Want to drop out? Lose the wheels and hit the water

London's Boat Show awakens wanderlust, but also threatens your bank account, reports Stuart Alexander
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Indy Lifestyle Online

By far the most hostile environment for a boat is water, especially salt water, but, in the spot-lit warmth of an indoor ExCel exhibition centre, problems evaporate, romance springs eternal, and the old words of that triumphally optimistic song float, if that is the right word, through the brain. "Hey fiddle-di-dee, a sailor's life for me/ A big cigar, a fancy car, that's the life for me."

By far the most hostile environment for a boat is water, especially salt water, but, in the spot-lit warmth of an indoor ExCel exhibition centre, problems evaporate, romance springs eternal, and the old words of that triumphally optimistic song float, if that is the right word, through the brain. "Hey fiddle-di-dee, a sailor's life for me/ A big cigar, a fancy car, that's the life for me."

The move east from the London International Boat Show's old Earl's Court home is now well-established. There are now some boats, moored Southampton-style, on the water alongside the public attraction of HMS Sutherland. And while there may be still a "club" of old lags to meet at the Guinness bar, none of them wear yellow wellies any more. Most of them either already have boats, or have resolved never to own one again. There is now a new group of pilgrims, some from not far up the Docklands Light Railway, looking far more serious.

The idea of owning a boat without going afloat is not a very clever idea, unless it is a restoration project or museum piece. Yet it is when they are afloat that boats take the most punishment. The sea, as we all know, tends to have waves, which are made worse when there is a decent-enough breeze to drive along a sailing boat. The result is like driving a car down a road with hundreds of speed bumps. At speed. Anything over 20mph and water can be very hard. Everything in the boat is given a fittings-threatening experience with a bone-shaking bang every few seconds.

Both car and boat owners are used to their possessions arousing envy when sitting still, being admired in a pristine state. But, once in use, a car has a much easier time of it. Especially if the boat is given a regular soaking in dollops of briny. This is why many folk choose the freshwater options. Inland lakes, rivers and canals are a lot more benign and tend to have better hostelries within easy access. But they are not as adventurous: they do not stir the blood of a seafaring people.

Boats can also deplete a bank account much faster than four wheels. They have a bewildering variety of electronic toys and bolt-on gizmos to add to your credit-card account. And even if you cannot afford the whole enchilada, you can certainly look the part. There are clothes to swagger in, clothes to swelter in and clothes to suffer in.

But going afloat doesn't have to be a wallet-shredding experience. If you don't want to buy a boat you can charter one when you want it, at home or abroad. If you don't want to risk being lost at sea alone you can join a flotilla party, and, even if you do decide to buy, everything is on hand here to set up a partnership to find the finance.

For this show, the arena, that part of the Docklands venue which has often hosted boxing matches, has been filled with water. Huge fans have been added to supply wind for day-long displays of canoeing, sailing and windsurfing. Every morning from 10 to 12.30, under the watchful eye of four sailing schools, visitors can have a go at no extra cost, and there are many other attractions and products designed to seduce the enthusiastic.

There are also one or two bits of kit to drool over; not least the Riva Aquariva. This quintessentially Italian job is exactly what the well-dressed playboy uses in Monte Carlo. At 33ft long it will set you back more than £10,000 a foot - the price is £343,570 - and for that you will have a total of 740hp to push you long at up to 45mph. There is a fairly cramped "siestatorium" up front to sleep off lunch, but there is only take-it-in-turns privacy if you want to use the loo. It may not be cheap, but it is comme il faut. There was, on opening day, only the show-boat available for sale. When it is gone the next buyer will have to wait a year.

Just a few yards away you can also buy a shocking pink two-handed version of a dinghy called the Laser Pico. This comes at just £2,255, with a show-long offer of a launching trolley and a protective cover thrown in.

For those who do want to get away from it all, what inland waterways lack in rugged challenge they more than compensate for with a level of peace and relaxation which would satisfy the most self-indulgent, especially if you take your floating home abroad. But you still have to negotiate locks and, in France at least, the lock-keepers may not always be the most helpful. But there is, nevertheless, a glorious opportunity to drop out from the everyday world and do just as you please.

It is always advisable to try first, but you can buy a fully-fitted, nearly 60ft, narrow boat for about £55,000. You can then ship it to the continent and go south, down through France, into Spain, or east and at least as far as Hungary.

There are no councils chasing you for tax, the satellite dish picks up all the worst television programmes and gives you computer communications, the fridge keeps the drinks cold and the heater makes the water warm for a shower. You can stay for a night or a week where you choose, and the only difficulty is picking up snail-mail. Come to think of it, that also sounds like a bonus.

The Schroders London International Boat Show continues at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London's Docklands until Sunday 16 January, 10am to 7pm (Thursday until 9pm). Adults £14, under-16s £7, under-fives free. After 4pm adults £6, children £4.

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