Will post-lockdown sailing ever be the same again? Elaine Bunting and Helen Fretter investigate how coronavirus will change how we sail

Looking north from the seafront at Cowes this April, you’d have seen the Solent as no-one in living memory has ever done: an empty vista of sea. Even two world wars didn’t unpeople the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the UK mainland, which has bustled with the comings and goings of vessels for nearly a thousand years.

On the day lockdown eased, that ended. Everyone who had a boat wanted to go afloat, and the Solent filled once again. Even on windless days, yachts bobbed, sails up – there was nowhere to go, no rush to make headway, they were there for the joy of being out on the water alone. A pent-up urge for freedom has sharpened our focus on the pleasures of boating. Brokers were deluged with enquiries. Local charter companies, too.

Races and regattas around the world have been cancelled. Many ocean cruising sailors are still stuck. Boat shows are in doubt. This situation is temporary, but the aftershocks of the lockdown may be longer-lasting, potentially changing where we work and travel, and how we sail. A shift may be coming. In this report, we look at how we might buy, use and charter yachts after restrictions are eased.

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Cowes Week has been called off for 2020. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Show and sell

Manufacturers and dealers have always been divided about shows. But how many people will want to travel to a boat show this year?

The big companies depend on them to generate leads, showcase new models and conclude sales. But smaller businesses and distributors find them a drain. Shows can be their largest expenditure in a year – transporting four or five boats and staffing a stand for ten days is a huge outlay.

But the dominance of shows may partly explain why the marine industry is so behind others in employing digital marketing tools. This is going to change; it is just a question of when.

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Liz Rushall, who compiled a report called the Futures Project for British Marine, analysing trends affecting future customers in watersports, says that the increased amount of time people spent online during the pandemic confirms the shift. “The danger for us as an industry,” she says, “is not going with it. We probably are not catching up fast enough.”

There simply isn’t enough understanding, she agrees, of what digital, social and video content can do, especially in marine businesses famous for their traditional outlooks. But look at car buying and house buying and we already see big changes, with FaceTime viewings, video walkthroughs, and 360° interactive tools.

“These save you stacks of time – it’s a brilliant thing,” says Rushall. “And every time change like this happens in another sector, consumer expectations go up for ours.”

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Liz Rushall compiled a report into the future of the British marine industry

Some efforts were made early in lockdown to bring together ‘virtual boat shows’ but many were little more than an amalgamation of existing resources on another webpage or microsite.

“When I spoke to brokers, none was in favour of a digital exhibition. There is not a full understanding of a marketplace where everything could be together rather than through Google search,” says Rushall. “But look at how festivals are adapting by putting content online, and theatres. Some of it is about having a technical understanding about what is possible: you could have showcases of different experiences and activities, demos of equipment, put in interactive tools.”

Some brokers are ahead in the game, especially with video walkthroughs. Sue Grant of Berthon International has built out the brand on YouTube with guided tours of yachts in a distinctly British tone of quiet-spoken seriousness. In the US, East Coast Yacht Sales is a good example of a company that has created an impressive playlist of tours.

Online tools can help people visualise themselves on board. We noted last year at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis how many people arrived fully informed about individual boats after viewing every available video tour of them. They were visiting the show to find out very specific information, or to meet dealers and negotiate a deal.

Some manufacturers are getting wise to this. The Hylas 60 was recently launched with a 360° web tour that gives a full view above and below deck. Others are working on software typically used in the car industry to visualise interiors in different finishes.

“The whole industry will have to reimagine itself, the way test sails and viewings are done. Now is the time to reconsider this and think creatively – how we engage with boaters rather than relying on the same format,” says Rushall.

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Will virtual boat shows (above by Jeanneau) be the future?

For the time being, private viewings can meet a demand that has not abated, says Sue Grant, “But people are still looking at boats and prices are at pre-COVID levels.

“This has been a wake-up call. People want to spend time with family and friends and with most buyers we talk to it’s about the meaning of life, and about lifestyle. I don’t see that changing.”

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Getting the knowledge
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