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What price in taking the P...

by Dougal Henshall 24 Mar 2022 10:00 PDT
505 UK Euro Cup 2019 © Peter Hickson

Does it follow that the best in quality and performance comes with the highest price?

In recent weeks there has been something of a debate bouncing around online, about the state of the sailing scene and in one class in particular. The short version of the exchanges starts with a complaint that a new 5o5 is close to £30,000, which has effectively closed the door to most sailors simply on the basis of cost. The original threads go on to say that it is no longer possible to buy a reasonable second-hand boat and be competitive.

Now it just so happens that the inflated costs of the FiveO are a very real topic for me, given that I have just completed the text for a book telling the history of the class, which will be published later this year. In terms of simple, hard facts, the basic premise is true, as a new 5o5 is now expensive when compared to years gone by.

I had the evidence to hand for this, because in the penultimate chapter of the book I had confronted the issue by pointing out that a decade or so ago, a carbon/epoxy boat, essentially what is being sailed today, allowing for inflation would have 'only' cost £18,000, so why has there been a 40% above inflation hike in the price.

Before we get fixated on this one aspect of the boat, if I go back yet another chapter in the book, we get to the birth of the 49er and the 'skiff revolution'. Once the 49er had won the High-Performance Dinghy Trials at Torbole and been granted both full international status and a berth in the Olympics, there was something of an exodus of top helms and crews out of the FiveO and into the new boat.

Again, it was hard to argue against the numbers as back then a helm and crew could buy a new 49er from Racing Sailboats and have enough change from £10,000 to buy themselves a pint apiece, whilst the championship-winning 5o5 (bought from the same supplier) was already on the wrong side of £12,000. Yet today, the 49er, 5o5 and International 14 are all pretty much on par, costing between £28,000 and £30,000.

Moving away from the inflated talk in the dinghy park (not all clubhouse bars are open yet) these are published prices that are all in the public domain and from a builder with a world-wide reputation for quality. A new 5o5 is undoubtedly expensive, but there is however an upside to this, as for that money you get a boat that is as good as any other 5o5 out afloat, with boatspeed straight out of the box.

This one fact was ably demonstrated by Roger Gilbert and Ben McGrane who bought themselves a stock boat from P&B, then built their campaign by focusing on what we all know, deep down, are the foundations of success. They practised, refined their rig settings, then practised again and again and kept practising.

A while back I was working afloat in the Solent and saw them out there, early in the morning on a number of cold days, beating upwind, then running back down again, perfecting the tacks and gybes that would give them an advantage, however small, each time they made a manoeuvre. Of course, both are already highly accomplished championship-winning sailors, but to that innate talent there is a huge amount of hard work and preparation, both of self and boat.

Nor should it be forgotten that whilst Ben is 'in the trade', Roger works in the demanding upper atmosphere of the high-end IT industry, so he is a worker as well as a sailor.

However, this reminder of the truism that "it isn't what you have, but what you do with it" doesn't really answer that original complaint about the overbearing cost of being competitive. Maybe a better example is a sailor who is well known in the world of skiff sailing, who looked at the FiveO (given that their Worlds will be in Cork this year, which is as much a 'must go to' location as Garda) and found that whilst the boat is expensive, in comparison the suits of sails are good value.

Now this IS an important factor, as all the evidence suggests that the once construction moved to FRP/epoxy the hulls have an impressive degree of longevity. This is not something that is unique to the 5o5 as well-made hulls in the Merlin Rocket, Fireball and Contender (to name just a few) can remain competitive for many years of service.

Whilst on the face of things this is good news, as owners no longer have to keep churning their boats in order to stay competitive, it does have a depressing effect on the second-hand market. With helms not needing to constantly update, there are fewer boats coming up for sale and those that do appear come with a hefty price tag. In a way this has provided stability across a class, as helms can almost 'invest' in a boat, a factor that has played a significant role in the below-the-radar success of the Hadron H2 class.

This pretty single-hander, with its rich vein of Merlin Rocket DNA, has shown the value - both in terms of money and participation - of a quality product where individualism and pride of ownership score highly. Not only are new boats being built in a steady stream which has created a pipeline of orders, but there is a buoyant market for sold on boats with the sums suggesting that those owners are seeing little more than 4% depreciation per annum.

No-one is suggesting that you buy a sailing dinghy expecting to make money on the deal, but with interest rates nowhere near keeping up with inflation, having money in a savings account or letting it bring you fun and healthy enjoyment out afloat is maybe not the hardest of questions to be asking!

Meanwhile, over in the niche occupied by the Merlin, the quality and complexity of the boats is as eye-catching as ever, as was seen by the gorgeous example on display at the recent Dinghy Show. Yet the Concours prize rightly went to a boat just a few booths further along the main walkway, with Glen Truswell's incredible International Canoe, which bore all the hallmarks of Glen's enviable reputation for attention to detail.

