Small can be beautiful

Before starting the series of articles on traditional rigs and rigging, I'm going to start by addressing the issue of boat ownership itself. In doing so, I will have to touch on some areas where angels fear to tread, so foolishly let me begin.

I am sure you will have heard of the “Peter Principle”, whereby people in an organisation hold their current position by dint of their performance in previous jobs, and so rise to the level of their incompetence. MacPhail’s variant, derived from years experience of running a chandlery, states that:

“Most people own a boat larger than they need or want”

 

Have I any evidence for this? Well, the usage rates of non-racing craft - I deliberately omit here the racing fraternity who often commit heavily to their boats both in terms of time and money - are strikingly low. On an average weekend between May and September - in the UK - some 3-5% of boats are away from their moorings or marina berths according to informal soundings taken from harbour masters and marina operators. Put the other way round, that’s 95-97% of boats unused, and that is a phenomenon which bears casual confirmation. Now, call me naive, but I thought the point of owning a boat for pleasure was to get onto the water, so unless a good many people revel in the cachet of simply owning a boat, some thing is going slightly wrong here.

I cannot determine the reasons for lack of use from first principles, but have to deduce them from those with whom I come into contact. Roughly in order of precedence, they are as follows:

  • Lack of time - to afford to own and maintain such a fine craft, one must have a pretty high-powered job. In these straightened times, holding down said job is so time-consuming that there is little time, or energy, left over for the boat.
  • The family aren’t interested - “ I bought it because my partner/family wanted a larger/more comfortable boat (but in fact it turns out that they are not really interested after all)”. So finding “quality time” for the family to assuage the guilt of spending yet more money on your own interest reduces the time available for boating.
  • Lack of crew (often a corollary of 2) - “I can never get a crew together on a regular basis, at least not the sort of people who know what they are doing”. I sometimes wonder whether crew are needed primarily to help sail the boat, or more to boost the owner’s confidence?
  • Bigger is better - “I thought I ought to get a bigger boat so we could go further afield”. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me, there does seem to be an inexorable pressure from peer groups, the media, and a cultural notion of “progress” to go bigger, and hence better all the time. In the context of boat ownership, it is often self-defeating. Those with car-toppable or trailable boats routinely go further afield than those with larger craft. Given the limited time available to most of us, chartering is surely the better bet for exploring new waters
  • The cost - “I’ll skip it this year because I can’t afford it just now”

If you recognise any of the above constraints, it may be time to re-evaluate your ownership of a boat. Start by doing the thing you should never do for a leisure activity. Add up the number of hours spent using your boat this last season on the one hand, versus the expense (including depreciation and capital costs) and hours spent on upkeep (costed at the same rate as your local yard, if you are feeling brave) on the other. Does it make sense, either in absolute terms, i.e. total amount of money or time, or as £/hour? What do these figures represent in terms of weeks chartering, a family holiday, or time spent doing other things? I have to say that the only groups of people who add up the costs regularly are either professional boat users - such as fishermen, charter operators and boatbuilders - or those who are in a syndicate who need to reclaim their 1/2 or 2/3 or whatever from the other owners. Us ordinary mortals usually don’t want to know, even though the household and or car expenses may be scrutinised in detail.


Enough cold calculation, let us now turn to address the issues in a more positive way, by suggesting a few solutions:

If you suffer from lack of time, perhaps the most obvious thing to do is to make more time for boating. This is not quite as facile as it sounds, since almost all of us are under pressure of time, doing more of one activity necessarily displaces another to some extent. A theory I heard propounded a few years ago was that we only have time for 21/2 activities, one of which is usually our job. That leaves 11/2 for all our other commitments. Is your boating a “1”, a “1/2”, or does it vie with a host of other activities for the odd spare moments? Another option is to make your existing boat easier to use by basing it closer to home or at a marina, even if this does involve a trade-off of expense versus time. Or you can base the existing boat in an area where shorter trips are more readily available. This will almost certainly be more expensive in absolute terms, but not necessarily in £/hours used. Perhaps you can reduce the preparation time for going boating, by kitting the boat out with enough food, water, fuel etc to enable you to go with minimum delay should an unexpected opportunity arise. Finally, there is always the option of selling the boat and chartering, or borrowing, when required, thus freeing up the time spent on maintenance.

