Sailing family explain why they bought a motor yacht instead of a holiday home

Why spend your precious summer break in one place when you can witness a different horizon each day from a spacious, family-friendly motor boat? James and Francesca Leaver’s 59ft Van Der Valk offers all this and more...

Sailing has always been a big part of my life and now my wife, Francesca, and our two children, Archie and Lucinda, have embraced boating too. We live in Surrey but spend so much time travelling to and from our sailing club in Chichester harbour that we wanted to establish an Itchenor base of our own. The children were getting into junior Mirror racing and we all wanted to spend more time on the water and with the many friends we’ve made in the area.

Most people in this situation would have considered looking for a second home in the area but with steep property prices in Itchenor, I wondered whether we could buy a boat to use as our holiday home instead. I’d always dreamed of one day owning a proper cruising boat and this seemed like an opportunity to make that dream come true.

With my sailing background I initially thought our base should be a sailing yacht. But would the children like it? And would it be warm and comfortable enough for the whole family after coming in wet and cold from a day’s racing? It needed to be a cosy home-from-home as well as a sound cruising vessel.


“It needed to be a cosy home-from-home as well as a cruising vessel – spacious, light and with good living accommodation.”

We attended a few boat shows, browsed marinas and tried a Sunsail flotilla holiday to see if we enjoyed life afloat. After discussing it as a family, we all agreed that we loved the idea of living aboard at Itchenor and having the option to go cruising but it also became clear that our boat would need to be more like a house than a sailing yacht. In short, we would be looking for a motor yacht.

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We were already getting our sailing fix and we needed a base that would facilitate this for us. That meant finding something spacious, light and airy with good living accommodation and decks where we could all relax and entertain guests without feeling on top of each other. It also needed to have classic lines that wouldn’t date too quickly, nor should it cost a fortune to run – easier said than done with a classic boat!

I reckoned it would probably need to be around 50ft long and certainly no more than 60ft to meet the practical limitations of using it around Itchenor and to secure a berth in our preferred marina at Chichester.

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We set a budget of £500,000 and in early 2017 enlisted the help of a consultant called Paul Lemmer, who quickly introduced us to Mike Miller of Imperial Yachts in Southampton. When we described what we wanted they both directed our search to the Netherlands, where they build high-quality custom and semi-custom yachts in steel and aluminium designed for living aboard and exploring the inland waterways of Europe.


The choice and quality of “shipsh” (as they pronounce it in the Netherlands) is extraordinary; the Dutch are obsessive about their boats and ownership levels are far higher than here in the UK. I made four trips with Paul to the Netherlands in the spring of 2017, joined a couple of times by Francesca.

Visiting brokerages and yards over there is a very different experience to the UK. Many of the boats are stored under cover over the winter and kept in showroom condition. Paul and I were like little boys in a sweet shop when we first visited Elburg Yachting. There were probably 30 big boats all under one roof and a similar number of listed boats to look at on the water.


Elburg Yachting was packed to the rafters with pristine vessels ready for inspection

We had a couple of distractions on the way. Mike encouraged us to investigate a potential new build by Steeler Yachts but it would have taken more than 18 months to build and cost almost double our allocated budget. We backed out of it but not before we had visited the yard and learnt a lot from Mike and Steeler about the design and construction of steel boats and seen several in build.

Francesca and I also reflected how on earth, as first-time buyers of a large motorboat, we could get the design and specification right with so many decisions to make. We looked at a couple of second-hand Steelers and agreed that we should focus on buying a used boat to see whether motorboat living worked for us before we contemplated a new build. Mike also wanted us to look at a beautiful British-owned Van Der Valk but at almost 70ft long (21m) it was too big for us.

No need for speed

By the end of our first 36-hour visit to the Netherlands we had looked at about 25 boats and for the first time Francesca and I felt we had a genuine understanding of what we wanted. Speed was not important to us so we decided to focus on finding a steel displacement vessel rather than a semi-displacement aluminium one.


The boat had to be a fun family home as well as a sturdy cruiser

This would give us more choice and more boat for our money while costing us less in fuel to run. The main requirements were twin engines with bow and stern thrusters, no flybridge, a single helm position with a sunroof, three cabins, a large saloon and an exceptional galley that wasn’t tucked out of the way.

I sea trialled a Steeler in Denmark but it didn’t tick enough of our boxes. Then Mike called again to say that a 2002 59ft (18m) Van der Valk was about to be traded in against the 70-footer we had declined to view. A quick sale was required to enable the British owner to take delivery of his new boat. In true broker style Mike said that this boat ‘had our name on it’!

