Around this time of year, a lifetime ago, I was in the salubrious Modern Boating canteen perched on ink-stained seats and sipping the fifth watery cappuccino of the morning, while pages listing 70-odd boat names lay spread across the table.
Jeanneau's Prestige 500 found favour with European judges last year
With me were David Toyer, Warren Steptoe, Barry Tranter and David Lockwood, all legends of their boat-testing craft. Our task, a thankless one, was to pick the annual Boat of the Year winners.
Thoughts were deep and the mood argumentative, but the debate was nothing if not fascinating. Considering there’d be five delighted divisional winners and dozens of potentially peeved advertisers, not to mention disgruntled readers if we got it wrong, everyone was taking it seriously.
First came the challenge of dividing the contenders into the rightful categories, which isn't always easy with, say, a hybrid family/fishing trailerboat. Then the respective design merits were tossed back and forth across the table, like Federer and Murray slugging it out at Wimbledon.
We whittled the list down by process of elimination until only the victors were left standing.
Meanwhile, over at the Boating Industry Association offices, they were poring over rigid score sheets trying to determine their own winners. Their judges had flown the length and breadth of the country in a desperate attempt to be transparent and all-inclusive, and armed guards kept the results under lock and key until boatshow time.
But the system didn’t stack up. Icebox too small – lose 10 points. Hull dangerously unstable – lose 10 points.
We, on the other hand, were judging by head and heart, not that these are bad barometers. Your gut often has better instincts than a clinical comparison of facts. Your gut puts things in perspective and detects the mystical X Factor that separates the strong from the weak.
It’s impossible not to impose personal taste and preferences. To this day, whenever I review a boat I close my eyes and try to picture myself as the end user, in the bay of my dreams far from the maddening salesman. In this euphoric state I then try to decide whether I’d fork out my hard-earned to own it.
So the magazine awards weren’t perfect but they gave builders something to strive for and helped raise standards.
A survey at the time showed that 22% of potential buyers felt a Boat of the Year award was a significant factor in their decision-making process. Price remained the number one priority, though, with more than half of survey respondents saying it had the greatest impact.
Sadly, the Australian awards are no more, at least not in a meaningful and truly national sense. If someone can resurrect them at some stage I'd put my hand up again, but for now it means we have to wade through a myriad of international gongs.
An increasing number of people will have to make their own hand-on-heart decision, which perhaps is a good thing. Buyers are, and always have been, the best judges as well.