13 June 2016

Are modern boats good value?

It’s a long, long time since I posted.  I must be getting mellow in my old age.
What got me thinking this morning, is reading (in the excellent Marine Quarterly) about Eric and Susan Hiscock’s first circumnavigation, in Wanderer III.  The boat cost them £3,300, which seems a risible sum these days.  However, I recalled that in 1952, boats were considered to be extremely expensive – compared with a house for example, the average price of which was £1,891, as I discovered when I did a bit of homework.

In today's prices, the hand-built, ‘one-off’ Wanderer III cost £80,322 – quite a bit of money by anybody’s standards, to be raised without a loan.  However, the Hiscocks had no children and, being the organised sort of people they were, had probably planned all this for a long time and carefully saved for the voyage around the world and the vessel that they needed to do it.  They knew they would be living on board for 3 years and in those days, not only was it a problem taking money out of the country, it would also have been a problem reprovisioning in a lot of places.  Tinned food would have been an expensive luxury in islands like the West Indies and the Pacific Islands. Thus their decision to buy a larger boat than their beloved Wanderer II.

The Second World War was not long over: rationing still existed in Great Britain and there was still a dearth of good materials available for boat building.  However, 60 years on, this great boat is still going strong.  True, Thies Matzen has replaced all the iron floors, knees, etc with bronze, but he writes of her: “Of course, she had to be well built, and she is. Wanderer III is traditionally planked and caulked and is well kept.”  And after nearly 300,000 sea miles, she is still crossing oceans – and not just in the Trade Winds:  Thies and Kicki have spent many years sailing south of 40°.

So how much would a new 30ft boat cost today, I wondered.  Well, apparently if I were to buy a 31ft BenĂ©teau, it would cost me £83,000 ‘on the water’.  I gather that one needs to spend some £24,000 over and above the basic cost of the vessel to equip her for ordinary weekend sailing.  However, that probably includes a heap of electronics that we could do without; on the other hand, I suspect a lot more ‘real’ gear would be required to circumnavigate, so let’s take the £83,000 to be what it would cost – about half the price of an average house in the UK (I checked).  And we are talking about a cheap and cheerful production boat, here, not something designed for crossing oceans.  (I’m not sure if any production boat builders would build a 31ft boat for crossing an ocean, because most people appear to think that 40ft is the minimum one could take offshore. I’m way out of touch with production boats, so had to make do with my Beneteau as an example.)  However, in real terms, this somewhat indifferent cruising boat would cost more than Wanderer III.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?  

But what makes me think even more, is the thought that for all our technological improvements: will our BenĂ©teau 31 still be tramping over the world's oceans in 60 years, having been a floating home to two couples for most of that time, and with only one major refit along the way?  Somehow, I very much doubt it.  There are still a large number of good, honest wooden boats alive and well and going about their business, particularly in Great Britain, where the climate is kind to carvel boats.  However, the modern sailor’s demands for space, comfort and large diesel engines will probably spell their demise long before the little ships themselves are no longer fit for duty.  Every now and then you read about them or see one up for sale: what a reflection they are on the honesty and integrity of their builders.  May they long be loved and cherished.