You see them in harbours from the Med to the Caribbean: retired British couples sitting on their yachts sipping gin and tonic — or if they’ve gone native, sangria, rum cocktails and chilled Pinot Grigio. Tanned limbs and sun-streaked hair make it obvious they’re not mere two-week tourists. And if they look smug, who can blame them?
Cashing in your pension pot is the latest way of funding a live-aboard lifestyle — but yachties learned years ago that downsizing from a family house to a two-bedroom cottage or flat can liberate enough cash to buy a boat. The ideal situation is to have a home to return to periodically or a rental providing income to fund your travels (or indeed both, as Ross Clark explains on page 30). Take John and Jean, who sold the substantial Home Counties house from which John used to commute to his accountancy office in the City. Now they reside in a bijou coach house on the south coast in winter and tour the Mediterranean in summer in their Nauticat yacht. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree duo. ‘We sold our cars too,’ laughs Jean. ‘I had an MG and John drove a Daimler. We share a Toyota now — and we don’t mind at all.’
There are so many couples retiring to the waters that you could say they are keeping boatbuilders afloat. At the recent Southampton Boat Show you could barely move for the pensioned young-at-heart looking for their dream vessel.
An Ambramovich-style superyacht may cost hundreds of millions, but £100,000 can buy a perfectly good boat in which to harbour-hop in style. Hot off the production line in Germany, the Hanse 315 could be yours with a few thousand left over. Rival company Bavaria offers the larger Cruiser 37 for £105,000.
Richard Hewitt, director of their British dealer Clipper Marine, explains that even those in position to pay cash often take out a marine mortgage, keeping money in the bank for boating and living expenses.
Most marine loans are for ten years, and require a deposit of at least 30 per cent of the boat’s value. ‘Boat mortgages are fantastically flexible,’ says Hewitt. ‘They’re secured against the boat, so your home isn’t at risk. Rates are around 3 per cent over bank base.’ But what about depreciation? Should you risk buying a boat if you’re not sure you’ll enjoy the seagoing life? Just like a car, a new boat’s value plummets from the day you buy it. As a rule of thumb, after two years a boat will be worth about 75 per cent of its initial value — but after that, prices hold up well and beyond two years, depreciation reduces to 3 to 5 per cent per annum.
That makes buying secondhand a sensible option, especially if you pick one of the rare brands that keep their value. A Bowman, Hallberg-Rassy, Malo or large Moody might have been out of reach when new, but if you buy once the first owners have taken the hit, there’s a good chance it won’t depreciate much further.
For £100,000 you could buy a 1990-vintage Nauticat 33, one of the most sought-after and depreciation-proof boats on the market. Clive Stratton, Nauticat’s UK dealer, says, ‘The typical 33 buyer is well set up for retirement and ready for an adventure. Around 50 per cent of them go straight down to the Med. People sail across the English Channel, into the Seine down to Paris, then potter south on the canals, emerging on the French Riviera.’
Yacht broker Peter Thomas, of Michael Schmidt & Partners, says, ‘Choose carefully to minimise depreciation. Stick to popular models so there’s a benchmark price when you sell.’ This theory holds good for the Hanses he sells, as well as for the Nauticat 33, of which 1,300 have been built since 1965.
Not everyone sees themselves as a Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, hoisting sail and heading off into the blue yonder. Sailors think in terms of voyages, but motorboaters tend to use their yachts as floating apartments, often in a ‘village’, like the marina where Russell Currie of Fairline North Mallorca is based. ‘We have a ten-year-old Fairline Targa 34 motorboat for sale at £85,000, leaving £15,000 for a couple of years’ running costs,’ says Currie. ‘Most of our owners spend six weeks a year here in Mallorca. On a typical weekend, ten or more motorboats set off together to a beautiful bay, drop anchor, open the fridge and go for a swim. Sometimes there’ll be dinner ashore for 40 or 50 people. Highlight of the year is a blast across to the mainland for the Barcelona Grand Prix.’
While the wind speeds sailing boats along for nothing, marine diesel is a major cost for powerboats, especially fast ones. The Fairline Targa consumes around €3 a mile in diesel running at 20 knots; but Currie explains, ‘Most of the time people just motor round to the nearest beach so fuel isn’t a major expense.’
The old adage that owning a boat is the equivalent of standing in a shower tearing up £20 notes is only partly true. The accepted wisdom is that a boat costs 10 per cent of its value per year to run, but many owners work on smaller budgets. The biggest drain on the wallet is marina fees: a berth in one of Britain’s hotspots, such as Hamble, Lymington or Sandbanks, could set you back £7,000 a year, but fees are lower in the rest of Britain and abroad.
It is possible to avoid marina fees altogether by keeping on the move. Yacht broker John Rodriguez is one such free spirit, having left a high-powered Soho advertising career at 35. ‘If you make it to the Caribbean, your cost of living plummets,’ he says. ‘My wife Nicola and I lived like royalty for less than the £1,000 a month we made renting out our properties. We anchored off hotels like the Four Seasons, swimming from the same beaches as people spending £600 a night. The hotels even asked us to leave the boat there because the guests liked the view! The key to living cheaply is to eat where the locals do. We fished too, cooking our catch on the boat’s barbecue.’
John and Nicola Rodriguez are well known in the boating world. Nicola’s book Sail Away: How to Escape the Rat Race and Live the Dream is the wannabe sea gypsy’s Bible. It is John’s task to find them the strong, seaworthy boats they need to make their long voyages in safety. ‘In spring I sold a 40-footer to a guy from London,’ says John. ‘He left in June and has just called from Portugal saying he’s never coming back!’
If you can raise the money (besides fuel and marina fees there’s insurance, maintenance and repairs to factor in), there’s little to stop anyone trying the yachting life. As John Rodriguez, who lives the dream, says: ‘Just go for it.’
How to cross the start line
To find a boat, look for yacht brokers and dealers on the internet and in magazines like Practical Boat Owner and Yachting World. If you buy a secondhand boat, have it surveyed first: find a surveyor via www.ydsa.co.uk. Just as in buying a house, there are legal issues and pitfalls, but a reputable dealer will talk you through these, and the Royal Yachting Association (www.rya.org.uk) offers advice.
Amazingly, there’s no such thing as a nautical driving licence. But beginners should do a short course with the RYA and get themselves an International Certificate of Competence (ICC). Your ICC will help you deal with foreign harbour officers; you’ll also need to be ICC-endorsed for inland waterways to transit European canals. It’s all quite simple; contact the RYA for details.
Yacht leasing isn’t common in the UK, but if you buy a boat direct from a French builder you can get some excellent deals.
You can also buy a share of a boat based in the UK, Greece and other popular sailing areas. A quarter share of a yacht based in the Ionian islands recently sold for £30,000 (exactly the same sum it cost the owner to buy it two years earlier) at www.yachtfractions.co.uk
Sarah Norbury is a contributing editor of Practical Boat Owner and writes regularly for Yachting World and Yachts & Yachting.