Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a local councillor in Suffolk.
The UK has a long maritime history, with pride in the knowledge and skills which prevented invasion for more than a thousand years; there is an almost inbred love of the sea, popularised in the Victorian era with the growth of coastal holiday resorts.
Our ports remain a lifeline for imports and exports, whilst sailing as a leisure activity has grown in the last couple of decades. However, Councils, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Security Services, and Tourism authorities, as well as Government, fail to recognise the significant benefits of supporting and encouraging our love of the sea.
Today, sailing is worth millions of pounds to the UK’s local and national economies, employing thousands of people: boatbuilding, repairs, specialist clothing, training, food sales, protecting the environment, and tourism for starters. Sailing is also good for mental health and there are a number of schemes to encourage participation for disabled and military veterans. Nevertheless, all this activity is generally under-rated, with a misguided resentment in some quarters.
Unfortunately, there is a perception that sailing is solely the preserve of the privileged or mega-rich, trawling the Mediterranean in multi-million pound yachts.
But nothing could be further from the truth; messing about in boats is enjoyed by people from all walks of life because there are few better ways to clear your head than pottering down a river, skimming over a lake, down a canal, idling along in a light breeze watching the wildlife or racing round the coast. You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy sailing, and learning the technical skills to gain the necessary accreditation for local and international waters.
For some people boats simply provide a low cost alternative to buying a second home, never leaving their mooring, whilst others spend their lives undergoing endless ‘restoration’ by their retired owners. This is all part of a convivial alternative to the pressures of daily life.
Figures recently released by British Marine, representing an industry employing more than 31,000 people in the UK, celebrate the buoyancy of Britain’s boatbuilders, with production levels up by 1.5 per cent to nearly 10,000 units, and turnover increasing to £859 million in 2016, accounting for more than one third of the marine industry’s £3.01 billion revenue. £724 million was derived from exports, up by 35 per cent. The UK continues to be a leader in the global dinghy sailboat market, accounting for 78 per cent of total units produced, with rigid inflatable boats up by 12.3 per cent and mid-sized motor yacht production rising by 2.7 per cent.
British Marine CEO, Howard Pridding, commented:
“Boatbuilding in the UK has changed dramatically since the last decade, with demographic and social change reshaping manufacturer’s customer base and their access and approach to spending and boat ownership. Our members continue to find opportunities and commercial niches to exploit in the Eurozone, and in established and emerging markets outside Europe.”
While sailing yacht ownership has declined, participation in the sport has not, with charter holidays and shared ownership offering flexibility of use and experience not afforded by conventional ownership.
Since the early 2000s, Associated British Ports, which handles 25 per cent of the UK’s seaborne trade worth over £150 billion, has invested millions developing marinas at four of its 21 ports: Lowestoft (186 moorings), Southampton (126), Fleetwood (420) and Ipswich (expanded to 320 moorings in 2010, including 30 berths for visiting sailors).
In Ipswich, alone, where ABP employ a large workforce in the Port, the investment in upgrading marina facilities and equipment has made it a popular destination for visiting vessels from America, Europe, and around the British coast. “It has a great impact on local businesses, including bars and restaurants, on and around the Waterfront,” explains Marina Manager, Linda Pipe: “We have all walks of life here, from doctors to chimney sweeps, and they all mix together in a friendly and sociable manner. We host cheese and wine evenings, and BBQs, creating a great community spirit.”
She notes the importance of having a good relationship with Ipswich Borough Council, “which organises a popular Maritime Weekend, drawing sailors and non-sailors from across the region, supported by ABP.”
Nevertheless, whereas on the Continent, as soon as you moor somewhere you receive literature (in English) detailing places to visit and how to get there, as well as information on transport links, restaurants, food retailers, winemakers and events, this is not common practice in the UK. In Ipswich, for example, one sees visitors wandering from the marina, unsure of where to go, when a simple map, with appropriate brief text, paid for by adverts round the border, could direct them to the town centre shops, superb museums, regular market, parks and children’s play areas, as well as places of interest within, say a 20 mile radius. “Details of taxi firms, bus routes are always being requested,” says Linda’s colleague. “Visitors are interested in exploring the area and want to stretch their legs after a long voyage. They want something to show for their effort.”
There is no doubt that tourism opportunities are being lost. Councils and LEPs could develop partnerships, offering grants to marinas and selected sailing clubs in return for acting as mini-Tourism offices, using their websites to promote the local area. These are valuable, untapped, resources.
According to the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) there are over 600 sailing clubs in the UK. Centres for social, as well as sailing, engagement, they welcome the local and international community for refreshments, as well as a range of specialist talks and events; sharing knowledge and experience, boat owning members also offer non-sailors and keen novices the thrills of being on the water.
Importantly, sailors (and those connected with the industry) have an intimate knowledge of local rivers and coastline, alert to changes to the wildlife, environment or strange behaviour by other boats. Already a valuable source of information to the Coastguard, they could be used more widely by Security services to report potential illegal immigration or drug trafficking.
Just days ago, the Border Force caught a Ukrainian yacht diverted from Lowestoft, smuggling 18 people into Southwold, although 10 of the illegal immigrants had almost reached Ipswich before being intercepted by the Police. There have been reports of similar incursions in the last year, with boats found abandoned, but outcomes not always so successful.
As the Social Secretary of my modest sailing club at Pin Mill on the River Orwell, I can attest to the joys of simply watching the river and wildlife as tides and weather change, whether on or off a boat, and the friendships arising from that shared interest. I’ve never owned a boat, but know how important the club is as a social hub for people of all ages who look after each other, through sickness and in health. That should never be underrated, especially in a rural area where bus services are threatened, and pubs and the only food store have closed. There is a camaraderie with other clubs from Lowestoft to Greenwich, and the strong volunteer culture is evidence that sailing as a pastime is far from elitist for the majority of participants.