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Celebrating 40 years: The history of BOAT International

29 November 2023 • Written by Roger Lean-Vercoe

BOAT International's longest-serving contributor Roger Lean-Vercoe dives into the history and evolution of the magazine on its 40th anniversary.

It came as a bit of a shock to realise that I’ve been writing, photographing, editing and developing events for BOAT International on a regular basis for almost 39 years now, and I suppose I can now lay claim to being the longest serving contributor. But media is actually my second career, having previously served for 20 years as an officer in the British Army, so my retirement is well overdue! But it was an even bigger surprise – and an honour – to be asked to write my recollections of this period. Where does one start? Well, taking my cue from Alice in Wonderland, the King advised Alice to “Start at the beginning and go on till you come to the end, then stop”, so here goes.

In my early teens I devoured children’s novels written by Arthur Ransome, who tells the story of two sets of siblings who called themselves the “Swallows and Amazons”, their names taken from the two small open dinghies that they sailed. Like many children at that time, I wished to have the same sort of adventures, so, after making several not-so-secret wishes, my family indulgently bought me a similar open dinghy.

Thereafter I spent every holiday in Weymouth, on the south coast of England, having totally unsupervised escapades in my sailboat with similarly minded children. Today’s parents would probably find themselves in court for allowing this but, in that era, everyone accepted that life skills were learned the hard way. To cut a long story short, during the following years at school, and later in the Army, I raced various dinghy and small one-design keelboat classes with some success and, eventually, in those unprofessional times, found myself racing a Soling – the then 3-man Olympic keelboat – as a member of the British Olympic Sailing Squad.

After retiring from the Army I decided to take a year out and go racing, but things didn’t go quite to plan. After travelling to an Olympic regatta in France to size-up the opposition and their favoured equipment, I was approached by a couple of sailing magazines to write up the event. It was a tempting offer, especially as the magazines also wanted pictures and I had used my other hobby, photography, to record the most successful combinations of rigs, sails and spars. As I knew most of the serious contenders and understood the ins-and-outs of racing I wrote the story and sent it along with my self-developed black-and-white pictures. And “hey presto” they published everything I had sent, and also asked me to report on the next Olympic classes regatta! Quite unintentionally – I had become a journalist.

Before long I was providing illustrated reports on Olympic and Grand Prix racing for about 12 sailboat racing magazines around the world, something only made possible by my purchase of a novel gadget – the newly-released but drastically-misnamed IBM “Portable” mains-powered computer, which weighed a massive 15kg, and was fitted with a tiny orange screen and no memory whatsoever apart from two floppy drives. Despite its drawbacks, this was an invaluable machine, as racing reports could be easily amended.

I thoroughly enjoyed sailing journalism and learnt a lot from watching others race, but the big disappointment of that era was to see the publication of small, dull, black-and-white pictures in the magazines rather than the colourful action-packed panoramas that I had seen through my camera lens. But then a new glossy, full-colour, yacht-racing magazine burst onto the scene. Enter BOAT International.

The birth of BOAT

BOAT International was a start-up published by Suzanne Fields, a young woman quite unknown in the field of sailing, but an extremely skilled and personable advertising salesperson. Her company was adept in the art of assembling in-house magazines for the makers of luxury goods, such as Corum watches, Rolls-Royce cars, and Davidoff cigars. Her partner Bugsy Gedlek, who had trained as a printer, was the production manager, design was in the hands of the talented Ken Wilson, while editorial was purchased as required. Her inspiration for these in-house magazines had come from the lavish American hardcover magazine, Nautical Quarterly, so the content tended to include a good deal of water-based features, such as scuba diving.

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Suzanne Fields - founder of BOAT International

Such features, and the high quality of her publications, had not gone unnoticed by editors at the high-end, but financially struggling French yachting magazine L’Année Bateaux, who asked Suzanne to publish an English-language edition to increase circulation and boost their advertising income from her own contacts. Suzanne immediately recognised the potential for a high-end yachting magazine and signed up to their offer.

