British boatmakers are now rivalling the Italians for the last word in luxury yachts. Time to drop anchor and relax, says Stuart Alexander

The thing that marks the men from the boys is not the size of their brains but the size of their toys and when those toys, gleaming and beautifully appointed yachts, come at the thick end of £1m a throw then, for the average man at least, the toy box has become pretty expensive.

The thing that marks the men from the boys is not the size of their brains but the size of their toys and when those toys, gleaming and beautifully appointed yachts, come at the thick end of £1m a throw then, for the average man at least, the toy box has become pretty expensive.

There is a special feel about a substantial yacht just because it offers an irresistible invitation to relax, chill out and sink into the unashamed enjoyment of luxury. Nor does it have to be a poser's palace. And where the super-rich have to leave the running of their £20m to £30m yachts to a professional crew, even a management company, the middle rich can still run their own show, keep things on a family level, and, in effect, live in some style in the equivalent of a Riviera apartment instead of trying to run their own floating hotel.

While all the images are about excitement and maritime adventure, determined passage making is never much fun. Many find the real attraction is the peace of the engines being switched off and bobbing at anchor or in harbour, or of eating and sleeping in some comfort, while cruising to favourite locations.

It is a very attractive proposition. Representing the Italian dream, the Azimut 55 (£739,370), and the British Fairline Squadron 58 (£809,735) are typical of the breed, spacious and beautifully finished with all the pampering backed up by the raw power of twin diesels, between 700 and 800 horsepower each, the most modern navigation systems, and the ability to hop 300 miles in 12 hours, though this speed is cut back considerably in adverse conditions. Both measure about 58ft long by 16ft in the beam, and will cruise at 25 knots. More than 70 per cent of the output by Britain's big four - Fairline, Princess, Sealine and Sunseeker - goes abroad and the traditional targets of France, Spain and Italy have now been joined by Russia and, with increasingly ambitious eyes, China.

The more expensive the yacht the smaller the proportion of the owner's disposable assets it is likely to be and there are now many, many multi-millionaires in the world looking, usually, for some special way of enjoying their personal business success, though they doubtless include a few buying a moveable safe haven for cash.

In many cases there are waiting lists for this class of yacht, which can mean there is little or no depreciation in the first year, and they are much cheaper to run than the big yachts, which, including crew wages, have to budget for running costs of about 10 per cent of their value per year.

Even where waiting lists are relatively short - both the yachts considered here are available for delivery conveniently in time for the next northern hemisphere spring - the depreciation after the first six months should be relatively gentle and may, as long as the yacht is carefully maintained, bottom out after the first couple of years.

So, what can an approach to seven figures buy you? And can a British company based in Oundle, near Peterborough, rival the Italian reputation for style coming out of that rich centre of luxury yacht building that is Viareggio?

Rival, yes, but the Italian feel for style and detail is always obvious. There are many aspects of the Squadron 58 that are better than the Azimut 55. The saloon steering is set to one side, has side-by-side seats - electrically adjustable, of course - a convenient door giving access to the side deck walkway up to the foredeck, and the flying bridge, upper deck, steering and control console has three seats, while the afterdeck sunbathing area has a rectangular section that can be raised to make a dining table. Three extra feet in length translates to making the occasional stern cabin even more inviting for young children or a cavernous storage space for tiresome equipment like fenders and mooring ropes. There is even a laundry room.

The saloon helmsman's arrangement in the Azimut has inescapable tones of something out of the film set of Thunderbirds, with its single, central seat. Nothing like so sociable. And the dining area in the main saloon of the Squadron is more permanent, supported by a bigger galley. On the other hand, the man giving the guided tour of the Squadron then undermined the whole effect by saying "not that they use it very often". It seems that people choose to dine out rather than peel potatoes or cook for themselves.

Where the Azimut scores points is in having a stern owner's cabin, whereas this is up in the bow on the Squadron, which is where the Azimut has its guest cabin. Both cabins have that invitingly soft, comfortable feel that can often inspire a sudden sympathy with the notion of siesta.

The "heads" (bathrooms) have proper showers fed by their own hot water systems, which are supplied from a 1,000-litre tank. But, annoyingly, a fresh water maker is an extra and, doubly annoyingly, even a bow thruster is an £8,600 extra on the Azimut. Considering this is a 55-footer meant to be owner-driven, such a piece of manoeuvering equipment is, to most people, essential and should be standard.

What is not standard is the attention to detail and finish that is the hallmark of the Italians. Both interiors on display went for American cherry, the wood on the Italian yacht being a lighter version than the one on the Squadron, but the Azimut has an indefinable feel of something just that little more lovingly crafted.

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