The photographs and details certainly looked interesting and a couple of weeks later Francesca and I were on a flight to Schipol to see it. We viewed a couple more boats at Elburg on the way and then drove to see the 18m Van Der Valk.


Duchess having a thorough once-over during her survey

We toured the boat and looked at each other knowingly. She was a bit bigger than we’d envisaged buying but was in fabulous condition – a lot of boat for the money and ticked virtually every box. The only thing we didn’t like was the name, Perla, which reminded us of a lingerie brand! Choosing a new name kept us entertained on the drive back to the airport and by the time we reached Schipol we’d already renamed her Duchess.

Duchess of Chichester

A few days later we made an offer, which was comfortably within our original budget, leaving some spare for the inevitable improvement works which would present themselves. Our offer was made conditional on survey, some repairs already noted on our first inspection and the installation of sunroofs above the helm.

Our offer was accepted and swiftly followed by a flurry of activity to get the haul out, survey and sea trial arranged. Sea trial is perhaps a generous description for a 5-mile cruise along a Dutch waterway but it was nevertheless good to spend time checking her over on the move. I had flown out a UK surveyor from Lymington, who spent two days on the boat with me and wrote an excellent report giving Duchess the thumbs up.


“The delivery trip had enabled me to test Duchess in challenging conditions without distraction”

By the end of July 2017 I was back in Zwartsluis, Overijssel, in the Netherlands, with a delivery crew to pick up Duchess from the yard where the pre-delivery work had been done. As the boat had been stripped of most equipment we had to bring various tools and safety equipment with us from the UK, while new fire extinguishers and flares had to be acquired locally. I completed the paperwork with Mike, then re-flagged and renamed Duchess, provisioned, fuelled and set off for home.

My delivery crew consisted of Paul Lemmer, a skipper/engineer called Mark Haswell and Francesca’s father. With a worsening forecast we made it across the Ijsselmeer to Amsterdam marina on the first night. When we exited the lock into the North Sea at Ijmuden early the following day, we were met with 30 knots of breeze and 2m seas on the nose.

This slowed our progress considerably and meant that we decided to break up the trip by taking to the comfort and safety of the canals at the Hook of Holland. However, seeing Duchess handle these conditions so much better than the crew was reassuring for me, particularly as I was able to do this without the family aboard!


Great care has been taken to make the boat a cosy family sanctuary

On our second night we reached the marina of a charming town called Hellevoetsluis and enjoyed a well-deserved slap-up dinner in a restaurant in the old town. The following day we kept inland, passing under the impressive Zeeland bridge before venturing back out to sea and reaching Dunkirk late that night.

This unplanned inland excursion gave me a taste for this cruising area and we will definitely return to the Netherlands for a family cruise one day. Having crossed the English Channel in a really messy beam sea, we reached Eastbourne for our fourth night and made the short hop to Chichester the following day.

We motored up Chichester harbour close to low tide, keeping clear of the fleets of Mirrors, Toppers and 420s racing from Itchenor on the first day of Junior Fortnight.


Messing about in boats is in the family’s blood

We picked up a visitors’ mooring at Itchenor, where Francesca and the children came to greet us. They were beside themselves with excitement at seeing Duchess for the first time and it was lovely for us to witness their instinctive reaction. They even chose to share the smaller bunk cabin on the boat! All subsequent tours of the boat were delegated to them, an activity they never seem to tire of.

The delivery trip with Mark had enabled me to test Duchess in challenging conditions without distraction and with someone knowledgeable on hand. By the time we had reached Chichester the Dutch switch panels had all been Google translated and re-labelled in English and a winter maintenance and repair list assembled. But there was still a lot to learn about the boat’s systems and quirks.

But our first job was to “move in” to our new family home.  We took Duchess to her new berth in Chichester marina and I arranged to meet Navigators, based in the marina, who would be cleaning and maintaining the boat for us. The new 4m Highfield RIB I had ordered as our tender arrived and was craned into position on the bathing platform cradle.


Duchess’s maiden voyage took in the Dorset coast

Home sweet home

For the next few weeks we eased ourselves into our new way of life, getting to know the boat with short trips to East Head, practising locking in and out of the marina, mooring and anchoring routines. Francesca and I wanted life aboard to be as calm and safe as possible.

By the end of August we were confident enough in the boat and our own abilities to take a week’s cruise to Salcombe and back with overnight stops at Lymington, Weymouth, Dartmouth, Lulworth and Poole. Dropping the anchor en route, swimming and paddleboarding off the back and going ashore for walks, shopping, pub meals and ice cream became the routine but with the joy of exploring somewhere new each day.

