Pocket yachts fourth and last post …….(maybe)
It it the end for the budget-boat sailor ?
Evolution of a budget boater – in this series of posts iv’e tried to talk about low end budget boats from my own perspective of being someone who has owned and sailed several of them : i haven’t told the whole story of my own boats because that goes back some 40 years to a very rough Folkboat that i have no pictures of today – there’s been another couple of boats along the way and a couple of completely failed projects too. I find that as both age and progress as a sailor that my boats have evolved downwards in size from a couple at 26 feet , that’s the Folkboat and a Frances 26, to a 22 foot Hunter Liberty and now to a project in my backyard which will hopefully come out at 17 feet and small change.
The cost/value of my boats has gone up and down again ; peaking with the relatively expensive (for it’s size) Frances and going down again with the Liberty and the Deben…..now, the actual cost of my boat is going up again as i’m only at hull stage with the Pathfinder and iv’e yet to buy all of the expensive stuff. That’s less of an issue now because unlike all of my previous boats i’m not paying for yard fees or a mooring and that saves me somewhere between £1200 and £1600 each year and that only because i kept my boats in low end yards. The cost in time has greatly increased because i’m an inexperienced and largely incompetent boatbuilder but that matters not a bit because i’m also a retired one, iv’e done a lot of big ocean miles so i have little need to be out there as i once did and the project itself is very engaging……almost a whole different aspect to being a sailor is building something from a pile of timber.
If there is a legacy in any way it’s nothing to do with the cheap and mass produced budget boats that iv’e owned…..they are just so much ‘stuff’, i’d like to think though that the unique boat that i’m building now, most likely my last boat, will one day be owned and enjoyed by someone else.
Anyway, before i get too maudlin and introspective i want to say a few things about this odd world of sailing that has obsessed me for the last 40 years so….
I started sailing not long before the Fastnet race disaster of 1979 and had things been ever so slightly different i might have been in that race – as it happens , the boat that i crewed on for several years was one of a type that came out of the race badly although that’s as much ‘wrong time wrong place’ and lack of experience as anything else. I note that the kind of boats i regularly crewed on peaked at about 35 feet and in our yard they were regarded as ‘big boats’ and only for experienced owners and crew – most boat owners that i knew having come up through dinghy sailing and smaller yachts. At the time and just from my visual memory of the yard and the local moorings most sailing boats were in the 18 to 30 foot range with the most common being the smaller Westerly’s at around 26 feet – our yard seemed to be infested with them and my time working in that yard coincided with a huge increase in the ownership of boats like that.
By all accounts this was maybe the peak of the great boom in leisure sailing and boat ownership where firstly British yards like Westerly, Moody’s Hunter boats, Rival etc were turning out new boats by the dozen…..in the case of the awful Westerly centaur – by the hundred. Then, British production boatbuilding rapidly declined and the attention went to the French yards that seemed to be able to turn out larger and higher volume boats more cheaply and that’s what boat owners seemed to want…..that and easy access to their boats via marinas. Just a few years later and most of the British yards had closed down – Hunter was bought out in 2003 and Westerly seems to have gone in and out of receivership at around the same time. The ‘window’ of series yacht construction at the budget boat end seems to be only about 30 years and aside from a very small number of companies such as Cornish boats, which is just down the road from me, it seems as though the party is mostly over.
My experience and observation of the boom period came via working in a boatyard and later on from working aboard bigger boats in the industry : my first observation was that many of the new boat owners were buying boats for the first time and had mostly never been sailors, the second observation is that many of those new boaters weren’t in the scene for very long, partially as a result of age and natural loss but also because the ‘bloom’ of being a ‘yachtsman’ faded very quickly when it came to the dirty and hard work of a spring refit. The funny part of the new boater experience was the almost class based contempt that the traditional yacht club cronies (twa*s in blazers) had for the newbies…..even funnier when i met the same contempt myself at a ‘Royal’ yacht club after finishing the Whitbread race. Talking about yacht clubs today would waste an entire post as i just couldn’t then and can’t now be arsed with that amount of class driven BS where for example women and dogs (and it seems professional big boat sailors) weren’t allowed in the bar – i’m pleased to report that many of those yacht clubs have since closed their doors.
Anyway, lets not get trapped today.