The opening issue of the resulting magazine was almost complete when disaster struck. L’Année Bateaux went under, leaving Suzanne with a near-complete first issue and plenty of unpaid expenses. Fields decided to go it alone and publish the magazine herself on a quarterly basis, financing each issue with the advertising she had already garnered from her own contacts. Filled with well-researched and lavishly illustrated articles on the ongoing America’s Cup that had been provided in her agreement with L’Année Bateaux, the first BOAT International was an immediate success.

Production manager Bugsy Gedlek at a Rock N Roll-themed party in 1992

But success doesn’t pay the printers, who usually need their money before the advertising revenue comes in. Under-capitalisation soon became a major issue, but a quarterly magazine printed in full colour with lavish double-page spreads was a magnet for photographers and there was no shortage of contributions to this widely admired newcomer. Printing in full colour, however, was expensive in those days, and unsupported by a huge circulation and many pages of advertising, this was not a recipe for financial success – as L’Année Bateaux had discovered. Rumours soon began to circulate that BOAT International was in financial difficulty, supported by reports that payments to its contributors came very slowly, if at all.

But Suzanne was no defeatist. Living hand to mouth, and driven by a strong belief in her product, she raised some modest financing and steadily but surely the magazine began to pay its way. Racing features still dominated the pages but after the magazine’s first anniversary (and four issues) features on the wider boating world began to appear, usually because advertising from event sponsors supported these features. Dinghy racing, small power boats, Tall Ships, and even sailboards and canoes graced the pages. The magazine’s content reflected its pursuit of advertising revenue, but as this served no single interest group it was difficult to attract a loyal readership upon which advertising could be focused.

The first BOAT cover

But change was on the way as, very occasionally, a “megayacht” – as anything over 80 feet was called in those days – was featured, the pictures and text being mainly provided by a couple of loyal readers, Alex Braden and Mike Everton-Jones. As the founders of Yachting Partners International (YPI), they clearly recognised the potential of the magazine for publicising and selling large yachts.

I recall being in Suzanne Fields’ office in the summer of 1986 delivering a dinghy racing feature when the phone rang. Fields took it and finished a lengthy conversation with the words, “OK, it’s a deal”. She smiled broadly and explained that the caller had been Alex Braden, who was at that time the chairman of MYBA, the Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association. His message was that the Association’s members were fed up with placing their charter and brokerage advertising in yachting magazines that refused to give them any editorial support, and that he would encourage members of MYBA to switch their advertising to BOAT International if we could do better. This was manna from heaven to Suzanne. “But who,” she asked, “has a good enough knowledge of big motor yachts to write the features?” I had to admit that I knew of no one, but I recall adding, “If you get stuck, I’ve floated around the ocean on aircraft carriers and assault ships.”

A while later, Suzanne called me and, to my surprise, asked if I could write a review of a yacht berthed in Palma de Mallorca called Fair Lady, a classic Camper & Nicholsons motor yacht from 1928. I was intrigued and naturally accepted. On arrival in Palma, I found that the captain had served in the Royal Navy and we had briefly met in the past, so we set to work piecing together the story of this historic vessel.

Fair Lady was one of the first big boat features published in the magazine

Recently acquired by a Canadian yachtsman, Fair Lady was a beautiful yacht with just three past owners. She had survived the Second World War intact and had avoided the “modernization” of her classic lines that had spoilt so many of her contemporaries. While researching her history some interesting information emerged from a tatty engineer’s logbook. This, I recall, recorded about 12 Atlantic return crossings from Spain to Argentina just after WWII. Given her previous owner was of German-Argentine descent, it would have been easy to weave a tale around this, but we wisely backed away from speculation. Nevertheless, writing “On Board” features (as the magazine christened them) about large yachts, looked as if it could have interesting potential!

That conversation between Alex Braden and Suzanne Fields was the making of BOAT International, which over the next few years moved its attention to the largest yachts of the day, which were becoming much more attractive because of the newly established satellite communications system that could provide phone and telex coverage wherever a yacht was located. It was a new era that saw these craft being built in ever increasing numbers. As a result, the closing years of the 1980s were a busy time for BOAT International’s new association with this fledgling industry.

