Now’s the time to traipse around boatyards and shows, dreaming of a new boat, if only the money would stretch, says Libby Purves

Libby Purves:

Through our sailing life it has often been round about now, in the cold bleak months, that we searched for a new little ship. The Boat Show and its impossible yearnings plant the idea of upgrading or starting out; but buying a new boat is rarely the outcome. We’ve done it once, long ago, and indeed it was a big thrill. Having ordered the hull, we had to wait six months after it arrived to amass enough money to fit it out.

Mostly at the Show, one buys new charts, gizmos, mug-racks and humorous t-shirts, or if flush with money a couple of winches, some life-changing nav gear and perhaps a new propeller. Actually, that was a great year: we had a feeble, two-bladed prop on a heavy boat, so I physically chased the vessel’s designer until I ran him to earth having a beer at the YM stand. I said, ‘Oi! If we had a three-bladed prop, how much speed would we actually lose under sail?’

The answer, if I remember rightly, was a worried, ‘Oh, perhaps a quarter of a knot.’ So we shook his hand gratefully and dashed up to the Earl’s Court mezzanine to buy a three-blader. We couldn’t, if I remember rightly, even consider the dizzy and glorious heights of a feathering or folding one.

Anyway, the point is that after the show and before the main season is a great time to tour the brokers’ yards and clamber up ladders to poke around in what are often described rather tritely as ‘pre-loved’ boats. Often I recall them as not looking loved at all. Not one bit. You brush away a layer of rotting leaves left on the deck since autumn, bravely disregard the mould in the cockpit and the grim rat-grey teak and go below to the chilly cavern with the headtorch you wisely brought – ‘Domestic battery’s flat I’m afraid, but apparently the lights were definitely working’. You make your way to the chilly forecabin where a limp sailbag lies forlorn on a lumpy berth stinking of old anchor chain.

‘I think there’s some kit in the shed,’ says the broker, or sometimes the runaway owner’s irritated ex-wife. ‘It’s certainly in the inventory.’ Pause to check that you fit behind the table, and take one more tour for’ard, tripping over a single deck shoe with a dead mouse in it.

Then you return to the outside world in failing autumn light to enthuse, ‘She’s perfect! A bit of TLC and she’s ideal, how much shall we offer?’ It was all about the vision, the imagination, the dream of how she would feel out at sea. Oh, and the price.
That, at least, is the way it used to be in the days when family yachting was not even remotely chic. But recently when I reminisced with a couple of friends preparing a boat for a sale (one of them a professional in this now-aspirational modern trade), they were shocked at this insouciantly tolerant approach.

I am told that now, if you want to sell a boat at all and certainly if you want to list her with a self-respecting broker, you must gussy her up no end.  Polish the brass, touch up the varnish, coil the lines as if the Duke of Edinburgh was about to turn up for the Spithead review. Leave a temptingly romantic chart out on the nav table, dress up the double berths with smart duvet covers, and pop a mug-full of dried flowers on the saloon table so that domestic bliss may be imagined, as per the Boat Show.

So far I have not heard of anyone marketing exotic scents to mask the mouldy winter chill, but no doubt it will come. Already, if you want to sell a plastic gaffer, you pop a hank of tarred twine in the cabin to spur romantic longings.  But for the rest it should be fresh-brewed coffee, warming croissants, a faint suggestion of Mediterranean frangipani. As for sounds, all you can hear is an angle-grinder and swearing, we need surround-sound of plashing gentle waves, gulls, Greek cafe sounds, a distant Irish pennywhistle or a strumming mandolin. I might market it as a kit: Be Your Own Boat Show.