The latest assessment by Superyacht UK, effectively the trade association for the industry, puts the value of the sector at £492m in 2013/14, an increase of 7.1% over the previous year, with a 4.1% increase in employment over the same period, to a total of 3,700 employees.
That's not to be sniffed at. But if you are getting the impression that British boatyards are full of spectacular new yachts waiting to be launched, the true picture is more nuanced. Britain does build big boats. The luxury powerboat builders Sunseeker (pictured above) in Poole, Princess in Plymouth and the motor and sailing superyacht builder Pendennis Shipyard in Falmouth are all producing new yachts. (Recent launches from Pendennis, for example, include the 180ft expedition yacht Steel and the dark blue 150ft Ron Holland-designed performance sailing yacht Christopher, see main picture at the top.)
But the market leaders in that part of the business remain the Italians and the Dutch, followed by Turkey, which benefit in some cases from lower wages than those in Britain. The UK currently ranks sixth globally on that score, according to industry analysts The Superyacht Group, with new-build work accounting for about one-fifth of UK business.
The rest of UK activity is in support services and that is how it is likely to remain. Starting a yard business from scratch is extremely risky, as Tom Chant, international development manager at Superyacht UK, points out: 'The cost of entry to the market – to set up shop as a new-build superyacht yard - is very high. In any case, if you are a high-net-worth individual, are you going to go to a completely new yard?' Quite so, the super-rich are notoriously picky about where they spend their money and many go back to the same yards for upgrades to existing boats or commissions for newer, better ones.
Peter Brown of Burgess, the specialist superyacht brokers headquartered in London, says many big new superyacht projects around the world are fuelled by British know-how. (Burgess is the firm that in 2008 got the job of selling Saddam Hussein's old yacht for a relatively modest £17m or so.)
'When you dissect these very large projects and work out who is actually putting these deals together – managing the construction of the boats, supplying a lot of the equipment that goes inside them, consulting on the technical aspects of the build, designing it both inside and outside – so many of the skill-sets are coming from the UK,' he says.
Sunny Thakrar, group executive director at Sunseeker, remains optimistic not only about his company's future in the superyacht field but Britain's too, which he believes has been undersold in the past.
'The UK superyacht business has got much more opportunity to grow,' he said. 'The British heritage gives us something unique to offer and we, as a business and a nation, tend to undersell our capabilities. There is a hell of a lot more that we have got in this part of the superyacht industry than we give ourselves credit for.'
So Britain knows how to design them, look after them and sell them, and is also even managing to build a few. Barring the sort of global economic meltdown that stopped the market in its tracks in 2008, the future looks buoyant for this most exclusive of luxury niche businesses.
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