At first the businesses supporting large yachts were truly “amateur” by today’s standards as were the new gatherings that disseminated information and business contacts for charter, brokerage and sales. The leading boat show of the era exhibiting significant numbers of these craft was the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which offered a huge selection of brokerage yachts, as well as the pick of the new builds. Everyone had to be present in this high-pressure atmosphere to sell or to network, and they let off steam with after-show parties and associated high-jinks (unrelatable in polite company!).

The first hardback annual

As BOAT International’s stock of features on large yachts, both classic and new builds, began to grow, Suzanne Fields, always on a search for new income streams, had a brilliant idea. “Why not publish an annual volume containing a broad selection of the yachts featured by BOAT International in the past year?” The then editor of BOAT International, Andrew Preece, was tasked with assembling the first volume, but as the months rolled by without progress it became apparent that, with absolutely no staff to support him, his current job already filled his working hours completely.

So, as the author of a good number of the On Board features, I was called in. Suzanne foresaw the book being called The Megayachts, an American term used to describe the largest yachts of the day. As an alternative, I proposed The Superyachts – something original that I had coined earlier and a word that sounded more British. The title stuck, eventually coming into worldwide use for this whole genre of yachts.

We first had to define exactly what turned a vessel into a superyacht. After much discussion, we came up with our definition that incorporated some noticeable let-out clauses, just in case numbers of available yachts fell short of a book-full. This was the result: “A superyacht is a pleasure craft that is generally large, probably, but not necessarily over 100 feet in length, and one that meets the highest standards of design and construction”, adding that it also “excels in one or more particular fields, be it the standards of craftsmanship or the ornateness of the interior.” We eventually identified 21 recently built superyachts, and set to work.

The Superyachts Book today

Compiling a book that just contained yachts was thought to restrict its advertising potential, so the book’s scope was widened to incorporate features on design, propulsion, craftsmanship, electronics, and charter, while a section at the back reviewed upcoming projects. In a move that somehow predicted the importance that Monaco would assume in the history of superyachts, HSH Prince Rainier accepted our invitation to write the foreword and his Ron Holland-designed sailing yacht Stalka featured in our selection of yachts.

Like the magazine itself, the first volume of The Superyachts was assembled in the old-fashioned way without the help of modern design aids like computers, a laborious page-by-page affair with printer’s “galleys” – columns of text that usually had to be corrected and re-printed, which were then (quite literally) cut and pasted to create each page, while photographs were projected onto the page layout and the image outline traced so that correctly sized images could be added after the transparencies had been scanned.

Tongue in cheek we added the words “Volume 1 – 1988” to the spine, not knowing if sufficient boats would be built to assemble a second volume! As it turned out, the book was a resounding success. Its advertising sold out completely and, quite amazingly, half of the advertisers who appeared in Volume 1 are still in existence today – not bad for a fledgling industry in which everyone was still wondering if the industry itself could survive.

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Monaco Yacht Show 1996

But, as we now know, the superyacht industry did survive, and it grew steadily. Next year, it was still difficult to find another 21 superyachts to fill Volume 2 but, after some anxious moments, we did, and with builders’ order books showing healthy increases, the now larger editorial team was more optimistic about the future. Drawing on experience from Volume 1, the second book was much improved, with the number of essays reduced and the last few pages incorporating a directory giving the contact details of just about every business operating within the superyacht sphere – there were just 139 of them! Oh, and Donald Trump wrote the foreword.

Since those early days The Superyachts has gone from strength to strength and 35 volumes now grace bookshelves all over the world, the first 24 edited by myself and the remainder by Marilyn Mower and Stewart Campbell. Today it is not only a sought-after collector’s item but has also become an authoritative history of superyachting in our time.

An era of growth

The next of BOAT International’s milestones came in 1994. By then, the world’s fleet of superyachts was growing apace and there were signs that it might eventually saturate the more attractive harbours and remote anchorages of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. The once beautiful port of Saint-Tropez with its charming fleet of small local fishing boats, for instance, was already less attractive in summer because of a wall of towering superyachts that not only blocked the view of the sea from the quayside restaurants but also, on a windless day, smothered the historic quayside with toxic generator exhaust fumes.

