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Donkin on Sailing

January 2010 - Yacht sharing 

Weekend sailors and would-be sailors can often find it difficult to settle into a pattern of sailing that fits busy lifestyles, variable budgets and the competing demands of family life.

Many of us grab our sailing where we can, crewing on friends' boats or accepting the odd corporate invitation. But it's not the same as being in the captain's shoes. Buying and owning a boat, however, is a big step, with prices running in to six figures for a new, ocean-going cruising yacht. 

One option is to buy a boat jointly with family or friends. But that requires sound organisation, with everyone ready to chip in money for mooring fees and time for maintenance. Visitors to the London Boat Show this weekend will find it is still possible to get good deals on a new production boat if they are prepared to negotiate but mooring fees in the most popular marinas have not come down in the recession. Outright ownership remains costly. 

This is why eight year ago, two friends, George Bonelli and Grant Meadifen (who has since left the business) decided to set up a boat management and sailing membership company called SailTime. Frustrated by the limited options in flotilla sailing and high costs of boat ownership they explored the idea of fractional ownership with a twist - while several people would have the right to sail a single boat only one of them would own it. 

The idea is quite simple. One person buys a boat and hands the management and maintenance to SailTime. The company then finds up to seven others who will pay to share sailing time with the owner. The non-owners pay a membership fee to SailTime that gives each of them the right to sail the boat up to 42 days a year. In return for sharing the boat with others, the owner has it moored and maintained free of charge and receives a monthly leasing income. This is equivalent to an annual return of 7 to 10 per cent on the capital value of the boat. 

Given that mooring fees in the most expensive marinas on the south coast of England can reach up to 10,000 a year, and that annual engine maintenance alone can run to a few thousand pounds, the deal can prove attractive. When buying a boat, owners can take the advice of SailTime's experts and take advantage of the company's buying power. "We work with buyers on their specifications and try to get them the best deal we can," says John Bostock, managing director of the SailTime Dorset franchise.  

Another advantage is that members who may be new to sailing can undertake courses through the company that has Royal Yachting Association training accreditation. Members must have a minimum day skipper qualification to take the boat out on their own but they can use the boat initially without qualifications if they are accompanied by a qualified skipper or instructor. "It means that people can come to us as completed novices and we can get them up to the standard where they can sail with confidence," says Bostock.  

So what are the downsides to the arrangement? The booking system that allocates time in half-day units means that members need to be organised about when they want to use the boat and must recognise that they might not get their first choice of dates. Late booking is possible but to take advantage of last minute vacancies it helps to live not far from the marina. Those who only want to sail for the odd week every year might find that boat charter can be a cheaper and more flexible option. Another drawback for some is that members must accept that they do not own the boat.    

Other similar schemes are available on the market. A company called Just Sail in Reading has two boats it makes available on a membership basis and another company, Pure Latitude, run a points system for allocating boat time to members in their Hamble-based fleet, allowing members to sail a variety of boats. While the generic "fractional sailing" is applied to these arrangements, each system has slightly different approaches. What all have in common, however, is to offer sailing on a boat-sharing basis. 

I was invited to spend a day with Sail Time in Poole to sample the kind of boat and tuition it can provide for prospective members. In the spirit of a prospective member keen to get his family involved, I asked if I could bring my wife, Gill.  

I know from discussions with other sailing friends that convincing partners of the joys of sailing is not always easy. The confines of a yacht on a choppy sea can be one of the most testing environments for any relationship. Gill doesn't sail and gets sea sick on a park lake. It didn't help that it was our wedding anniversary - something I had overlooked when arranging the date. 

The weather didn't look too promising either with a forecast of squalls and gusts of wind reaching the high twenties. Against her better judgment, Gill agreed to come along. I duly handed over a tablet to combat seasickness. (After exhaustive research, I have found a drug that consistently helps - cyclizine, an antihistamine.) 

Our skipper for the day, Phil Wood, fleet manager and instructor for SailTime Dorset, was happy to let me manoeuvre the boat, a 37ft Beneteau Oceanus, away from the pontoon at Salterns marina. Most of the SailTime yachts are in the Benetau Oceanus range, which runs from 31 ft to 43ft.    

We cruised out of the harbour, beyond the chain link ferry, between Brownsea Island and Sandbanks with its row of upmarket waterfront properties, and across Studland Bay . There was a big swell and a choppy sea in the squalls but the cliffs on the western edge of the bay provided a sheltered anchorage for lunch. Wood was taking a back seat in the sailing but stepped in to help us secure the anchorage. 

"It's good to take bearings of various landmarks and to keep an eye on them when at anchor, he says. For Gill, lunch on a bobbing boat, without any sense of queasiness was a victory in itself. Later she took the helm for a spell as we returned to Poole harbour. This can be a daunting prospect for a beginner but we were sailing on a steady reach and she was able to fix a point on the headland. You can't do this when land is out of sight but sailing to a landmark can be easier than following a compass bearing. 

The next stage would have been to go through some tacks but she was happy enough simply to get a feel of the helm that responds more slowly to movement than the steering wheel of a car. One brief sail is unlikely to convert her to sailing but, who knows? She may grow to like it. Equally not everyone will take to boat ownership but this sail sharing scheme provides a flavour of what's involved with training support on hand.  

The company now has 200 boats in 60 marinas, including 13 in the UK and has plans to launch a dual-membership scheme that would allow people to sail in different places overseas. Of course this all comes at a cost. Membership prices start at about 5,500 a year for those sailing the smallest boat to nearly 9,000 for the largest, plus a 1,750 joining fee. 

Management contracts for owners run to between three and five years, before the boats are handed back and become their full responsibility. Owners then have the option to run their boat as any other owner, or to sell it and start the management arrangement all over again. Another advantage of this kind of ownership is that it is simpler to work out running costs and depreciation so you can see what you are going to be paying from the outset. Memberships can also appeal to companies who use their days for entertaining and team building. 

"We find that as members are sharing the same boat each time they come, they want to look after it," says Bostock. "It gives you a sense of what it feels like to own your own boat. We think the system is right for its time.  

  "You can go in to any marina in the world and you will see boats that will rarely move from their moorings week in week out. This is about making the most of the boats."

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