If it is the case that your family are not quite so enthusiastic as yourself, that often stems from a misconception of the dangers or difficulty of boating. You stand a good chance of terminally discouraging non-boating members of your family if

  • the only worthwhile outings are days long
  • your time pressures are such that you have to go on specific days or weekends, come what may
  • merely getting to the boat is a significant evolution in its own right
  • you don’t involve them. For instance, the skipper does not always - indeed should not always - need to be at the helm. I will not even mention the relative merits of kitchens versus galleys!
  • there is only one possible way of doing things. Much of the ink and hot air devoted to “seamanship” could be saved if it were remembered more often that the end - of delivering the boat and crew safely to their destination without inconvenience to others - justifies any means that work reliably.

It is often hard to accept that other members of the family don’t share your enthusiasm - I must make allowances for the fact that my wife considers a bus timetable an essential piece of sailing equipment - but set against that is the enormous appeal of “messing about in boats”. If you are able at relatively short notice to take advantage of good conditions to involve the family, and so slowly - it may take years - but surely build the confidence, enjoyment and skills, you will have crew for life. If you really are on your own, it is probably best to accept it. My wife would rather go to ballet on her own than have me fidgeting in the next seat trying to get enough light to do the crossword.

Lack of crew is not an uncommon problem, usually most successfully solved by sharing the ownership of the boat, or joining a club to get readier access to a pool of skills. Another approach is to modify the boat and/or mooring arrangements to allow easier single-handing

Lastly, if the main problem is that the boat is simply too big or expensive, then apart from sharing ownership, the answer is obvious! And bear in mind that, as mentioned above, many people find it hard to get skilled crew, so it is not usually too much of a problem getting sailing even if you don’t have a boat


There is an approach cuts across all these issues, and that is to have a smaller boat - unless are starting from a single-seater kayak or windsurfer in which case there is really nowhere to go. Think of some of the freedoms which a smaller boat can confer:

  • lower initial outlay, or higher quality for the same outlay, or, a solution a number of people find rewarding, a “bespoke” boat for the same outlay. There has perhaps never been as wide a choice of custom - or semi-custom - built boats as there is now. Many are the sort of craft which can give real pride of ownership.
  • lower maintenance costs - partly because you will need smaller quantities or sizes of items which need replacing - i.e. rope, rigging, paint and so on. It may also be that many of the maintenance tasks could now be done yourself, even if time is short
  • lower storage costs - especially if the boat is car-toppable or trailable since you might be able to be based at home, in which case finding the time for maintenance becomes that much easier
  • fewer things to maintain, so the boat tends to be easier to keep in good shape, thus increasing seaworthiness and eventual re-sale value
  • shorter trips seem more adventurous in small boats , and you can explore smaller creeks impossible for larger boats. Short trips are good for involving the family - if you reckon on 15-20 minutes per year of age maximum per trip for children, you stand a good chance of keeping their interest and enthusiasm, even if you do lose them to the racing circuit for a few years!
  • finally, the consequences of a minor error of judgement such as unscheduled contact, either with terra firma or someone else’s belongings, are usually less serious in a smaller boat.

Though I have now probably filled my postbag with indignant letters, I contend that a smaller boat is more used, more fun, less onerous and may leave you with both the enthusiasm and enough change to charter a larger boat for more ambitious outings. Even Herreshof agrees:

“It is my opinion that the double-paddle canoe gives the most fun for the money of any type of boat a person can possess, and I must say that it is my favorite form of aquatic sport.”

You don’t have to settle for a canoe, but mull it over. One of the purposes of running a business like Classic Marine is to help more people own a boat which suits their real needs, looks good, and which works well. Most importantly, it should provide the fun that is at the heart of owning your own boat.