Elsewhere, beautiful anchorages were also becoming over-run with large yachts – in some it was not uncommon for there to be a “midnight tango” following a wind shift that brought anchored yachts dangerously close to one another. While the more adventurous owners set off in search of more distant cruising grounds, the majority seemed to have missed the fact that their yacht gave them the possibility of discovering the world’s many beautiful, and absolutely virgin, cruising grounds in the serene comfort provided by a superyacht – something that simply could not be achieved by any other means.

Of course, superyachts need maintenance and replenishment facilities, as well as a nearby airport for guests to arrive and depart, and it takes time and investment to open new horizons. But before this could even start yachts had to demonstrate their enthusiasm for long-distance cruising. Arguably, BOAT International took the lead in opening superyacht owners’ eyes to the possibility of cruising outside the Med and Caribbean. To achieve this objective, we were lucky enough to be backed by like-minded superyacht owners, who agreed that publishing accounts of real-life cruises, rather than slavishly regurgitating the over-enthusiastic hotel-centric publicity issued by national tourism offices, would better expose the delights of more distant destinations.

Using my own contacts, and supported by the possibility that such publicity would also open new cruising grounds for chartering, I was lucky enough to be invited to visit and tell stories from many absolutely enchanting, and temptingly deserted, cruising grounds in Thailand, South America, New Zealand, Australia, and islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, which led to many amazing adventures and lasting friendships.

My personal favourite was a lengthy cruise through the Indonesian islands aboard Turquoise – the first real superyacht to be built in Turkey – whose name was eventually taken by the yard where she was built. So remote were some of the islands we visited that their inhabitants had never before seen a westerner in the flesh, and when we landed from a gleaming white craft, they cautiously maintained a 10-metre standoff. Then the captain had a winning idea. Taking out his video camera he filmed the scene and rotated his screen towards the more curious local children, who came closer to investigate this phenomenon.

Seeing themselves on the screen generated much hilarity, and with their suspicions put aside our status quickly changed to that of honoured visitors. Having been shown around the village and introduced to the headman, we were taken on a hike through the jungle to a cave by the sea where we were respectfully shown a pile of bones. These, explained our guide though mime language and drawings in the sand, were the bones of sailors who had been wrecked there many, many years ago. It turned out that they were Portuguese explorers, probably from the 16th Century. We didn’t ask how they died!

On another island, the headman had assembled his villagers to greet us, and when asked by the owner’s wife if she could have some of the huge and beautiful shells that dotted the beach, he explained the request to his people, who fell about laughing. “Didn’t we know that the shells were just rubbish – they had already eaten the contents, so what good were they?” The chief – quite a character –  later took a shine to the owner’s wife. After he had made a long and sincere speech to her, we asked our interpreter what it was all about. “He has just married her,” he responded. We made sure she was with us when we left.

The most beautiful place on Earth? It’s hard to choose, as every destination has its own nuances, but perhaps the most stunning was an atoll in the remote Outer Islands of the southern Seychelles. At low tide one could walk across the central lagoon, just calf-deep in the crystal-clear, calm water, rippled occasionally by the fin of a baby shark fleeing our approach. Utter silence prevailed, apart from the distant rumble of surf breaking on the encircling reef. One’s 360-degree view of the horizon was only interrupted by the coconut palms of the few motu islands that marked the outer edge of the atoll – the only land for hundreds or, in some directions, thousands of miles. Even at night the sky above the atoll was equally spectacular, mystically illuminated by the Milky Way.

Cruising didn’t always go smoothly, though. Inevitably there were storms and breakdowns, while one of the more adventurous owners (to whom I will always be massively indebted for inviting me to cruise with him on many occasions to many totally amazing places) often wanted his cruises to extend beyond his declared plans. Without any hint of a hidden agenda, he was careful to make sure that he was nowhere near an airport when he finally revealed his full cruising plan.

One such secret agenda was declared over dinner while in a remote anchorage close to Cape Horn. This was the culmination of our cruise from Puerto Montt, over a thousand miles to the north, and we had expected to sail the 150 or so miles to Puerto Williams and fly out after a day or so exploring the locality. “Tomorrow, at first light, we sail for Antarctica,” he declared. At this, the captain, quite literally, fell off his chair! But the ensuing voyage was an epic adventure that no one regretted. Not only were the cruising features published in The Superyachts book, but they also became a much-read feature of the magazine.