It would have been churlish to have asked Glen, "how much?" as that would have been akin to asking Leonardo de Vinci to quote for the Mona Lisa, but it is a fair assumption that neither the Canoe, nor the Merlin were at the budget end of the price range.

These two boats together highlight the first of a number of conclusions, that quality and complexity doesn't just cost, but that those building blocks which create and underpin the quality are subject to above inflation price factors.

Just how much the complexity is becoming a determinant factor can be seen in the difference between a bare hull cost and an on-the-water, sail-it-away figure. Taking something of a mid-point across the leading examples of serious performance boats, the hull, even one of the latest carbon high tech versions, is now less than 50% of the end price.

I was given another hard lesson in the economics of sailing when looking at the publication of the aforementioned 5o5 book, which I was struggling to keep below a cover price £65. A well-known multiple champion from the class advised me not to worry as he "pays more than that for a block."

If complexity is one key factor driving cost, then it shares top billing with performance, as there is a clear causal relationship between the speed of the boat and the ability for it to rapidly empty your wallet. In theory you don't need a complex boat to go quickly - as we will see in a minute - but if you want to go quickly and be competitive then a different approach is needed.

Going back to the themed of this article, the 5o5, the masts are still aluminium and haven't changed in the last two decades. There is enough competition in the market for sails to be sensibly priced and though an upgrade to high aspect foils would not be an everyday purchase from your small change, neither should it be a showstopper. We've already seen how the FRP hulls stay competitive: just how competitive has been made clear on a number of occasions when the 5o5 World Championship has been won by an 'old' boat.

This is not a case of trawling through the archives to find a one-off occurrence, as it has happened multiple times with different teams. For me the stand-out example would be when Danes Jan Saugmann and Morten Ramsbeck won the World Championship in Australia in a 9-year-old boat. Like Gilbert and McGrane, they made a virtue out of getting the important things right whilst minimising the things that they did wrong, which is an almost timeless recipe for success.

Nor should it be forgotten that some older boats, for unseen and intangible reasons, seem to carry an extra little bit of magic in an otherwise stock product, as seen with the infamous 'red boat' owned and operated by Bill Masterman. This one boat carried a long list of helms to success, from Paul Brotherton to Simon Payne, then a World Championship victory for Jeremy Robinson. Clearly, second-hand doesn't have to mean second class, and today there is no reason at all why an older, carefully purchased boat that has been well fitted out should be lacking anything in performance.

It has to be accepted however, that many sailors still want that moment in the sun that comes with putting a new boat on the water and here the good news is that this doesn't have to break the bank. Whilst checking on various options during the Dinghy Show, the standout deal when Pounds Sterling versus Portsmouth Yardstick is being considered, had to be the RS800, which in terms of an accessible two-person boat takes a lot of beating; it is a lot of boat for a price less than some are paying for a second-hand 49er!

Moreover, whilst it may be misleading to include show offers, the deal of the day had to be the very smooth looking Hartley Contender, which was offering a performance with a PY in the 960s for a sub £10,000 price tag. It was not difficult when walking around the show to conclude that, as you move from the vast majority of generic dinghies into the more specialised world of the true performance dinghies, you can chart how for each PY point that gets dropped how the price goes up.

Of course, this is far from a simple linear projection, but it is a good enough rule of thumb to satisfy most arguments, plus there is the over-riding evidence from the foiling Moth fleet. That 11ft of fantastic foiling fun comes with a hefty price tag to go with the PY figure in the 500s, and whilst you have to beware of the hyper-inflationary dinghy park talk, there's plenty of evidence that if you want a state-of-the-art boat that will carry you to the front of the fleet, then this too comes with a hefty price tag.

So far, this may all have looked like a rather gloomy tale of rampant inflation that is pushing access to quality performance sailing out of the reach of 'the man' (or lady) at the local club, and there is no doubt that those who really care for our sport are aware of it. At a recent event, a well known and highly respected multiple champion and Olympic medallist admitted that it was all just getting too much, with the conversation then spreading out to include initiatives to bring the cost of boats down.

One suggestion was to create an entry level classification, with an agreed package of alloy spars and foils and fixed rigs, but all set on a standard high-tech hull so that the more expensive additions could be retrofitted at a later date. On one hand we agreed that this sounded like a good idea, but then you come face to face with the reality of the world as it is. For a start, this has already been tried, with the idea quickly vanishing off the AGM agendas.

