Sunsail cruised to leading place in the Mediterranean flotilla sailing race. But for two years privately owned Sunsail has been battling storms in the holiday market. Geoffrey Foster reports.
Some people never grow up. They dream of buying a boat and cruising through the azure waters of a distant archipelago; of landfalls and sunsets, and nights spent lying at anchor beneath a brilliant southern sky. It was the inspiration of Eric Richardson that a living could be made by lending substance to these nautical dreams. In the mid-1970s he pioneered Mediterranean flotilla sailing. For a dozen years his Yacht Cruising Association - a (usually) profit-making private venture despite its brilliantly misleading name - flew thousands of families and friends down to the Med, embarked them on small sailing boats, and led them on leisurely island-hopping voyages.
Flotilla sailing caught on, and competitors joined in. Fleets began appearing all over the Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic seas. But some of the corporate newcomers to flotilla operation disappeared almost as suddenly as they arrived. Buying and equipping a dozen or more yachts called for considerable upfront expenditure; and, especially in the early years, the numbers of holidaymakers involved were hardly sufficient to carry much clout with the charter airlines.
Among the survivors, one stood out from all the rest. This was Island Sailing, which grew at a formidable pace to become, in the mid-1980s, the biggest flotilla operator of the lot. The business reached a pinnacle at the end of 1987, when it acquired Richardson's YCA. The following year the wisdom of this move appeared to be confirmed. Turnover doubled to more than £9.5 million while operating profit passed the £1 million mark for the first time. In early 1989 Sunsail International - as the holding company became after the merger - probably possessed more cruising yachts than anyone else in the world, and the fleet was still expanding.
Yet the ink was scarcely dry on the agreement with YCA before the first faint puffs of the present recession were making themselves felt. By 1989 Sunsail's 640-odd boats were clearly too many. As just occasionally happens to its customers, the company was forced to reduce sail smartly. However, with interest payments ballooning, it was not quick enough to prevent a loss of approaching £500,000 in the year to October 1989, compared with a pre-tax profit of all but £900,000 the previous year. Conditions in the tourist trade have hardly improved in the past 12 months.
The setbacks of the past couple of years have been an unusual experience for Chris Gordon, Sunsail's managing director and controlling shareholder. Now aged 36, has been running his own business since he was 25, and had become used to rapid growth. A one-time trainee with Hillier Parker, he decided early on that he did not want to be an estate agent and badgered his father into setting up a sailing school in Poole Harbour, which they ran together. However, the son did not enjoy working with father either. "They are all strong characters in the Gordon family," observes a former employee. So in 1979 Chris Gordon struck out on his own as head of another sailing school 40 miles away, at Emsworth in Chichester Harbour.
Emsworth Sailing School was actually one of the oldest ventures of its kind in Britain. It was acquired - from the liquidator - with the help of Gordon's father and, not least, his girlfriend's father, but it gave him the independence that he wanted. He very sensibly married the girl soon afterwards, and his wife has played a part in the business ever since. But there was never more than a modest living to be gleaned in those days (or since) from teaching young people how to handle dinghies. "We had a very loyal following - it was a very personal little place," remembers Sally Gordon. "But it was never a great money spinner."
Gordon's thoughts were already turning to flotillas. In the early years of the 1980s he became involved in a costly flotilla cruising venture in the Bahamas. He and his wife even flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to oversee the operation. But it was too small to be viable, and in the end his father took it over. The episode was a source of friction between the Gordons which lasted for several years.
After this false start the younger Gordons' second - and more enduring - appearance on the flotilla scene came about almost fortuitously. For the sailing school led directly to Island Sailing. In the late 1970s the latter enterprise, formerly known as Greeksail, was owned by Guinness (one of the brewer's stranger diversifications into the leisure sector), and run from Hayling Island, just a few miles from Emsworth. The sailing school used the same printers to produce its brochures, and this tenuous link provided Gordon's introduction to the flotilla operators. "Don't forget," he used to tell them, "if you ever want to sell out ..." And when Ernest Saunders, as chairman of Guinness, considered his company's diverse portfolio, that was precisely what he did want.