Britain on the water: a view from the Solent

The marine leisure sector is vital both to our present economy and to our seafaring future

The beautiful Metre boat Mariquita, designed in Scotland in 1923

Maritime Media Awards 2008 Brochure
Photographer and journalist Kathy Mansfield reports

During the Metre Centenary Regatta in the summer of 2007 – celebrating the international racing rule that has spawned some of the world’s most beautiful and successful sailing yachts these past 100 years – the weather was unremittingly awful. It was the memorable July week when the Thames burst its banks. But mariners take weather in their stride, and I was struck by how many sailors from other countries mentioned their pleasure at just visiting the Solent, which they considered the cradle and inspiration of their sport. Cruising was a predominantly British occupation in the beginning. The Metre Rule which we were celebrating inspired boat classes that were adopted for decades by the Olympics and the America’s Cup, as well as yachts for kings and captains of industry, and boats for sailing enthusiasts of more modest means.

Britannia ruled the waves with her naval power and expertise, but also used the shores of her islands to launch a veritable armada of cruising and racing boats and sailors – and the knowledge that underpins the international maritime leisure industry. And the future looks bright, after the British domination of Olympic sailing in China and with the exciting prospect of competing next on home waters. The Weymouth venue is the first Olympic site to be completed for 2012, and that can only help our gold medallists Ben Ainslie, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb, Pippa Wilson, Paul Goodison, Iain Percy, Andrew Simpson and their like to build on Britain’s 2008 successes. Britain excels equally at rowing, and talented young rowers, as well as sailors, are being brought up through the ranks. Not that we can be complacent. Winning takes talented people, money, time and good professional organisation. So does developing our marine leisure sector.

Sporting success and the development of marine leisure industries are both helped by the awareness and enthusiasm of the boating fraternity and the general public – and this is where the media are so important. The British Marine Federation (BMF) tells us that in 2007 almost a third of the UK population took part in watersports and leisure activities around our coasts or on our inland waterways. Nearly 8 per cent of the population participated in a boating activity, and approximately 700,000 households owned a boat, using them in almost equal measures on the sea and on inland waters. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) has 2,000 accredited centres around the country, with a good starter programme and an excellent training structure for sail and motor boats, and there are innumerable clubs and organisations that each of us could support by becoming members. Marinas bring in about £700 million to the economy, tourism-related activity an additional £2 billion, while the leisure and small commercial maritime sector is worth almost £3 billion in total, employing over 35,000 people. This is an enormous sum, but it could be even bigger.

Canal boating is an expanding area, while canoeing is the most popular of all boating activities, bringing people along in a cost-effective way. More people are going abroad for their boating holidays, as well. Companies such as Sunsail are doing good business, and British ensigns are very numerous indeed on the superyachts and classics in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

Energy and innovation

Some 5,500 boats were built in the UK in 2006. Besides the craft that are built using modern materials, don’t forget the small but eclectic Wooden Boatbuilders’ Trade Association, whose members use traditional boatbuilding skills and are also employed in fitting out GRP hulls, using plywood and epoxy to custom-build easily maintained and innovative boats – as well as producing plans, kits and courses to help you build your own boat. All of these areas are supported by a thriving maritime publishing industry, producing both books and magazines, most with a worldwide readership. British-made maritime equipment, technology, chandlery and seagoing clothing also constitute a well-known and vital part of the industry, with a level of energy and innovation that deserves respect.

As in other industries facing the current economic crisis, there is bound to be a downward adjustment in the coming year or so. The Southampton Boat Show, however, was reasonably buoyant when it began mid September. Nick Griffiths, Managing Director of Ancasta International, thought that a 15 per cent marginal market might be lost but that other business would be picked up. Several participants said that people aspiring to boats below about £250,000 (or 40 ft) were becoming worried and cautious, but not the superyacht clients. Brokerage, within well-known brands, did not at that point seem to be affected, and the view of the marine electronics company Raymarine was that the downturn would be bearable. The rich would stay rich while, at the lower end of the market, the enthusiasts would tighten their belts but not give up. Boatbuilding schools do well in a downturn. Magazine sales were down in the middle-market area, but upmarket and enthusiast titles were holding on. A few days into the show, however, the bad news concerning Lehman Brothers, AIG and the rest made us all realise that things were going to be worse than we had feared, and that nobody would be shielded from a period of recession. Despite this, some orders were still being placed, and the number of serious enquiries pointed to a growth in enthusiasm that can be tapped when the worst is over.

Boating for all

But there is much to be done, even in a downturn. It is important to try to change the insidious mindset that boating – sailing, in particular – is elitist. This is damaging and ignores the dinghies, small boats and yachts that so many people own and enjoy. Here again the media could help, and could usefully open up their interest to more than ball sports. The use of technology to make sailing more of a spectator sport, vital to getting more media coverage, needs to be further developed. Our sailors need to become household names: we have some great ones. Opportunities to go boating must start at a young age – how many of our top sailors, naval or civilian, look back to a childhood boating opportunity? And an interest in local maritime history should be fostered in primary schools. This approach has worked wonders in the small Scottish harbour of Portsoy, where children have been enabled to go on to building, rowing and sailing boats when they get to secondary school.

Our historic tall ships and traditional boats also need our support. The French, who lost their traditional boats in the First World War to transport, in the Second World War when they were broken up for fittings, and in the 1970s to the enthusiasm for plastic hulls, rightly say that we in Britain do not fully appreciate what we still have. If we nurture our assets, our people, our boats and our abilities, if we use our experience, time and funds wisely, and if we nurture the interest of journalists and politicians in our maritime interests and needs, maybe we’ll be better placed when the world comes to Britain in 2012 to see what we can do on the water.