Why does a harbour or town wanting to attact sailors assume that the only thing to do is build a big marina? It's the question Libby Purves is asking this month


I have been brooding about harbours, what we cruising yachtsmen want and what we ought to tell the industry, our local authorities and tourist authorities abroad. Yachts and ‘leisure boating’ in general are now considered important interests, alongside commercial shipping and fishing. We ought to make ourselves heard – not just RYA legal matters, but subtler, aesthetic matters that are hard to represent en masse. Sometimes we should murmur our desires in the relevant ear. Especially those desires that may seem counter-intuitive.

Because the industry, such as it is, seems to think that what we want is more marinas. Huge, secure marinas surrounded by razor-wire like prison camps; or smaller ones, taking concrete bites out of peaceful estuaries as well as filling disused docks. They think we want to potter between one set of Walcon pontoons and the next, expecting ritzy shower-blocks and WiFi. They think, to be blunt, that we’re waterborne caravanners. Therefore, even the more secluded harbours of the British Isles, Ireland and Western Europe build marinas and think it will fulfill our desires, even if the one we slot into for the night is, for the most part, basically a parking-lot for seldom-used plastic motorboats.

They don’t remember that some of us are romantics, and took to the sea in the first place because it is different, and temperamental, and a way to find beautiful and historic foreshores and inlets. We like to lean on a harbour wall as the tide goes out, or drop anchor in a peaceful roadstead, row ashore in the quiet of the evening, wash in a bowl in the cockpit and spit over the side as we brush our teeth (yes, we do. Quiet there at the back, you’ve got your caravanny shower-blocks).

So when we grow to love a harbour, we sometimes take it amiss when a jangling, clanking, barbed-wire bog-standard marina is the only place to stop the night. No rafting up alongside the pier, no anchoring space, no moorings. We think our boats are beautiful (well, some of them) and enjoy rowing round them, coming home to a swaying anchor-light, waking with a sunrise all around. And even when we’re not in remote waters, we want that feeling. And we won’t get it in a marina.

So, when an attractive locality – here or abroad – starts to like the idea of getting yachts to come in and spend money in the pubs and shops, it should think twice or three times before assuming that the only thing to do is to build an expensive floating boat-parking lot. There are places that have done this and recklessly spoiled their original charm; not least their attractiveness
in the empty winter season (few things drearier than a deserted marina in February, where once the wild birds flew and the open water rippled).

‘They think, to be blunt, that we’re waterborne caravanners’

Of course they are right about quite a lot of cruising families, either new skippers nervous of anchoring, or families in which various members have sworn never to trust an outboard again, or rebelled after too many dinners ashore being eaten with wet bums from the Avon with lifejackets under the table. There are cries of ‘We’re not going into Mudhaven! For God’s sake George, let’s stand on for Marinaport and have a proper wash while the kids do Facebook!’

But there are compromises. Some of the nicest harbours have, rather than extending their pontoons way beyond local need, laid a slew of visitors’ moorings – single or multiple – and, here’s the clever bit, set up a cracking good water-taxi service to whisk you to the civilization of shore and shower-block. You can still feel as if you are adventuring, watch the sunset and moonrise across the quiet water beyond your guardrails, and get the sense of voyaging to
new places, rather than another unit slotted in between rows of sad empty boats. You keep your bum dry on the way ashore and can be glad that a local lad has the water-taxi job. Result.

Libby Purves