A friend of mine once spent a week on a vast luxury yacht cruising the Mediterranean. It was all jolly pleasant, he remembered, except for a strange thing: throughout the entire trip, the only time the shipboard party had experienced what you might call ‘fun’ was when somebody discovered in a locker some kind of giant inflatable banana which could be towed behind the ship’s speedboat while everyone clung on. The yacht was OK, but the inflatable banana was utterly brilliant.
It confirmed a suspicion I have always had about yachts — that there is more joy to be had pootling around a harbour in the tender than there is to be had from crossing an ocean in the ship itself. Self-aggrandisement aside, small boats seem a lot more fun than big ones.
Perhaps the world could be saved a great deal of wasted effort and misdirected ambition if only an independent panel of experts were given the job of ranking all forms of expenditure in order of pleasure delivered per pound spent. In this putative hedonic index, dinghies might score several thousand times higher than yachts. Quad bikes and go-karts would trounce Bugattis. Owning a cat or dog would beat owning a Renoir. And in first place on this list, just ahead of tea, sex, the ride-on lawnmower and the full English breakfast, would be the Syma S107 3-Channel Infrared Controlled Helicopter with Gyroscopic Stability Control (Amazon, £16.18 — colours may vary).
Or possibly the S111G Coastguard helicopter (£21.60) — it’s a close call.
Unlike a real helicopter, this one is six inches long and does not fly out of doors. And, unlike a real helicopter, it will not end up bankrupting you or killing half your family in a gruesome heap of wreckage somewhere on the South Downs. In every respect, then, it is far better than a real helicopter. (I flew in the real thing once, in Cape Town, and I can assure you that as a form of transportation it is awful — both noisy and terrifying. The trip was only made tolerable by my constantly reminding myself that ‘Rory Sutherland, who has died in a helicopter crash in South Africa…’ would be a fairly cool opening to an obituary compared, say, to being hit by a tram.)
I don’t quite know what happened in the last two or three years to make these remote-controlled helicopters so much better — something to do with the invention of two pairs of contra-rotating blades and some form of stabilising ‘gyro’ software; better battery life helps too. But for just £20 or so, they are now miraculously good. You can practise landing on small items of furniture, navigating table legs or sweeping low over the rug to avoid imaginary radar detection. You can even try landing it inside a cardboard box to recreate the raid on the bin Laden compound, thereby discovering in miniature the phenomenon called a ‘vortex ring state’ when your rotor downwash is prevented from diffusing by high walls. This will further recreate events in Abbottabad by causing you to crash uncontrollably.
One caveat. It would be considerate to fly the thing only when your cat is out of doors. Your wife, too. I’m not quite sure why, but this is not a his-and-hers technology: my wife views toy helicopters arriving from Amazon with the level of distaste I would expect had I ordered a map of local girl-guide encampments and a set of night-vision goggles. Other than watching Sky Sports News in your underpants, I can think of no other male activity less likely to elicit feminine affection than accidentally flying a small helicopter into a vase of freshly cut flowers. But male Spectator readers should buy one all the same. Because you’re worth it.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.