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In the early 1970s Mediterranean sailing was considered the privilege of the rich. Few UK boats ventured as far, and the concept of bare-boat chartering still seemed implausible. Against this background the idea of flotilla holidays emerged – economical sailing holidays in locally-berthed boats, where a crew was always on hand to help, and eyeball navigation in warm, tideless waters took away much of the risk.

Cruising World MagazineThe Ionian Sea was the font for many of today’s charter operators, and one of the oldest is Sailing Holidays, run by Barrie and Heidi Neilson. Their offices are in Willesden, a residential London suburb where the improbable location is made almost surreal by a sign on their door advertising vacancies for flotilla engineers and crew. Barrie is a large, friendly New Zealander, who in true antipodean style, raises outspokenness into an art. Even after thirty years in Britain, he still considers the British as “you”. When I suggested that such a leafy suburb was an unlikely place to find suitably qualified staff, he immediately laid out his stall. “Kiwis and Aussies live in the flats down the road and they’re the only trades people left. You don’t train them in England. You’re giving people certificates, whereas down there they still have apprenticeships, marine engineering electronics, fibre-glassing – you name it.”

Cruising World MagazineBarrie sometimes appears to regard his business almost as a crusade against the establishment. “One of the classics I had three years ago was this guy rang up and said he’d love to do one of those flotilla holidays. So I said: ‘Have you got any sailing experience?’ and he said, ‘Well I used to sail dinghies as a kid but the whole of my working life I’ve been too busy to think about sailing’. So I said: ‘What did you used to do during your working life?’ He said: ‘I’m a ship’s captain’. I don’t believe what I’m hearing! This guy had been conditioned that one can’t go sailing without a certificate. If people turn up with a certificate, what does it really say? If people turn up and say, ‘I’m a tradesman, I can fix engines and can do this, and can do that’ it says: ‘skilled man’.

Cruising World Magazine “When I started we were all new; all green as grass. Our clients were very much English people, couples, families, and lots of singles. The other thing that we got on our kind of sailing was women. All sorts of women. Most practical people can do it quite easily – there are no tides, there’s no compass variations, no complications like you have around the UK of bad weather, none of the difficulties. But the combination of blazer brigade, the weather in England, the whole general scene didn’t encourage any women to go sailing at all – it actively discouraged them.”
Barrie regards his clients almost as family – hardly surprising, perhaps, considering that he married one of them. “In the early days it was a younger group of people, and the same people are still coming with us twenty years later, but bringing their kids. We reckon between 67 and 70 percent are repeat business.” With typically robust confidence he adds, “They only go to the other one once.”

Cruising World MagazineIn spite of the company’s steady growth for more than two decades, Barrie still gives the impression he’s a pioneer, but his story is the story of chartering, and is one worth telling. He settles in his chair and starts fiddling with a ruler. “I used to road-race motor bikes, that was my big thing until I realised I was mortal. Then a mate of mine asked me to sail round the world with him in an old concrete boat – that was 1974 – and I thought: Why not? We didn’t go round the world, but had a great trip for a year. Up the east coast of New Zealand, we sailed out of Bluff – no one sails out of Bluff – then across to Australia. In those days we didn’t have any money. We couldn’t find enough girls to volunteer to steer the boats, so we borrowed a welder, shaved down a plank with a plane and managed to get some mild steel and made it. We made everything. Mini tyres painted white for fenders.” He laughs at the memory. “Mini-tyres are very under-rated because they made terrific sea anchors – a couple of holes in the bottom to let the water out and just a rope through the top. We only ever used them once but we really needed them. We were going backwards at 4 knots and had eight of them off the bow. It was survival.

Cruising World Magazine“Then I came to see what was happening in England. I was only 28 and I didn’t have any plans. I built a ferro boat down in Dorset and taught swimming to raise the funds. I used to commute down to Wimbourne and raid the skips for hardwood – everything was acquired from skips. So it’s my first boat and I wrecked it in the end in France, which was an excellent job application advertisement. I wrote it off in 1978 and then got a job as a flotilla engineer with Flotilla Sailing Club in Gouvia. In those days it was just a swamp. It’s only become a marina in the last 15 years.”

He shows me the company’s pilot notes, of which he’s very proud. “In a way, Rod Heikell’s manuals came from this era, and his have evolved for the general public whereas as ours has evolved specifically for our clients. Rod was our opposite number in Falcon, and Joe Charlton was there as well. Frances [Frances Burdett-Coutts Barrie’s General Manager] started the same day as I did, in 1979, then he went on to work for Sunsail in Corsica and Sardinia, and came back about ten years ago. So there’s quite a gang of ex-flotilla crews from that era still involved in the industry one way or another. It was a great adventure: I literally had to look up where Greece was on the map: remember I’d just come from New Zealand.”

Cruising World MagazineFlotilla Sailing was started by Tom King, a businessman who was looking for something for his sons to do. “They didn’t care what it was as long as it was on a yacht and down in the Greek islands,” said Barrie “They had visions of getting a 80 footer and swanning about with lots of girls and living happily every after. But Tom wasn’t stupid. He came across a fella’ called Des Pollard down in Southend, who was building Jaguars and said to him: “Right, I want twelve this year and twenty-four next year.” Des nearly fell off his chair. Tom called his sons and told them there were twelve boats going to arrive in northern Italy on such and such a day; go and get them and sail them down to Greece.”

Cruising World MagazineOver the next three years the fleet increased from twelve to thirty-six boats. But then Des Pollard, Jaguar’s builder, decided to have a go himself, and gave Barrie a job running a flotilla along the Florida Keys. “I used to get £80 a week, so it was twice the money. It was fantastic; I really enjoyed it. In those days you’d fly over, have a week’s sailing, and then go up to Disneyland for a week.” But the owner couldn’t make it pay and when Tom King asked Barrie if he wanted to take a fleet of Jaguars up to Yugoslavia, Barrie responded in true Kiwi style and replied: “Where?”

“So I went down to Greece and picked up seven Jags and took them up to Yugoslavia. A lot of fun. I met Heidi there in ’83. She came on holiday and decided I needed sorting out. We ran that through ’83 and ’84 then Tom sent us to pick up some new Bénéteaux. Heidi and I ran this whole flotilla up and down the whole Ionian for a year.”