The current BOAT team
Credit: Johathan Glynn Smith

Mergers and acquisitions

After seven years, significant new changes were on the horizon for BOAT International. Since its foundation, the magazine had meandered along with financial injections and changes of ownership, until in 1991 a new owner came along – one that, for the first time ever, would make a significant impact. In January 1992, BOAT International was acquired by the French publishing company Edisea. The wheel had turned full circle as Edisea had previously reincarnated L’Annee Bateaux BOAT International’s original inspiration – as Mer et Bateaux. Christian Chalmin, an experienced publisher, placed a steady hand on the helm of both magazines, clamping down on unnecessary expenditure, focusing content firmly on superyachts, expanding distribution to a worldwide readership and modernising the management style.

Later, with a partner, he eventually bought both magazines out of their parent publishing house to take full ownership. He later expanded the group, acquiring ShowBoats International, the leading US-based superyacht publication, and founded the superyacht crew magazine Dockwalk. In short, BOAT International, under Chalmin’s leadership, and successive editors, Jason Holtom, Nick Jeffery, (then, briefly, me as a stand-in editor), and Amanda McCracken, developed the content to make it the world leader in superyacht publishing, and an authority on superyachts in its own right.

The story does not end here, however. Such success brought interest from venture capitalists, who saw even more possibilities to take the magazine to new levels, and in October 2004 the magazine changed hands again, with Tony Harris taking on the role of publisher. It was this new wind that saw the expansion of the magazine to a fully blown media organisation, and to reflect this development, the group’s name changed to its current form – BOAT International Media.

Amanda McCracken, former editor of BOAT International

While the content of the magazine itself saw little initial change the enhanced media presence soon started to take shape. I was lucky enough to be asked by Tony Harris to assist in this process and created the technical skeleton for the World Superyacht Awards, whose contestants are judged by superyacht owners – who are, after all, the end-users of these craft and the obvious choice to judge their merits.

Today, the WSAs are universally recognised as the leading superyacht awards, which feature lavish prize-giving ceremonies in world heritage settings such as the Medici Palace and Uffizi in Florence, London’s Guildhall, and the Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. ShowBoats magazine came with its own awards that, being a competitor to our own awards, needed some refocusing. I was given the opportunity to do this, creating the Superyacht Design Awards, which were tacked onto an earlier BOAT International startup I had chaired, the Superyacht Design Symposium (now renamed the Superyacht Design Festival, which coincides with the BOAT Design & Innovation Awards). Lastly, the Young Designer of the Year competition, set up to encourage talented young designers into the now huge superyacht industry, and initially managed by the Royal Institute of Naval Architects, was brought back into the BOAT International fold under my chairmanship. Those were busy times, but highly challenging and seriously enjoyable. The one thing that lagged was a true internet presence for the group but it now has a considerable online presence that includes the flagship BOATPro market intelligence service.

To bring the story up to date, the last chapter in this tale opened in 2013 after a change of ownership from one venture capitalist group to another. The new owners, Pembroke VCT, saw one huge missed opportunity. Superyachts are without doubt the ultimate luxury goods but, despite a few features on luxury watches, BOAT International had not exploited this connection since the early days, when the magazine had been propped up by previous “clocks, cars and cigars” advertising by contacts of Suzanne Fields. The new owners pressed for this link that finally took place when the magazine was revamped and relaunched in October 2014, under the guidance of Sacha Bonsor as editorial director and Stewart Campbell as editor. With its bright new page designs and its now trademark coloured spine, the new concept was focused on owners, their yachts and luxury.

Since then, there have been further additions, such as the Owners’ Club, which shares experiences among owners, and brings them together at exclusive social events, and a similar concept for captains, the Captains’ Club. A host of other events were also added to the portfolio, to the point in 2023 that the company is staging some 40 in total! In its modern guise, BOAT International Media has assumed the position of undisputed market leader in all three disciplines – publishing, events and online media, and I am proud to have played my part in its success. One thing is for sure, there will be much more to come.

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