Most of the budget end boaters like myself have relied on a steady stream of old secondhand boats where their owners have either aged and become ill, in some cases actually died and left a spouse to deal with a boat abandoned in a yard or on a distant mooring – that or simply lost interest as the work mounts up and/or as their finite resource of a pension say stops covering their increasing costs. In France for example i saw abandoned boats in every main river and creek that i passed and in discussion with the Breton sailors that i managed to talk to i discovered that it was their impression that many low end boaters had simply dropped out of boat ownership as their cost of living went up and up . It’s possible, although i’m no expert, that the increasing disparity in wealth in the west accounts for the surge in the building of superyachts, the J class and high end super-maxi race boats ; equally though that the bottom end of that equation is that many at the low end have just become ‘unwealthy’ enough to fall off the bottom rung of boat ownership.
At some time that stream of cheap secondhand boats will slowly dry up as more of them reach the end of their working lives or when they just become more expensive to maintain ; remember that fiberglass and GRP boats do have a finite life as the laminate becomes brittle with long term sun exposure – that’s actually the case right now for many of the cheaply built small boats of the 1970’s and very few people have seriously thought about how to go about disposing of those boats : unlike the car and scrap industry old GRP boats have next to no value once a few bits and pieces have been stripped off and there is then a significant cost in breaking up a GRP hull. On bad days i think that many so-called eco-aware boaters -‘sailing is so green you know‘ are some of the worst culprits for actual pollution – they’ve had their pleasure and now that useless lump of plastic (or wood) is just so much dross in the back row of a cheap boatyard or abandoned in a creek.
Our legacy as boaters i can only describe as a total blind spot of waste – we in the west have become so accustomed to flushing the toilet, putting our rubbish outside in bins and having our old ‘stuff’ like cars and white goods simply hauled off and destroyed or buried in landfill : very few of us ever think about our waste and therefore our consumption because almost none of us has to deal with it ourselves. I wonder if we would feel differently if our streets were littered with bin-bags full of plastic packaging , old fridge-freezers, last years TV and computer and old abandoned cars.
To see what other boaters thought about the problem i posed a question about old and abandoned boats on two of the main sailing and boats based social media pages ; very few boaters even seemed aware of the scale of the problem and many marina based boat owners simply don’t ‘see’ the problem because the small rivers and creeks aren’t their cruising ground. Many boaters thought that somebody should do something about the problem but not them directly….they generally seemed to be show no sense of personal responsibility about their boat ownership and what they might plan to do with an old boat which they own – if anything that, once again, someone should do something but not them themselves.
Iv’e really changed my attitude towards boats, boat ownership and generally about many boaters ; i now don’t see modern boats and boating as being a ‘green’ and eco-friendly thing to do but just another example of consumption and waste……generally and i know of exceptions !. I begin to favor compulsory boat registration just like cars, a tax on new boat construction and sales to derive an income which begin to cover the eventual destruction and disposal of boats….even something like the equivalent of a road fund licence just like cars and with the same staging of higher bands of taxation for larger boats. In the UK i suggest that dumped and abandoned boats should be treated just like that other modern blight – illegal fly-tipping of waste. As to who or what authority should become responsible and be able to effect and enforce the collection and disposal of abandoned craft then in the UK our harbormasters in conjunction with the local councils and perhaps in France the local Mairie. I don’t know enough about rules and regulations, state laws etc in the USA so i really can’t comment on one of the largest examples of the problem.
If this all seems negative and authoritarian it’s because of what i began to see when my sailing changed from offshore and oceanic to exploring the rivers and creeks of the west country where i live and of just across the water in Brittany. I feel genuinely sorry for older boaters who have just run out of energy, life-time and funds to manage something that they have greatly enjoyed, sorry too for the many low end boaters who will inevitably fall of the bottom rungs of boat ownership in the next few years. Everything comes to an end though – trust me on this , i’m a nurse, energy, interest and life all end and the life of ‘stuff’ is also finite. For those boaters who rescue and refit small boats and continue their sailing lives i also say well done and that i hope you have many great days out on the water and then one day maybe strip the old girl down and hand her over for disposal, in so doing leaving good memories of days and nights at sea or at anchor and a ‘clean’ memory of having done the right thing.