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Among the Rich People, Celebrities, and Super-Yachts at the London Boat Show

Scenes from an event so posh that the dude who played the Earl of Grantham on "Downton Abbey" was posing for pictures by wrapping himself in a British flag.
Simon Childs
London, GB

All photos by Oscar Webb

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Spoiler alert: The next series of factual documentary series Made in Chelsea looks set to feature Lucy Watson visiting East London's fabulous ExCeL exhibition center to open the 2016 London Boat show. At least, it ought to, but I would guess that this particular storyline is a bit too bleakly real for the glamorous structured reality that Watson is supposed to inhabit.


Friday saw the starlet cutting the ribbon for the show in a strobe-like flash of dozens of paparazzi shouting: "Look this way Lucy!"

"Give us a smile to your left!"

"Straight down the lens please, Lucy. Good girl!"

Earlier she had been posing on various expensive boats. When a pap handed her a silly captain's hat, she reluctantly wore it, before quickly taking it off to protests from all the people pointing cameras at her.

At times, her status as the clapping seal in a media circus became uncomfortably stark. After one pap complained that he wasn't getting the shots he needed, her media minder said, "We were wondering if it would work for you if we position Lucy there, with the boat there," with poor Lucy very much within earshot.

This was all an excuse to get the likes of the Mail Online to discuss Watson's "slender frame" and "long, toned legs" in a picture piece with luxury yachts in the background to create some media hype for what was ostensibly the capital's biggest ever boat show. Or was it?

"This is minuscule," Malcolm Brocklebank, Chairman of the Hong Kong Cruiser Owners' Association, told me. A boat show attendee of 40 years, wearing an anchor cravat, salmon cashmere scarf, and a navy blue blazer, he reckoned most buyers in Hong Kong were unlikely to bother with such a piddling event. The target market was rich, but not oligarch-level rich, one salesman told me, with the ultra-rich getting their yachts custom-made.


Nevertheless, to the uninitiated it was still pretty impressive in the way that a Stalinist vanity tower in an Eastern European capital is. Hundreds of shiny, luxury launches of the kind of yachts that expensive drug deals go wrong on in films vied for attention under the roof of one of London's biggest metal sheds. "Charter rate from €50,000 per week," read a sign next to one flashy tub.

The event was pulling out all the stops. Not long after Watson had left the scene, journalists started milling about the Sunseeker yacht stand, waiting for the next photo-op to start, which we were told would feature Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton Abbey. But first, a Sunseeker representative told me that the Undertones would be playing. Holy shit! Maybe the people behind Sunseeker Yachts are actually just really cool? Is boating punk now?

Oh no, wait, the representative had got it wrong. It was five-piece vocal harmony troupe the Overtones, which was less teenage kicks and more retirement cruise. They sung a couple of doo-wop ditties while being completely dwarfed by a massive yacht.

Then founder of the company, a silver fox called Robert Braithwaite, walked onto the stage area to Boney M's "Daddy Cool." An immaculate presenter asked him prepared questions—for instance, about the company's open boat policy, meaning even those who can't afford to buy the boats can climb aboard and gawp. This is important, Braithwaite said, so that youngsters can "come see the product and that's what they aspire to." He even had a story about his ever-so 'umble beginnings, telling the crowd that for his first exhibition he towed his boats along on an old Volvo.


Then Braithwaite was joined by Bonneville. The Alan Sugar of the boating world awkwardly exchanged fulsome compliments with the actor in a weird, stage-managed circle-jerk. "Both our products, if you like, have traveled well and flown the flag for Britain," said Bonneville, chummily.

"I must congratulate you on Downton, a global success, no question about that. So, you know, very well done," said the perma-grimacing Braithwaite. With the incredibly labored message about how Downton and Sunseeker are two successful peas in a frightfully British pod made, Bonneville then cut another ribbon, declaring the Sunseeker stand open.

When they had finished chatting, Bonneville posed on a yacht for the cameras with a British ensign. What could be more British than a man who plays an unrealistically benevolent Earl of Grantham in a TV drama that turns class division into cozy escapism fooling about on a boat that costs over £10 million?

