent enough - apart from stalls with names like "Powerthrusters", who've decided against subtlety in claiming a sexual connotation for their product. Which makes you wonder whether other companies will rename themselves, with titles like "Cock-burners - for the electric bilge pumps that go all night and still beg for more".

Despite the fact that, according to the exhibition's own survey, 80 per cent of visitors are genuine seafarers, most of them seem perfectly normal human beings - though a few wander around, as a team, in their rowing- club jumpers. Why do they do that? Are they pretending that they rowed there, navigating a previously undiscovered river that winds parallel to the King's Road into Earls Court?

The stalls themselves fall into two categories. Upstairs are the accessories, which to ignorant landlubbers like myself are fascinating in their obscurity. One stall boasted that it could sell you the "most modern sleeve grommet". Which means that it was someone's job to redesign the sleeve grommet from the flawed model which preceded it. Were there heated meetings, with one faction committed to a particular design while traditionalists screamed that this made a mockery of everything sleeve grommets stood for?

Downstairs are the boats. Here, at least, I could name what I was looking at. Except when the lights were dimmed, and the Tannoy boomed out Jean- Michel-Jarre-type music, the sort that accompanies American documentaries about blokes canoeing down rapids and yelling "Yeehah!".

Then a circular metal contraption carrying theatre lights and four lengths of curtain material was lowered from the ceiling, and underneath appeared a team of gymnasts, who climbed up the curtains and hung upside down. Very impressive, but what was the connection with boats? Maybe the plan was to attract gymnastic enthusiasts who wouldn't otherwise have gone, in the hope that they'd think: "Ah well, while I'm here I might as well get myself a satellite radar system."

As I said, all perfectly innocent. Which is why it came as such a shock to find that behind the serenity of gently bobbing vessels lies a seething bitter rivalry for dominance of the seas. The sailing-boat fraternity, it seems, can't stand the motorboat side of the industry, and vice versa. In fact, the only issue on which they're united is that the pair of them hate jet-ski people.

Once you know this, the boat show takes on a completely different meaning. You start wondering whether fights will break out, with the factions ordered to occupy opposite ends, separated by mounted police, and alcohol banned within a two-mile radius. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that sailing is a battle against the elements, involving use of the elements. So engines are seen as cheating, like someone turning up to a judo class with a sawn-off shotgun. And jet-skis probably require no traditional nautical skills at all. In fact, charting a course, keeping a log and climbing up a crow's nest in a storm must be almost impossible while you're hammering up the side of Corfu on a jet-ski.

Sailors also have an artistic and literary tradition to draw upon. The African Queen would have lost some of its romance if it had been a jet- ski and if, when Humphrey Bogart proposed to Katherine Hepburn, she hadn't been able to hear him through the noise of a Yamaha 550 Turbo Diesel. And who'd have cheered at the overthrow of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Kawasaki 625 GL Powerthruster?

But also, there must be an element of snobbery. For you could pick up a jet-ski for a few hundred quid, whereas in the sailing world, the same money would barely land you a decent supply of sleeve grommets.

When I mentioned the rivalry to a jet-ski salesman, he went instantly into a rant about sailors, so eloquent that he must have repeated it 100 times. "And I'll tell you something else - what do you think they carry in those sailing boats?"

"Dunno," I said.

"Jet-skis."

What an extraordinary theory. Is there evidence of this? Is there film of sailors getting to the middle of the Pacific, furtively looking around and then unwrapping their jet-skis and whizzing around the sharks?

The irony was that the sail-boat salesmen would probably like nothing more than for all the punters viewing their boats to decide to spend their time at the jet-ski stalls instead. All day standing smiling at punters looks like an exhausting task. To start with, it's obvious that hardly any of them are in a position to spend pounds 200,000 on a boat. But even worse are the ones who think they are.

Which is why it was so enlightening to find that the people the salesmen seemed to have the most contempt for were the ones who really could afford the things. "These are beautifully crafted boats," one said. "But all they want to know is how much leg-room there is in the khazi."

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