For the winter haul out we brought Mark back to work alongside Navigators for a few weeks to tackle the list of jobs we had noted on delivery and a few more we’d added since. This included replacement of the anchor windlass, anchor and chain, a new TV and stereo system, wooden bi-fold doors to replace the ugly sliding doors to the aft deck and a host of other small improvements.


Duchess is the perfect paddleboard launchpad

By the 2018 season we had became increasingly confident in our second home. We used Duchess for at least 15 weekends at Itchenor while Francesca, the children and our cocker spaniel, Bracken, spent six continuous weeks on her during the summer holidays. Unfortunately I had to work in London for most of this time but a month off in August enabled us all to go cruising together to the Channel Islands then on to the West Country and back to Chichester via Dartmouth, Weymouth and Studland Bay.

We took Mark with us for the Channel crossings, dropping him off in Falmouth on the return journey. The extra experience aboard and ability to chat through passage planning was good for me and reassuring for the family. It also gave me and Francesca more time to relax with a glass of rosé while the children jumped off the side of the boat and paddle-boarded.

For the 2019 season Duchess emerged from dry dock with new Raymarine Axiom Pro plotters and radar array to replace the outdated 2002 technology, and introduced AIS to the boat for the first time. Just as importantly we replaced the drinks fridge and ice maker as well as a new canvas enclosure for the cockpit. With the unpredictable UK weather this enclosure, coupled with the opened bifold doors, has completely transformed the wheelhouse into an inside/outside space for us.


Duchess anchored off Trelissick, Cornwall

Brittany bound

In addition to our usual summer liveaboard routine, and with my own holiday time in short supply, I arranged for Mark to deliver the boat to Brittany for us. We then flew out to Brest to join Duchess for a one-way trip home. This meant we didn’t have to cross the Channel twice or retrace our steps and gave us more time to cover the ground in short hops with our 8-knot cruising speed.

We cruised the beautiful north Brittany coast from Morlaix in the west to St. Malo in the east before heading north to Chichester via Les Minquiers and the Channel Islands.

Characterised by its challenging navigation, beautiful deserted beaches and pink granite coastline, this proved to be the perfect cruising holiday for us. We were able to find quiet lunchtime anchorages for the children to play about in the water, which we balanced with the interest of mooring up in coastal villages and towns overnight.


Mist shrouds the surroundings in Lézardrieux, Brittany

The marinas and ports we visited, many with cills or locks to access, were all well run, with good facilities, welcoming to visitors and reasonably priced. The area seems to be more popular with visiting sailing yachts than motor boats and is generally set up for smaller craft than Duchess but everywhere we went they always managed to find room for us.

Our route took inspiration from a memorable MBY article on the best boating restaurants in Brittany written by the late great Peter Cumberlidge, and we tried a number of them in his honour. Just as he wrote, the quality of food in the restaurants and markets on this coastline is exceptional and remarkably good value, too. The Bretons, a little like the Cornish, take pride in their independence from the rest of France and we found the locals much more hospitable than elsewhere in the country.

Where possible, short distances of 20-30nm a day work better for us as a family. With an 8-knot cruising speed, I was also careful to plan passages to take advantage of a favourable tide. This gave us time to enjoy the anchorages and explore the places we visited at a leisurely pace. Francesca could do her morning run returning with croissants, we could then visit a market to buy food and grab an ice cream or crepe with the children.


Archie supervises the departure from Beaucette Marine, on the north coast of Guernsey

And, as many of our friends will know, watching the world go by with sundowners on the bow or in the cockpit are an important part of the daily routine on Duchess.

Happy families

Running a boat like Duchess is not cheap but she is our second home and we use her well. The rule of thumb about annual running costs equating to 10 per cent of the value of the boat has proven to be about right, excluding the improvements we budgeted for when we bought her. Our twin Volvo engines burn 25lph when cruising, and together with the generator account for around £3,000 pa on fuel – although to date about 75 per cent of this has been bought tax-free in Guernsey.

Generally, I budget on around £250-£300 per day for our family cruises to cover the cost of fuel, marina fees, meals ashore, excursions and provisions, which compares pretty well against the cost of a family holiday abroad.


“The quality of food in the restaurants and markets on the Brittany coastline is exceptional and good value.”

We chose to buy Duchess rather than a house to meet our need for a coastal base and as a memory-maker for our family. The use we get from her is more extensive than we ever imagined and the “enjoyment dividend” has been priceless.

Our 2020 season was a rather different one and started later in the summer than we had hoped. Francesca spent lockdown doing an online RYA navigation course and we managed to meet up with friends on the Isles of Scilly in August.

For this, and so many other reasons, we are more convinced than ever that we made the right choice and consider ourselves very fortunate to have found the right boat at the right time and the right price.

First published in the September 2020 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.