Ambassadors of the seas

Success at home and around the world

David Glenn, winner of the Desmond Wettern Media Award in 2013 and former editor of Yachting World, examines Britain’s diverse leisure marine industry

Sir Ben Ainslie’s recently announced challenge for the America’s Cup and the government’s unprecedented £7.5 million funding package for his team base in Portsmouth comes on top of encouraging news about the UK’s leisure marine market, which exported goods and services worth £1 billion last year. The confidence being shown in an America’s Cup bid could be seen as a reflection of the wider marine industry’s stability and is a call for the whole country to get behind Ainslie’s effort.

As the industry continues to accelerate out of recession with overall sales of around £2.9 billion in 2012/13 – a 1.7 per cent rise compared to the previous year, according to the British Marine Federation (BMF) – the sector has proved its maturity by managing its way through the worst financial downturn in history. Thirty years ago such a recession would have decimated what was then regarded as a ‘cottage’ industry, but now it is highly professional and robust enough to punch above its weight around the world. The number of failures since 2008 has been remarkably small, considering the adage ‘nobody needs a yacht.’

Staying afloat

It is perhaps the breadth and depth of the UK’s leisure marine industry, based on a long history of boat building and yachting expertise, which has helped keep it in reasonable shape and maintain its reputation around the world. From outstanding performances in successive Olympic Games, thanks to the Royal Yachting Association’s exceptional training regime, which benefi from signifi nt National Lottery funding and is the envy of the world, to the international sales success of companies like the Dorset-based motor yacht builders Sunseeker, the sector has been re-energised and is far removed from the trading landscape of thirty years ago, when it was hobbled by high labour costs and an inexperienced approach to export.

In fact Sunseeker has so impressed the Chinese with its build quality and design that it is now in Chinese ownership. The Chinese and Asian markets continue to be significant export growth areas for Sunseeker and equally successful motor boat brands such as Fairline and Princess, but as yet the Chinese cannot match the British standards of technical innovation, design and build quality to produce yachts Made In China.

An evolving industry

On the sailing yacht front an interesting evolution has taken place over three decades. The UK used to pride itself on mass production, with iconic brands like Westerly, Moody and Sadler leading the way in encouraging more people to get afloat.

But the economic difficulties of the late twentieth century saw the mass production of sailing yachts move to the Continent – and in particular to France, where government-backed schemes supported companies based in unemployment- stricken swathes of the country where the mechanisation of agriculture had left thousands out of work.

Back in Britain we had a highly skilled boat-building workforce, whose roots could be traced back to the shipwright skills of the early 1900s, with little to do until a growing demand for high-quality, high-value yachts began to emerge. This was due in part to growing ‘boom-time’ personal wealth apparent in the UK and other European nations, and to the ambitions of individuals who wanted to literally broaden their horizons and immerse themselves in the appealing pastime of long-distance or ‘blue-water’ ocean cruising.

As a result, demand for the bespoke, go-anywhere, high-value production sailing yacht increased, and companies like Oyster, Discovery, Rustler and wooden yacht specialists Spirit Yachts were able to re-kindle invaluable skills inherent in Britain. These UK companies are now world leaders in this sphere, displaying high standards of build and design and also an appreciation of precisely what the blue-water customer wants. Companies have learned to listen to sailors’ needs and invest appropriately. Moreover, British companies began to understand the need for after-sales service, crucial for those taking their yachts long distance. Customers did not mind paying a premium if they knew they had a quality product and that help was at hand when required. It is a formula which has helped establish these companies as leading blue-water brands, attracting customers from around the world.

Much of the popularity of the long-distance cruising phenomenon can be put down to another British ‘invention’, the ocean-going rally, the first and most successful of which is the ARC, short for Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. This British-owned transatlantic event sets off every year from the Canary Islands and heads for St Lucia, almost 3000 miles away. Now in its thirty-eighth year, it attracts well over 200 entries and 1200 international amateur sailors, and many of the yachts taking part are designed and built in the UK. Perhaps surprisingly, demand for the event strengthened rather than weakened during the global economic downturn, proving two things – increasing numbers want to escape the rat-race, and those that do can afford to do so in high-quality sailing yachts. The Cowes-based World Cruising Club, which owns the ARC and several other events, is another example of how UK-driven innovation and organisation can attract customers from around the world.

Niche markets

There are many less well-publicised, behind-the-scenes UK companies which lead the world in niche sectors of the leisure marine market – companies like Lewmar, whose winches, hatches and other fittings can be found on the decks of most yachts in existence, and Halyard Marine, who are market leaders in the less glamorous but absolutely essential world of exhaust systems for yachts, which in recent years have played crucial roles in improved efficiency and emissions control.

UK-based clothing manufacturers like Musto, Henri Lloyd and Gill have revolutionised foul-weather clothing, cleverly combining technical design with comfort and aesthetics so that yachtsmen and women can actually enjoy being out in inclement weather. In a way this has helped to extend the sailing season.

Superyachts: world-class design and innovation

More recently the global growth of super- yachting has played a significant role in the overall performance of the UK’s leisure marine market. The UK is Interior Design Central for superyachting, arguably one of the most understated sectors in the industry. London remains the hub for yacht interior design, with many smaller companies spinning off from stalwarts like Bannenberg and Winch – all of whom benefit from London’s vibrant design and innovation environment.

Some of the world’s leading naval architects, including Ed Dubois, Bill Dixon, Malcolm McKeon and Rob Humphreys, have enjoyed great success and have been highly influential in superyacht design, having started with smaller yachts. Dubois is a founding member of the SYRA (Super Yacht Racing Association), which has worked hard to improve safety on the superyacht race courses of the world and has identified areas which need more attention to improve safety.

Sadly the UK has not been able to replicate the new-build scenario evident a century ago, but a number of yards – most notably Pendennis Shipyard in Falmouth and SYS in Southampton – have identified the growing need for refit as the expanding global superyacht fleet needs constant upgrading and regular surveying to remain in class.

Pendennis is now a leading light in the global superyacht firmament, and apart from a very impressive, constantly upgraded world-class facility in Falmouth Docks – where

they refit some of the world’s best-known superyachts – they run an award-winning apprenticeship scheme, thereby ensuring a steady stream of highly skilled young professionals being fed into the business, locally and beyond. Pendennis has also been impressive in its marketing initiatives, hiring the Red Arrows for a dramatic annual display at the Monaco Yacht Show to draw attention to Superyacht UK and running its own highly successful superyacht regatta in Falmouth, the only regular event of its kind in the country.

A return to confidence

When the respected business-to-business journal International Boat Industry interviewed Howard Pridding, CEO of the BMF, recently he said that there was a return to confidence for the entire industry, including the small commercial sector which was benefiting from the government’s offshore renewable energy initiatives.

With almost 10,000 boats over 2.5 metres in length built in the UK in 2012/13, full- time employment at almost 31,000 and only marginally down year on year, and 4200 marine businesses in existence, the prospects for these figures improving look good.

All the industry needs now is for Sir Ben to win The Auld Mug in 2017 and the industry will be set for another major leap forward.

David Glenn worked for over forty years as a marine journalist, retiring from the post of editor of Yachting World in April 2014.