Sue Grant, head of sales at Berthon, offers a view from the sharp end

It was blowing 40 knots, and the forecast was dire; but the owner was adamant that a sea trial was no problem, so I clambered aboard, trying to look positive. Two-and-a-half hours later we docked – genoa irretrievably ripped, four stanchions sheered, guardwires broken, and impact damage port and starboard. Amazingly the purchasers were very happy, and agreed to survey what remained. The owner, however, left white-faced and shaking, telling me he was “off” yachting. I couldn’t resist replying: “Really? I thought it all went rather well.”

Received wisdom has it that ours is an easy life – I wish! With all the changes in the yacht market over the past five years, the job of the professional broker has become much more complex. At Berthon, we sell around 180 yachts – both new and second-hand every year, and each one involves an increasing amount of paperwork.

The biggest change has been the introduction of the RCD (Recreational Craft Directive). Every boat either built or imported into the EU since 16th June 1998 must conform to this set of regulations, which can often make our work more like a private eye’s than a broker’s. We were asked to sell a South African-built yacht that had been “grandfathered” (offered with a full pre-RCD history). But – a big but – to prove this we had to provide genuine proof (in original) that she was actually cruising in Europe and not just passing through prior to the magic date. We had to turn gumshoe and search out berthing receipts and guardiennage details to provide the necessary history.

The ironic thing is that RCD has nothing to do with safety; it’s simply a trading agreement that standardises certain limited aspects of boat construction within the EU. Not all of them, in my view, are relevant and I even went to Brussels myself to argue the case. It can cost many thousands of pounds to certify an imported boat and often that’s simply uneconomic. We’ve had to turn down some beautiful craft, as seaworthy as they come, simply because of this rather artificial system.

But generally we’re very fortunate. In our business, whatever the problems, we’re dealing with fabulous yachts, which are a joy. However, it is the people who make it, and 55% of our business is repeat. Because of our high profile, we cannot afford to cut even the tightest corner. This is why we are instructed with increasing regularity to sort out soured deals using our experience and knowledge of contract, law, title and negotiation to put the sale back on track.

An unregistered yacht was being sold by us with five year’s clear title chain. We asked for the bill of sale to be notarised to transact title. Jolly good thing too, since the owner had removed the tonnage plate and changed the yacht’s name. Without a notarised bill of sale, we would never have discovered that he’d sold the boat to himself but used a different name.

Funds are often lent against yachts on an unsecured basis and it’s normal for the finance house to keep the original papers, so owners unable to produce these make us feel uncomfortable. A yacht was transacted where the papers were copied and sketchy. We started our usual enquiries and on the first call to the first finance house we found an outstanding loan. We never send funds until we’re satisfied that we really do have title to transfer.

But there are also some golden moments. I recall a quick-thinking owner who’d just brought his boat into Lymington, to lie for sale from Palma. Customs attended and asked for proof of VAT payment. The owner looked blank. After a moment his face brightened and he went to the aft cabin to collect his briefcase and an exemption certificate in Spanish was produced – I didn’t recognise the format, but Customs were satisfied and left. I mentioned to the owner that the exemption papers appeared unusual. “Oh that,” he replied. “I left the proper paperwork at home – that was my laundry receipt from Palma.”

Another owner, who’d taken delivery of his new yacht two months earlier, took me out for a sail and explained that he was particularly pleased with the twin wheel arrangement aft and the duplicated controls inside. The weather was bad, but the owner remained at the windward wheel, driving the yacht with considerable verve. In the decksaloon, the skipper altered course via autopilot – I looked aft and the owner was still at the helm “The yacht’s on autopilot,” the skipper explained sheepishly. “The aft steering is disengaged, so he’ll thrash around like this for hours while I keep watch.”

Nautilus