Boat show is back with a splash

The majority of East Anglia's boating businesses have descended on the capital for the first day of the London Boat Show. The event will determine the health of their industry and the initial signs are good, a fact which may take some by surprise.

There have been concerns about the wellbeing of the London Boat Show for a couple of years. Now in its fourth year at ExCeL in London's Docklands after moving from Earl's Court, low attendance last year and the year before concerned some in the industry who were beginning to question the value of the event.

Traditionally London in January and Southampton in September, both British Marine Federation-led shows, have not only been vital pitches for sales and profile, but have also acted as key indicators for the coming months.

These latter facts have meant that there has not been a desertion of the London show, despite concerns.

All of this has led to a run-up to this 10-day extravanganza in which the industry was holding its breath to see if a rejigged layout and extra attractions, such as an interactive “fog tunnel” recreating difficult navigation conditions, would help.

Certainly a big crowd-puller was Dame Ellen MacArthur, joined by sailing heroes Alex Thomson and Mike Golding OBE for yesterday's official opening.

Dame Ellen became the fastest solo sailor around the world in February 2005 after lapping the planet on board her 75ft trimaran in record time, while Thomson and Golding are currently back on dry land after their dramatic exits from the Velux 5 Oceans race. Yesterday the famous trio competed in the Extreme 40 Challenge in the dock alongside ExCeL, the challenge being won by Dame Ellen.

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This year's event features more than 1,000 boats and is on the theme of “celebration of our island nation” so includes seafaring skills, boat design and coastal life. Amid the boats on display costing from many millions to a few hundred pounds, plus engines, chandlery, navigation and communication technology, clothing and the less obvious necessities of boating life, such as sanitation, the mood appeared far more upbeat than anticipated.

One of Norfolk's leading boating voices certainly felt positive when he spoke to the EDP yesterday.

“Within the first few hours the difference between 2007 and 2006 has become clear,” said Chris Jeckells, managing director of Jeckells the Sailmakers, based at Wroxham.

Mr Jeckells should know - he is at his 34th show and his ability to read the market is tried and tested.

“Already we have taken more orders than last year and we have spoken to more people. My initial reaction is really positive.

“Last year there was a very clinical feel to the exhibition. A lot of effort has been put in this year, from apparently little things like the carpet to larger concepts such as certain sectors, for instance the dinghies, being shuffled around and split up into groups.

“And the results are quite obvious, even though it is the first day.”

Mr Jeckells said the supposed “doom and gloom” which was said to be gripping the industry failed to fit with the atmosphere he had picked up on in the opening hours.

“Everybody seems in a good mood, simple as that. They are laughing and joking and it is busy.

“There was a fair bit of apprehension before we started, there has been talk in the trade of whether it was worth coming.

“My perspective is definitely very positive from what I have seen so far.

And that is in the context of how important this show is to us, it either sets us up for the year or it makes life potentially difficult for the rest of the year.”

The show was also providing an opportunity for Jeckells to exhibit its relaunched Sailtainer, an in-boom reefing system which the company has previously sold, but which they have only returned to very recently.

Alongside the experienced exhibitors are first-timers, including Catfield-based Dolphin Boats, previously Dolphin Cruisers but now expanded to include sail as well as fuel power.

Although the two sailing boats they have brought, the Twister 800 and Tango 30, are among the smaller craft moored in the outdoor section of the show, optimism was high yesterday.

David Morrison and Bill Bray were both on hand to speak to potential customers at the Royal Victoria Dock berths.

Both men said they were confident of a good show, particularly with the Tango, an ocean-going boat built in Poland, the same country of origin as the Twister, which is a smaller but faster vessel suited more to the inland waterways.

“We have looked long and hard for these boats, looking at companies across Italy, the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland,” said Mr Bray.

“We are very pleased with what we have ended up with, something which fits in with the ethic of the cruisers we build in Norfolk. Each boat is built from start to finish in the same location, so there is only one set of people responsible for quality, not a whole series of people.

“We have previously launched the Twister at Southampton, but this is a first time with the Tango and although we had a few challenges getting it here because of a ban on heavy lorries on German autobahns on the recent bank holiday, it's great to have it here.

“I have been in this game too long to have specific expectations of this show, but we are very happy with the product we are offering. The Twister is very sporty and fast, but firm and safe. And with both we are very confident about the build quality.”

Martin Broom, managing director of Brundall-based luxury motorcruiser builder Broom Boats, said he felt the show had been made distinctly more attractive for the general public, be they knowledgeable boaters or new to the subject.

“The attendance last year was rather disappointing but a lot of changes have been made this year to attract families and non-boating people.

“I think it is a better show, more interesting and with more features.”

The show was still an absolutely vital part of his business, said Mr Broom.

“It costs us a lot of money to come here, but we could not afford not to come.

“There are lots of reasons including generating sales, but a big one is public confidence in the company.”