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Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

What is the lure of yachts?

Elderly man at the London Boat Show

By Katie Fraser
BBC News Magazine

Yachting has always spoken to the wealthy set - who else can afford a craft of so little practical value? So recession or no recession, it's the age-old fantasy of taking to the open seas that draws crowds to the London Boat Show.

Yachts. Wealth, glamour and a lifestyle beyond most people's wildest dreams. No summer is complete without the steady stream of paparazzi pictures of tanned celebrities lounging around on decks and taking dips in the clear blue sea.

A light fast-sailing ship, in early use esp. for the conveyance of royal or other important persons; later, a vessel propelled by motive power other than oars, and used for pleasure excursions, cruising, etc
Oxford English Dictionary

During the nine days of the 55th London International Boat Show - it finishes on Sunday - thousands of people will peruse the multimillion-pound yachts, the displays of sealants, the second-hand inflatable boats.

Although most of the crowd do not own a boat, they aspire to one day.

Why the fascination with a mere mode of transport, which can be prohibitive for financial or logistical reasons?

The idea of going out on the water - or the open seas - captivates so many. While rare is the person who gets misty-eyed at the prospect of a salt spray-filled journey on the Stranraer to Belfast ferry, mention a yacht and it's a different story.

Howards' Way
Howards' Way, devised to rival the glitz of Dynasty and Dallas

At a time when many luxury items have lost their prestige, yachting carries cachet that most cannot afford. These boats have always been seen as a true status symbol, however many zeros there are on the price tag.

Throughout history, from Cleopatra's golden boat to the Royal Yacht Britannia, these vessels have been the choice of the upper echelons of society.

When BBC television executives had to come up with an idea to match the lavish Dallas and Dynasty in the 1980s, they chose the yachting lifestyle and created Howards' Way. It brought the glamour and desirability of the sailing world into millions of British homes.

No limits

Alastair Walton, editor of Yacht World magazine, says interest has soared dramatically as yachting has become more affordable. "There's been an explosion in boat building in the past 20 years. This is pretty much down to two things; the relatively cheap finance available - though not now - and the huge developments in yacht building."

167m: Biggest yacht in the world, owned by Roman Abramovich
120,000: Visitors to London Boat Show
Show's biggest yacht, at 37m, costs 9.7m
Smallest boat, at 1.4m, costs 549

The escapism offered by yachts is a major attraction, says Hugo Andreae of Motor Boat and Yachting magazine. The idea of breaking free, heading out to sea, is a way of escaping the laws and conventions of life ashore. "It's the last of the few areas of one's life that isn't managed by government or other people. There are no limitations or licences to worry about."

To have a few drinks then take the wheel is not to be reasonably contemplated in a car, but somehow a boat is viewed differently. It has long been the case that, unlike on the road and in the sky, rules regarding alcohol consumption whilst at the wheel have been less stringent. Although the British government introduced alcohol laws for non-professional mariners in 2003 this is still very difficult to police.

Two girls float in a washtub
Ah, pottering about in boats

There is also a real feeling of heading back to nature. It's difficult to come across the true "open road" without first travelling via miles of congestion. Where private jets were once seen as the ultimate luxury, perhaps global awareness for the environment has diminished their appeal.

Perhaps the roots of this desire can be traced to childhood classics such as Swallows and Amazons and Wind in the Willows, which largely involve messing about in boats. These stories encapsulate the adventures boat-lovers yearn for - building one's own cocoon and taking it to the unknown. "It's about the ocean being yours to explore," says Mr Andreae.

There are those who love boats because of the privacy these vessels offer, a way to control their environment rather than break free of it. These are the owners of superyachts.

Mine's bigger than yours

And then there is the competitive element. "Roman Abramovich's latest superyacht, which is currently under construction, is reputed to be the biggest yet at 548ft (167m)," says Mr Bryant. "It has so far been known as Eclipse as it's expected to eclipse any other in size."

