Food for thought from the WBTA survey traditional boat enthusiasts’ buying habits

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Nick Smith traditional boatbuilder at Beale Park Thames Boat Show 2008 Rowing gig Young Bristol sees some action
The launch of the John Nash skiff dscf5402

Boat builders’ projects featured at From left to bottom left: Nick SmithWin Cnoops and the Slipway Collective, Will Stirling and Fabian Bush

Traditional-style boat buyers are life-time enthusiasts who seem to buy a ‘fresh’ boat every three to five years.

This maybe because their life circumstances change often enough to require a different boat, because they like novelty of trying something different – or it may be that they are searching for the perfect boat they never quite manage to find.

Does this any of this describe you? If not, I imagine it describes quite a few people you know!

It’s just one key finding from a survey commissioned by the Wooden Boatbuilders’ Trade Association, which has been sent in return for helping to recruit a significant number of people to fill out the survey questionnaire.

The survey was carried out and written up by Alison Kidd and Peter Williams of

It turns out that some 11 per cent of traditional-style boat buyers’ purchases are new boats, most of which are built using modern rather than traditional techniques, and the vast majority buy second-hand boats that may be either ready to sail or in need some repair or restoration. These are often found via the Internet.

It also seems that second-hand boat buyers are as likely to buy plans as they are to buy boats.

What concerns me more is that just 10 per cent of the survey group who had bought boats since 2000 were first-time buyers. Taken together with the fact that boat buyers tend to be an older group this rather suggests that boatbuilders, magazines and suppliers in this area are failing to make headway in appealing to new, probably younger customer groups.

I think that’s a frightening thought.

However, it’s nice to be able to report that those who do buy new traditional-style boats are heavily influenced by exhibitions in general but particularly by the Beale Park Thames Boat Show, which is a tremendous annual exhibition of fine boat building. However, it’s striking that the Internet isn’t much used as a means of finding new boats, even though it is a popular route to buying older boats.

The survey’s authors therefore suggest that a better gateway site or even a means of searching for and comparing different options, features and prices online would be helpful. I couldn’t agree more, for while the second-hand boat sales sites are well organised and effective, when you’re looking for a newly built boaqt the picture is very different. As the survey authors put it: ‘unless you know the name of the new boat you’d like to buy or the name of its builder, you are unlikely to stumble across it in the Internet. Many of the WBTA boats are not widely known classes of boat’.

Clearly it would be helpful if the WBTA or someone else were to establish a gateway site that would list traditional style boat vendors’ new boats – but we haven’t got that yet. In the meantime, however, we do have For more than two years, we’re been offering to publish stories about boatbuilding and boat restoration projects, and even for sale notices about particularly interesting traditional old boats, and to do this for free.

All we ask for is photos and some information – some sense of the story, of the people and as appropriate about history behind the boat, and its use now and in times past. We’re also interested in technical issues that impact on these things, even down to discussing lines, boatbuilding methods etc. Follow this link and this link to see how it works – these aren’t lectures but in addition to the pictures, there’s usually a little to learn from each post.

In fact, there is a short roll-call of traditional boatbuilders who have made good use of’s offer, and their names will be familiar to regular readers of this weblog. With their help, has become popular and has reached a point where it gets around 500 visitors and a thousand hits a day, by conservative measures.

I’d say thank you to those boatbuilders – and I’d encourage other traditional boatbuilders to get involved.

What’s more, it seems to make sense to set up a page here offering a good list of boat types and specialist types of restoration, together with the boatbuilders contact details and weblinks where possible.

What do you say? Contact me at

One thought on “Food for thought from the WBTA survey traditional boat enthusiasts’ buying habits”

  1. I'm a bit wary of these figures Gavin. Buying a boat every 3 – 5 years seemed a little unlikely to me, so I totted up the figures in the graph in Watercraft and get an average of 6 yrs – say every 5 – 7 years to use the two year timeframe of the survey results.

    Maybe I made a mistake but it makes me query the 10% figure too. Not so much the figure itself as it's implication. After all, how many Ferrari buyers are first time car buyers?

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