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August 28th 2018. By Alex Smith.

Boat Shows

Big and small, international and regional, new and used - the modern boat show has a great deal to offer.

Whether you’re interested in the new or the used market, buying a boat can be a labour-intensive and longwinded process. The exhaustive scouring of the ads pages, the yard visits, the surveys, the sea trials, the road miles and the negotiation processes. It can all soak up a lot of time, money and effort – so when you get the chance to visit a single place with every shortlisted boat neatly lined up for lucid comparison, it can often be a much easier way to find the boat you want. The fact that you often get quite competitive deals at marine exhibitions also helps sweeten the deal – and even if you’re not intending to buy a boat, the chance to immerse yourself in the feel-good vibes of the marine industry and to browse the latest gear can make for a great family day out. But there’s now a tremendous variety of events available, often with quite pronounced crossovers into complementary lifestyle industries – so which one should you attend and how should you get the most out of it?

Big and small, international and regional, new and used – the modern boat show has a great deal to offer.

Used boat shows

If you’re considering the purchase of a boat on the second-hand market, a used boat show is a great way to minimise the legwork and achieve greater clarity over which model you value most. While they are usually organised by brokers and based at marinas, used boat shows are less glossy, less glamorous, more interactive events than most large-scale new boat exhibitions. You can climb on board, take test drives and even engage a professional surveyor or engineer to conduct an inspection on your behalf – and while the fact that each exhibitor has gone to the effort and expense of attending can mean some fairly robust market prices, it’s very useful to know that there are no time-wasters around and that every boat you see is available to buy. At the larger shows, you often see various local marine businesses in attendance, as well as new demo boats from brokers who also happen to have new boat product lines. And although the more illustrious marina locations tend to involve a more expensive array of craft, the smaller, more remote events can often provide much smaller, older and lower value entries from private individuals as well as professional operators.

Boat jumbles

Though the number of UK boat jumbles fluctuates, there are routinely around 30, running throughout the year from late January to mid-November in areas as far-reaching as Kent, Cornwall, Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland. Beaulieu remains the first, the most famous and, arguably, the most sophisticated of the jumbles, with its lovely setting, its classic car museum and its tendency to trade on its deserved fame with slightly inflated prices. But in all cases, there’s something special about snuffling for bargains among a kaleidoscopic clash of briny maritime stands, knowing that, while some items are past it and some over-priced, there are plenty of hidden gems to be unearthed with huge savings on the market value. Every one of the UK’s events gives you an opportunity to see a cross-section of local traders alongside privateers selling a whole range of new and used marine gear at the kinds of prices chandleries can’t match. These one-day marine markets do tend to charge a small entry fee but it’s often easy make your money back with a bargain or two.

UK show highlights

Here in the UK, we may have a limited supply of world-class international exhibitions, but our wealth of smaller regional shows helps make up for that. Events like the burgeoning Poole Harbour Boat Show, the All Wales Boat and Leisure Show and the excellent Scotland Boat Show at Inverkip are now spiked with indulgent lifestyle exhibitions like London On Water at St Katharine’s Docks and the iconic Goodwood Festival of Speed. On the more sedentary, family-friendly side, we have some excellent events on our inland waterways too, like the Thames Traditional Boat Festival in Henley and the Crick Boat Show in late Spring at Crick Marina on the Grand Union Canal. Expect countless narrowboats, plenty of historical texture, endless bunting, free boat trips, live music, free children’s entertainment and lots of regional food and drink stalls.
However, the premier event by quite some distance (and the only true international show remaining in the British calendar) is undoubtedly the Southampton Boat Show. Not only is it the only major UK show that’s open to the fresh air, but it also offers the largest floating display in the whole of Europe. Held in September each year, it has become a traditional end-of-season highlight and, while the food and drink is mostly quite standard boat show fare at quite standard boat show prices, the show’s easy proximity to Southampton’s pubs and eateries makes it extremely enjoyable. If you stay at a place like Cargo on buzzing Oxford Street, stroll in on foot and get your lunch at a place like the Platform Tavern or the Dancing Man Brewery, just a short distance outside the Red Funnel exit, this buzzing festival event is worth a couple of days of any boater’s time.

