Stuart Alexander: Forget the old boating stereotypes. This is yachting for all

Saturday 10 January 2004 01:00

Calling all yachties. Do not programme your hand-held or in-car satellite navigation system to take you to London W14 this week. Instead of having to organise your annual pilgrimage to the Earl's Court Road and its west London exhibition centre, you have had to find from Thursday onwards the London Boat Show at its new home in Docklands at the ExCel Centre.

Forget the days when Giles cartoons of his dysfunctional family eyeing up large cruising yachts appeared in the Daily Express, or the tramp of dock shoes and yellow wellies - 150,000 pairs a year and this is the 50th boat show - signalled the annual salty invasion.

Gone, too, are thoughts of buying the gleaming craft on display for about £1,000 a foot then finding a bit of muddy creek to park it. The world still moves on more quickly than the marine industry, but, even so, it is a quite different animal than the two men, a dog, and a band-saw operation which frustrated for so many years those who wanted to turn it into something a mass production operation. It may not even be the best idea to buy at all.

But, if that is where the heart is set, and in keeping with a society gripped by January sales frenzy, there is also a chance to exercise some consumer power.

However reluctant the blazer brigade there to charm the wallets out of your pockets may be to admit it, there has long been the opportunity to haggle over the price of what, for most people, would be the second most expensive thing they ever buy in their lives.

Interest rates may look low, but a combination of a stock market that still has to recover to former levels and the competing attractions of that other candidate, second homes abroad, are still taking their toll.

Plus a continuing shift in the way society runs. The "family" cruiser is no longer something all the family has to suffer. Today's families run on much more selfish, individual lines, particularly in a sector that was already losing out to sales of power boats which were guaranteed to have you home by Sunday evening. There is a continuing worry on the foreheads of those making and selling mid-length, mid-priced sailing boats.

At the top end, the monster yachts continue to roll off the drawing boards and slipways of British designers and builders. And the dinghy market is strong, though the sales of windsurfers seem to have hit something of a volume buffer. The bread-and-butter middle market is strongly dominated by power boats these days.

So, why buy? A hefty proportion of a show that has increased by nearly a third, plus a Royal Navy guardship and three sail-training vessels, is about short-term boat use. Flotilla holidays are complemented by their canal and inland equivalents. As one of those things that flies, floats or philanders, why not just rent one?

Unfortunately, while there are plenty of opportunities to wrestle with high winds and wildly flapping sails on charter boats, the motor-boat fleet has been slower to develop. But the Royal Yachting Association will help you learn, and you can take advantage of those no-frills cheap air fares.

Many people have also taken up the call of being European by moving boats south to marinas which are often considerably less expensive. Camper & Nicholson has sold its home marina in Gosport, near Portsmouth, and developing its Grand Harbour facility with the magnificent, golden-stone backdrop of Valetta in a Malta, which joins the EU on 1 May.

Now there is something that might tempt the family, and it's about one third of the UK price.

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