We then got down into the real costs of top-flight competition, with him quoting the example of a well-known international three-person keelboat that (until last week) had been very popular with the well-walleted Russian sailing set. I have no doubt that there is more than a grain of truth in the apocryphal story that he recounted, of when the fleet was looking at a location for their leading annual regatta, the question asked of the organisers was not about the ease of being craned in and out of the water, or the expected conditions out across the race course, but on how many five star hotels were within reach of the venue!

It is a sad reflection that this carries more than a whiff of authenticity about it, as a recognition that in the upper echelons of international competition sailing, that money is hardly in short supply.

Now for the good news! Once the premise is accepted that the faster you go, the more it will cost you, then why not go just a little slower?

Another of the great truisms of our sport is that there's a clear relationship between the speed of the boats and the closeness of the competition. The enduring example of this has to be the Solo, which in a way should wear the nickname of the So-Slow almost as a badge of honour. Throughout the fleet helms strain to gain a boat length of advantage (two boat lengths is a healthy lead!) only to be made all aware that one small mistake can put you back to where you started.

Solos, GP14s, Streakers, Mirrors and so many other of our core classes might not satisfy the term 'performance dinghies' but they offer so much more in terms of the purity in closeness of racing, where tactics play a proportionately bigger role.

Going from the 5o5s and skiffs straight down to the Solos, GP14s and Mirrors might well be from one extreme to the other, but thankfully for the UK sailing scene there is still a buoyant middle ground where everything from the Lark to the Laser provides the backbone for so much of our regular club racing. This is hardly surprising, as what is there not to like?

The boats in that easily accessible middle range may or may not fulfil all the requirements of performance status, but they are equally as happy sailing on the ponds and reservoirs where so much of our racing takes place, as they are crashing around on a stretch of open water.

Even before our finances were suddenly squeezed tight, those of us who watch for the happening trends in sailing could see the evidence of some interesting shifts. Post Covid, dinghy sailing had shown a remarkable degree of resilience to bounce back strongly, but that recovery was not spread uniformly across all classes and areas of the sport.

Participation levels in terms of people going afloat was high, but the desire to trail around the country, staying in strange locations with lots of other people, seemed to have diminished somewhat, a worrying factor for those nomadic classes that owe the core of their activity to a country-wide open meeting circuit.

However, none of this is set in stone, with the proof coming from those classes that are happy to look forward to the future and have thus ignored the more worrying mistakes and trends of yesterday. The best of these has to be the Scorpion, one of those core, traditional classes that could so easily have been heading out towards the long grass of the fringes.

Instead, the Scorpion has become a boat that can be said to 'offer sparkling performance to anyone and everyone'. This definition is important, because it helps explain how the Scorpion has made itself so accessible, which in turn has given the class the chance to retain that crucial middle of the fleet.

Better still, the class has remained true to its roots, as it offers the fun at a price that makes having a competitive boat something that all can aspire to. Yet this accessibility has not been achieved with any loss of that quality that makes the boat one of the most attractive dinghies afloat in the UK.

Whereas, other previously 'pretty' classes have lost some of their connection with that pride of ownership which comes with a love of a varnished deck, the Scorpions have instead fully embraced it by ensuring that the woodies are right up there at the front of the fleet, fighting it out with their more modern foam brethren.

Bring all these factors together with an atmosphere ashore that is more akin to a 1970s party scene, and you've created a recipe for sustainable growth that anyone can afford to buy in to.

This is not to say that the Scorpion class are in any way unique, for their approach is shared by plenty of others, but collectively the message is that the The Greed for Speed might be fine but not only does it come with a hefty price tag, but that in the end, speed itself is only relative.

Going back to the original question of the 5o5, you can go all new and a lot faster for less, with the classy B14 significantly quicker for a smaller price tag, whilst still offering full international competition. Meanwhile, when measured against others in the single-handed genre, the Musto Skiff package from Ovington looks cheap enough to almost be described as a bargain.

If you simply plot price versus performance on a graph, then one of the very best boats has to be the Musto Skiff. At a very affordable price you get the superb Ovington build quality, top international competition and for those prepared to invest the time and effort it takes to really master this superb boat, you have that knowledge that you're doing something special!

But hang on a moment, the B14 and MPS might be two great boats, but at the same time they both take an above average investment in time just to get around a course, let alone be competitive. This brings us full circle, back to the harsh truth: if a sailor was prepared to invest that amount of time in a good second-hand 505, or in any of the other top performances classes, then this is what would make him competitive, for as always, the fault is in the workman, not in the tools.

It is a harsh lesson to learn that the top levels of dinghy sport are expensive and getting more so, but this is nothing new. Surely it is far better to find out what you want to do and at what level, and then focus on doing that to the best of your ability and your availability of resources (be that in terms of time or finances).

For if you can do all this, whilst enjoying quality racing (at any speed) with a great group of like-minded people, then just maybe you've rediscovered the sailing that so many of us enjoy.

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