Outside was the big draw: the Sunseeker 131, the biggest boat ever to appear at the London Boat show, costing over £16 million [$23 million]. Bonneville and Braithwaite posed with the owners, as the Millennium Mills crumbled in the background—emblematic of Britain's erstwhile industrial economy and soon to be converted into a center for start-ups. This is part of the Royal Docks—previously London's primary docks, and now the target of Newham's "Regeneration Supernova," which will turn the area into a magnet for foreign capital.


The boat show seemed to be part of this milieu, with London pushing itself as a hub for the world's riches. In every super-yacht at the center, kowtowing sales people were glad-handing the super-rich, showing that genuflection is now a key British export industry.

Inside, the Sunseeker 131 boat looked much how I imagine the interiors of empty luxury flats owned purely to sink oil money into look—ticking all the boxes marked "luxury" without actually being nice. I could think of so many better things to spend £16 million (plus maintenance) on.

I decided to ask some of the ordinary punters whether the aspirational message being floated was doing it for them. Sure, there were jacuzzis on display that were so big they had "no diving" signs on them, and horse statues made of driftwood going for £10,500. But there was also an us-and-them mentality between the pastel-draped couples and the ordinary boating hobbyists in anoraks and practical shoes.

A taxi driver called Geoff, who told me he had a very small boat, said, "I would very much like one of these. I very much don't have the money. Hoping for a win on the Lottery. It's wonderful to see how the other half live. You can live in hope, nothing wrong with that."

Meanwhile, Roger Monday—who had been coming to boat shows since the 1960s—was not a fan, instead longing for the days when things were more DIY and less "pre-packaged."

"I can remember, 20 years ago, being in Germany and seeing a couple walking down the pontoon in shell-suits that matched the upholstery in the boat," he said. "It just doesn't seem… boaty."


As for the super-yachts, "It's an obscenity—they come from a group of people who want to ignore their environment," said Roger, pointing out that thanks to new emissions regulations, "there'll be a lot of obscenities owned by the likes of Abramovich that can't enter American waters."

I even found the boating equivalent of people who refuse to pay a TV license on principle. A cookery student called Dave told me, "When I take my boat up on the Norfolk Broads, the Broads authority want to charge me for a full week permit, even if I'm just out for the day. I get billed if I'm apprehended. I'm on first name terms with the Broads authority navigation ranger."

The permit was around ten bucks.

The final press event of the day was over at with Plymouth-based Princess Yachts, whose team gave thirsty hacks a cocktail made with Plymouth gin to celebrate 50 years of their history, and once again to peddle a colonial image of Britain. There was a weirdly funereal vibe—maybe it was the salespeople's black suits—and the company's execs could have been forgiven for downing a few of those drinks. Unfortunately, a couple of days previously, the company, majority owned by LVMH—which owns a stable of luxury brands, such as Moët and Dior—had announced 350 redundancies.

And so, a bunch of workers who've spent years building massive toys for absurdly wealthy people are looking at hard times.

"It's a disaster for them," Dave Springbett, the regional officer for the Unite trade union, told me over the phone. "For Plymouth, they pay pretty good wages. The other side of the coin is that Princess Yachts is one of the largest employers in Plymouth, so people losing jobs haven't got other jobs they can walk straight into, and a bigger part of that is that 360 times £25/30/35k [$35/43/50k] a year is a lot of money to take out of the economy in Plymouth. We kind of struggle down this neck of the woods in some respects."

The reasons given for the cuts were the unfavorable exchange rate between the pound and euro, recession in target markets, political upheaval in the Middle East and Russia, a slowdown in the Chinese economy, and the storms which battered the South West in 2014. Meanwhile, customers are opting for smaller boats or re-fitting their existing ones. After years of high growth, the wider luxury market is slowing down.

None of those problems are going away any time soon, but they weren't on anybody's lips at the ExCeL Centre. However, if Britain wants to claim its place as the fluffers of the world's rich, we could find ourselves increasingly at the mercy of the kind of frivolous, evil people who think spending tens of millions of pounds on a floating Radisson Blue is a decent use of money.

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