European show highlights

If Southampton is Britain’s best show, Dusseldorf’s renowned January event has a very sound claim to be recognised as the best in Europe. With nearly 2,000 exhibitors from 68 countries around the world, the scale and variety of the event is mind-boggling. True, the food gives a desperately drab account of German cuisine and the security is oddly officious, but to see so many small builders, many of whom you have never heard of, producing really first class work, helps revitalise your enthusiasm for marine recreation at exactly the right time for the new season. And for something more intimate and even more accessible, the HISWA in-water Boat Show at Lelystad in September, just 15 minutes from Amsterdam, is also very appealing. With its broad range of high-quality Dutch brands, this marina-based in-water exhibition gives immediate access to open water for easy sea trials.
However, if you value the sun, the buzz and the glamour as much as the hardware, there are plenty of outstanding European options. The Cannes Yachting Festival in September does a fine job for those in search of a taste of the high life. It’s an intimate and manageable size of show in a very attractive town, an easy bus ride from Nice airport and it can also be quite an affordable place to stay if you book early – and the much larger Genoa Yacht Show (Salone Nautico) at the heart of Italy’s Ligurian coast is every bit as attractive. Held toward the end of September, it is for many the most indulgent mainstream event on the European calendar. But if you want to see some the world’s largest and most exclusive superyachts in a place that feels tailor made to display them at their best, the Monaco Yacht Show is probably the place to be. In addition to hotly anticipated new releases from the globe’s most prestigious marques, it’s the place where superyacht management companies exhibit unique, one-off yachts on behalf of A-list owners who are looking to change or upsize. We’re talking about boats that push the boundaries of what’s technically possible, so if you can tolerate armies of tax-evading millionaires, wafting around in silly shoes and tailored shirts like self-appointed deities, it’s very much worth a look.

If you value the sun, the buzz and the glamour as much as the hardware, there are plenty of outstanding European options.

Further afield

If you want to combine a transatlantic trip with a serious international show, Florida is a fine place to go – and while the Miami event in March is certainly an impressive event, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show at the start of November (or FLIBS as it is affectionately known) has to be seen to be believed. Arranged over seven sites, its exhibition space covers more than three million square feet, with more than 1,500 boats, including some of the world’s most prestigious luxury craft and superyachts. In fact as one of the world’s most prolific superyacht hubs, it’s equally attractive for those in search of high-end lifestyle products like artisan watches, exotic cars, handmade furniture and art. And if you fancy being even more adventurous than that, Sydney, Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore all have worthwhile events; and the Caribbean is full of charming small-scale exhibitions driven by the perennial patronage of prestigious sailing regattas and the international charter market.

Clever stuff and trade events

For those keen to witness some fresh and interesting new design features, the Helsinki Boat Show is a great place to go. Held in February each year, it features all manner of practical boating solutions, from folding bow ramps to expandable main decks, fold-out balconies and less commonplace building materials like polyethylene, aluminium and (dare I say it) wood. With its prolific culture of commonplace boat ownership and everyday usage, the Scandinavian boating scene feels very much unshackled by the conventions that seem to stifle creativity elsewhere in the world, so it can be a great place to go for a fresh perspective on boats and boat design.
There are also some excellent trade shows around that are well worth a look if you want to see clever hardware and ingenious product concepts that, at some stage, may find their way into the UK leisure market. The METS show in Amsterdam is a particularly interesting event for new equipment that hasn’t yet made its way to Britain. It’s a huge exhibition but it’s within easy reach of Amsterdam’s lovely city centre, so it’s well worth setting aside a long weekend in the lead up to Christmas to make the most of it.
And Seawork, held each June at Mayflower Park in Southampton, is another excellent event for those keen to witness the best of the solutions emerging in the commercial market. It’s a place where designers, builders and industry decision makers get together to discuss the key issues and innovations of the day and, with everything from Seabobs to submarines and ingenious impact mitigation techniques, it makes for an enjoyable day, even for the family leisure boater.

On the day: visiting tips

One of the most important issues with any major boat show is to get your accommodation booked early. The best stuff at the most affordable prices, within easy reach of the event, is often taken by exhibitors, so good options at sensible prices can become scarce. You should also do your research on the show exhibitor list and layout beforehand so you can generate a shortlist of viewings. Modern international shows can be vast and you will run out of steam long before you’ve seen the key highlights if you don’t know where to look. Happily most shows arrange their sections by boat type, boat size and even region of manufacture, so that certainly helps. And it can also be worth pre-arranging appointments on each relevant boat, so you know you’ll get to see what you want without having to waste time fighting off the crowds for access.
When the day comes to attend the show itself, take a shuttle bus or a taxi or go on foot so you can avoid the queues, the expense and the hassle of parking. It means you will also be free to embrace the festival spirit with a drink or two while you’re there. Take a backpack with plenty of local currency and sunscreen, as well as space for a few brochures – and if you’re not sure how many boats you’re likely to be looking at, then leave your best shoes at home and take something comfy to walk in and quick to get on and off. Some people treat a boat show like a catwalk but practicality is always key, so unless you’re content to leave your £1,000 Manolo Blahniks unattended on a busy pontoon, put your party frock back in the cupboard and dress for the occasion.

Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.