When James May decided to go shopping for a boat he made the mistake of asking MBY editor Hugo for advice. It turned out to be an expensive but ultimately very rewarding call...
For a brief period back in the 1980s James May and I worked together. James was the production editor of Autocar magazine and I was selling adverts for a sister title called Car Choice. It didn’t end well. Car Choice closed – I never was any good at sales. And James got sacked.
At least he went in style; while sub-editing a supplement, he changed the first word of every article so that the capital letter at the start of every page spelled out a witty little message. We thought it was hilarious. Our managing director didn’t and fired him on the spot. Thankfully, James found a more appreciative audience for his famously dry sense of humour presenting Top Gear and I ended up scribbling about boats for a living.
Despite our divergent career paths, we have stayed in touch over the years so it didn’t come as a huge surprise when a message popped up on my phone from James in 2013. It simply read, “I have been gripped by the desire to buy a Riva Junior. Is this a crap idea?”
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I was tempted to give an equally succinct answer but as it happened I was sea-trialling a classic Riva Tritone in Italy at the time and was able to ask the people who really knew what the pros and cons of running an old Riva were.
In the end James decided not to take the plunge but it clearly triggered a boating itch because six years later in 2019 an email dropped into my inbox from him with a link to a secondhand XO270 and the even more concise message: “Is this sort of thing ridiculous?”
This time he sounded properly serious about buying a boat so we decided to have proper chat about it. It turned out that his recent experience of filming a Grand Tour special in Cambodia with fellow presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, meant James had spent rather more time than he’d bargained for at the helm of a small wooden river cruiser.
“It was hopelessly slow and the steering pulled to the left,” recalls James, “but there were moments pottering along the river past houses on stilts with the sun setting over the jungle when it was rather lovely. It reminded me what fun boating could be.”
Older but no wiser
Not that James’s early childhood experience of boating sounds that enjoyable. “I was around 10 when my parents enrolled me and my brother on a dinghy sailing course in Whitby. It was one of those residential holiday camps that had more in common with a Gulag than anything resembling a holiday.”
Thankfully, they both lived to tell the tale and progressed to sailing Mirror dinghies on a local quarry. On one occasion they even managed to cobble together enough pocket money to hire a small motorised dinghy during a family holiday in Poole. Now aged 55, and with marginally deeper pockets, James was keen to see what boating could offer in addition to his passion for cars, bikes and aviation (he has a pilot’s licence and a plane).
“I saw a pic of an XO270 and thought it looked really cool and slightly villainous. That led on to looking at Axopars, then an old Nimbus Commander. I’d set myself a budget of around £85,000 which I planned to fund by selling a classic Ferrari 308 I no longer had space for.
“It all made perfect sense, I’d even convinced my partner Sarah that it was going to be a cost-neutral exercise. Then I made the mistake of calling you!”
It’s a valid point, the budget did start to creep up a bit from there but in my defence, good as the boats were which he was considering, I wasn’t convinced they would give him what he was looking for.
Despite his Captain Slow persona and penchant for classic stuff, he is at heart a modernist who admires sharp design and fresh thinking. His everyday cars are an electric Tesla Model S and a hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai.
Plodding along the Thames in a rather tired-looking semi-displacement Nimbus would, in his own words, “have made me look like an old fart” and left him open to a barrage of Captain Pugwash abuse from Clarkson and Hammond.
The search for James May’s ideal boat begins
Meanwhile the XO270 looked the part but lacked the sociable layout and accommodation needed for evening blasts through London followed by a glass or two of wine with mates in the cockpit. He also liked the idea of a boat which would work equally well on the sea for holidays and cruising adventures.
I sent him a few ideas for other boats as well as some coastal marinas within easy reach of London and eventually narrowed it down to a handful of options: the modern range of Nimbus weekenders such as the W9, C9 and T8; the Axopar 28 (Cabin or T-Top) and the Paragon 31, all of which happened to be for sale through Offshore Powerboats in Lymington. So, when lockdown restrictions eased last summer, we booked in for a closer look at all of them and went for a sea trial on the W9.
“I really liked the W9,” confirms James. “It was very fast and stylish with a lovely sociable cockpit and quite a decent cabin for sleeping. But there were a couple of issues that bothered me.
“Even though you don’t really notice it once you’re on board, the asymmetric design (the windscreen is offset to port) clashes with my OCD tendencies. I know it’s ridiculous but if you spend a load of money on a boat you want to feel good about it, not have a niggling feel that something isn’t quite right.”
The multiple canopies needed to enclose the cockpit also proved rather fiddly. With that in mind we also went to have a look at a secondhand Nimbus C9, Paragon 31 and an Axopar 28 Cabin to see if any of those would fit the bill.
The C9 certainly ticked both those boxes thanks to its glazed wheelhouse positioned symmetrically in the centre of the boat but the compromise was a much less sociable aft cockpit and a rather cramped wheelhouse that James struggled to envisage settling down in with a bunch of mates and a bottle of wine – a recurring theme in most of the boats we looked at!
The Paragon fell foul of the same criteria, although he did like its rugged, semi-commercial looks and solid build. James was quite taken by the modern, edgy design of the Axopar 28 Cabin with its knife-like bow, reverse-angled windscreen and stainless steel rear arch.