Dodi Al Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales
Dodi and Diana liked to keep away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi

While some superyacht owners do venture out to open sea, many never move their luxury vessels further than hops between upmarket marinas. "There's less of a sailing side of it, they are essentially floating houses. It's about the privacy, security, familiarity. You can get on a plane with just one suitcase and arrive in a place that's full of your own things," says Mr Andreae.

Tiger Woods' superyacht is even called Privacy.

But such vessels are hardly inconspicuous, "The people who buy the serious superyachts love nothing more than being very overt with their discreteness," says Mr Walton.

And there is also a bubble effect of being hidden, away from normality. Last summer British politician George Osborne got into trouble after talking to Oleg Deripaska about things he perhaps shouldn't have aboard the Russian oligarch's luxury yacht.

The love this island nation has for yachts may ebb and flow with the economic tide, but it is unlikely to wane.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I have been assured one can simulate the experience of yachting by standing under a cold shower tearing up 50 notes.
Archie, Cumbria

Is it just in the UK that you don't need a licence for a boat? In France you do ("permit bateau"), which is just as well as to pass you need to know the signalisation (buoys marking channels, danger, etc), running lights, priority on the sea, etc. Imagine driving on the road if you didn't have to learn anything about the highway code first.
Barry Hunt, Paris, France

A few years ago, six of us hired a 36ft sailing yacht for less than the price of hiring a caravan! We sailed to France via the Channel Islands on our two-week cruise - brilliant. It's not just for the super-rich.
June Rattray, Skipton, UK

Once again, yacht owners are stereotyped as rich playboys. One can buy a perfectly seaworthy yacht, capable of crossing the English Channel and beyond, for less than most youngsters (or their parents) today would spend on their first car. The lure of the boat show for us "normal people" is the many good deals to be had at the various chandleries etc.
Linda Hudspeth, Bishop's Stortford

For me there is nothing quite like being at the helm of a motor yacht on the open water. It's true escapism where you really feel separated from the rat race and so insignificant compared to the power of nature. Size and expense of the boat is not so important, I holiday on my brother's boat - cost 25k and as he works at a mariner he lives on the boat, much cheaper than a house if you're not claustrophobic!
R White, Bucks

They say the happiest times in your life are buying a boat and selling a boat. I'd agree with the latter.
Joe, York

I have worked as crew on many of the world's glamorous superyachts and it is (for the owner) like a "second life". Its a place they come to escape from the constant public attention that has become their every day life... The funny thing is that once on board, they feel trapped. They can't wait to reach the next port of call to show off and are constantly on the satellite communications system, keeping in touch with everybody they don't need to... Just relax! Boating is supposed to be hassle free (to people with that much money anyway)!
Bill Chapman, Jersey, Channel Islands

You can buy a nice two-bedroom boat for 100k: a two-bedroom holiday home with water frontage would cost more than double that. Plus you can move in a few hours if you fancy a change of scene, or don't get on with the neighbours! Gives me quite a lot of 'practical value'.
Nick Miller, Somerset

Yes, you need some competence but it is a delightful way to spend retirement in winter. We sailed from the UK to the Caribbean in 2002 and have enjoyed several winters here in central and South America. Pensions go a lot further, excellent medical treatment can be found and is much cheaper than the UK, and good sailing yachts can be found for as little as 20,000 if you don't want to sail all the way across the Atlantic.
David Thorley, Hertfordshire and western Caribbean

I have a British-built Vancouver, a 24-year-old boat still going strong, well-built, travelled to USA, islands all over the east coast of America. You have peace and quiet or you can visit a noisy city. A great way to relax. Try it, even on a 27ft Vancouver built by Southerly now.
Dorothy Plummer, Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, USA

I don't mind being typecast as a wealthy playboy and girl, but that's a bit of a stretch. We have a lovely boat, large enough to live on, and I doubt it cost more than most of the gadgets folks today can't seem to live without. It's a question of what you want, isn't it? If you prefer sitting in front of your big screen TV playing shoot-em-up-bandits and driving your overpriced, overweight car to sailing smoothly through the water in the fresh air and sunshine (okay - that's a bit of a stretch too) then peace by your journey.
Stephen, London

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