London Boat Show: Big Blue has something for everyone

Stuart Alexander opens this two page special report on boating at the 1999 London International Boat Show

THERE IS nothing like a dose of sunshine to brighten an otherwise bleak British Winter. This year's London International Boat Show is hoping to do just that. The show's theme of Big Blue (ocean), is all part of a scheme to raise the temperature of the estimated 200,000 visitors, organisers hope to attract to London's Earl's Court. The marine industry wants to entice new people into the game, showing off everything from gleaming power boats selling at close to pounds 2 million, right down to kits costing only a few hundred pounds.

It is also looking good for consumers. As well as being the biggest one- stop shop for all things boatey, clothes, equipment, electronics, and everything from a dinghy to a luxury cruiser, the show comes hard on the heels of two interest rate cuts, a strong pound making imports cheaper, and new European legislation giving extra protection.

The rather dull title of a Recreational Craft Directive conceals a new definition of stability for all coastal and offshore boats, which should be prominently displayed. The categories run from A to D, A though D is largely applicable to small boats and dinghies, and determine how a boat is likely to perform in the conditions for which it is being sold, A for ocean, B for offshore, C for Coastal.

If you ever wanted to know why two 25-footers can be so different in price, check the stability grading is the one you need, check if the price includes VAT - all the attractive boards should prominently give the full, inclusive price - and you could even make sure that all the parts on the boat have the correct European certification mark. It is that first, apparently irresistible, price which can lure you into a tunnel in which it is difficult to turn round and back out.

What has not yet come, though but is only a matter of time, is any form of Europe-wide licenses, either to use boats, or for the boats themselves. While many European countries do insist of both written and practical examinations, Britain maintains its voluntary system, though there are increasing signs of statutory regulation for jet-ski users. Which means there will be lots of stands offering to teach you all the ins and outs, at home and abroad, complete with certificates at the end, which are accepted by the other European countries.

And the schemes extend to those with disabilities through the growing Sailability programme, once again driven by the RYA.

Having bought your boat and learned a bit about how best to use it, you may also wish to park it. This logical desire used to be a real nightmare and there are still many areas of the country where there are very long waiting lists for low cost, publicly administered moorings. One of the largest operators of marinas, with 5,500 berths nationwide, is MDL. Their marketing director Jeff Houlgrave expects prices to rise by about 6 per cent. in 1999, so an average 30-footer could cost just under pounds 2,000 to keep in Plymouth and about double that on their most expensive marina in the Hamble River, close to the Solent.

But he points out that not only have amenities and service had to improve as customers demand more, they have also had to spend more on their infrastructure to meet the increasingly tight environmental legislation, and this he gives as the main cause for the rise above inflation.

Mr Houlgrave also says there were many years when price rises lagged behind inflation as a whole section of the leisure industry coped with declining consumer confidence and the aftermath of stagflation. Perhaps holding down prices accounts for his reported 10 per cent increase in occupancy for each of the last four years. Now he would be prepared to tell the Chancellor, Gordon Brown he is optimistic that, at worst, while growth may slow, there will be no real downturn, and that by 2001 the pressure will be upwards again.

Which may be why one of the most popular sectors of new sailing boat sales is in the 40-foot range, and that means starting at about pounds 100,000. And why the power boat market continues to flourish, taking about 75 per cent. of new boat sales in 1998.

That has persuaded Peter Poland, boss of one of the most enduring of British manufacturers, Hunter Boats, to produce its first motor yacht. Called the Landau and designed by his long-time collaborator David Thomas, it is 20 feet long, costs just under pounds 20,000 all up, and has just won a design award. Not just for its use of space, but for environmentally friendly inputs such as minimal wake, a four-stroke outboard for coastal use, and an electric engine option for inland waterways and lakes.

As part if his assessment that interest rates are going to be driven down, Hunter has also arranged a 9.3 per cent. finance package, and it will be interesting to see what the finance houses are doing generally at the Boat Show. There are reported to many good deals on offer. Where there is dispute is over the effect of the high value of the pound. Some UK manufacturers can point to considerable consumer benefit at their expense as importers take a short term advantage that has lasted three years and considerably boosted their incomes. Others with a strong export heritage, like the big powerboat manufacturers - Fairline, Princess and Sunseeker - seem to be holding on to their European sales.

The show at Earl's Court will also highlight clothes that havemade British manufacturers among the best in the world. The names of Henri Lloyd, Musto and Douglas Gill are to be found all over Europe and the United States as sports. If you can be persuaded to look the part, perhaps you can then be persuaded to act it, to try it, to enjoy it.

45th London International Boat Show

Dates: 8 - 17 January

Location: Earl's Court, London

Times: 10am - 7pm (except Thursday 14 January, open until 9.30pm, and Sunday 17 January, closing at 6pm)

Prices: Adults pounds 10.50; Accompanied children Free (two per paying adult); Unaccompanied/additional children pounds 7.50; Senior citizens pounds 7.50; Group bookings (10 or more) pounds 7.50; Evenings only (after 5pm) pounds 6.50;

Ticket hotline: 0121-767 4600

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