The wine fridge under the navigator’s seat also met with his approval, as did the clever lifting bench giving access to the small aft cabin. However, it still felt a little too cramped for an enclosed boat while also lacking the sociable seating and cockpit space of an open one.
In a final bid to find something that appealed to him, I suggested we take a look at the brochure for the smaller Nimbus T8.
Rather than spending a lot of money on a larger enclosed boat that felt like a compromise on both levels, why not go for a smaller, more affordable open boat with a trailer that he could easily tow between river and coast?
The first one wasn’t due in the UK for a month or so but I’d seen one at the Düsseldorf boat show in January and James had liked the look of it in the video tour we’d made of it.
Nimbus dealer Steve Lane showed us the spec of the stock boat he’d ordered and James promised to go away and think about it.
A long chain of email conversations between us ensued as we debated the pros and cons of the various boats we’d seen and particularly the T8, culminating in another classic May missive that read as follows:
“I realise I’m vacillating a bit on this boat business, but not for lack of enthusiasm. I was talking about it with Sarah, who pointed out that if we have a boat at the seaside, that would mean weekend use and then, as she put it in a perfect articulation of the First World Problem, I might neglect my aeroplane.
“We wondered if we might prefer mid-week boating on the river. Either way, I’m now coming around to the symmetrical T8. It then occurred to me that if gentle river cruising is the thing, it might make sense to have a used cabin boat, and I looked at a Nimbus Coupé.
“Meanwhile, I may be required to buy all or part of my local pub in Wilts, to save it from closure. How’s that for a way of getting rid of pesky money?”
This was rapidly turning into a Goldilocks’ quest for the perfect boat. Everything we’d looked at was either too open, too closed, too fast or too slow but nothing that was just right.
A complete rethink was in order, especially when a berth in Chiswick Marina became available and James jumped on it before it was snapped up by anyone else. This tipped the balance away from an open sportsboat in favour of something suited to all-year-round river use. But none of his suggestions quite hit the mark in terms of style, quality or performance.
Suddenly, I had one of those lightbulb moments. A few weeks previously Jack, Nick and I had held an online debate about the best 33-footers on the market. I had plumped for the Fairline F//Line 33, Nick had chosen the Jeanneau Leader 33 and Jack went for the Marex 310 Sun Cruiser.
Ironically, some viewers even commented that the way the three of us trumpeted our own choices while rubbishing each other’s was a bit like watching May, Clarkson and Hammond slagging off each other’s cars.
Clearly, the F33 was my favourite but I had to admit that the Marex made a lot of sense too, especially for someone who wanted a boat that would be warm and cosy in winter on the river but also fast, fun and big enough to sleep on for summer adventures on the coast.
I sent James the details and rang Marex importer Wessex Marine to see if they had any secondhand examples for sale. Typically they’d just sold one but thought another one was coming on the market soon.
Meanwhile, with James sounding upbeat about this new suggestion, we booked in to have a look at an almost identical customer’s 310 berthed at Wessex’s base in Salterns Marina. It was clear from the moment we stepped on board that it was hitting all the right notes with James.
Deal or no deal
“The Marex made perfect sense,” recalls James. “It was very cleverly thought out, remarkably spacious for a 31-footer, yet handsome and well made with sturdy fittings, nice woodwork and smart upholstery. Lift up the floorboards on some boats and it’s like looking behind the upholstery of an old Lotus or the inside of a school-built canoe; by contrast the Marex looked like a Bentley. It appealed to the nerd in me.
“And the cabins were so nice that Sarah might actually agree to sleep on board! There was just one problem. It was about seven times the price I’d originally envisaged spending!”
He exaggerates a bit but the sudden boom in boat sales after the first lockdown ended last summer meant prices of good quality used boats were on the rise, especially for something as rare as a Marex 310. In fact the gap between the price of the one used example in the UK and the cost of a brand new one (prices start at £234,600 inc VAT) had shrunk to such an extent that a new one started to look rather tempting. Now the problem was how long he’d have to wait for one.
Once again lady luck rode to the rescue when a stock 310 that had been destined for the cancelled autumn boat shows suddenly became available. With the ideal river spec of a single 380hp D6 engine featuring Volvo’s new trolling valve for slow speed work, and a long list of extras that included a bow thruster, heating, solar panels, teak decks and underwater lights, James’s resolve finally crumbled.
Goldilocks (or should that be Silverylocks) had found his perfect boat. The contract was signed, a deposit paid and at the beginning of September his Marex 310, Bob, arrived. After a comprehensive handover and two days of intensive boat training James is now getting to grips with his new purchase.
“We only managed to get out on it a few times last year before the Christmas lockdown but I’m enjoying learning a new skill and loving the whole marina vibe. In fact I’ve just extended my berth in Salterns for another year. The guys at Wessex have been superb at looking after the boat and I can’t wait for restrictions to ease so we can start to use her again.
“That just leaves the small question of what to do with our empty berth in Chiswick. A mate of mine has just sent me a link to a rather lovely looking Riva Ariston. What do you reckon? ” Uh oh, here we go again…
James May’s boat – Marex 310 specification
LOA: 31ft (9.46m)
Beam: 10ft 6in (3.24m)
Draught: 3ft 5in (1.07m)
Displacement: Approx 4,500kg
Engine: Single 380hp Volvo Penta D6
Fuel capacity: 440 litres
Top speed: Approx 36 knots (41mph)
First published in the April 2021 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.