A Kiwi Lad’s Odyssey

Mar 29, 2017 General Interest

How a motorbike racer toiling at the Invercargill freezing works became the owner of the largest yacht charter operation in the Greek Islands. Lawrence Schäffler has the story.

The stars governing Barrie Neilson’s career looked decidedly lacklustre in the late 1960s. By his own admission he was never any good at school (couldn’t concentrate and if they’d had ‘-isms’ in those days, he’d have had one). So he escaped to a job as soon as was legal.

The grim carnage at the freezing works was alleviated only by his passion for racing motorbikes. And he achieved reasonable success – even though funding the inevitable repairs and upgrades proved challenging on his modest wages.

Barrie Bike 2_cmyk (Small)But then Fate stepped in and muscled the stars into a more favourable alignment. A mate at the freezing works was building a 45-foot ferro-concrete yacht. It was just about finished and he was looking for crew to accompany him on a sailing adventure – destination unknown. Was Barrie interested?

Some 20 years later, Neilson had become the owner of Londonbased Sailing Holidays Ltd – a yacht charter company operating exclusively in the Greek Islands. Today it owns around 180 Beneteau Oceanis yachts ranging from 31 to 52 feet – and caters to more than 10,000 charterers a year. It easily qualifies as the region’s largest yacht charter company.

Now I’m not making any judgements about the business acumen of motorbike fiends or chaps growing up in the deep south, but I think this is a fair question: what necromancy happened on the pilgrimage between Invercargill and London?

Despite her telephone-pole spars, home-made fittings and seasick crew, the yacht – Sundancer – made it up the east coast of New Zealand, over the top and across the Tasman to Sydney. Though an inexperienced blue-water sailor, Neilson proved a useful crew member thanks to his extensive mechanical skills gleaned from years of fixing smashed motorbikes.

Sundancer_cmyk (Small)

But it all came to an abrupt end when, soon after arriving in Sydney, Sundancer’s owner received an offer to good to refuse. Homeless, Neilson left for London in 1980. He was hired as a lifeguard for the pool at the Swiss Cottage Holiday Inn, based on his school bronze medallion for lifesaving. He soon took over managing the pool area as the hotel engineers didn’t know about pools. Nor did he, but he figured it out.

Four years later he was hired as maintenance engineer for the Flotilla Sailing Club. This company operated a fleet of charter yachts in Greece – and the job forced him to translocate to a much sunnier and appealing part of the world.

Flotilla charter sailing – for the uninitiated – typically involves 10 to 12 yachts travelling as a fleet, often crewed by never-sailed-before landlubbers. The charters run for one or two weeks and the boats are chaperoned by a ‘lead’ boat with an experienced skipper. He/she guides the crews through the processes of sailing and docking, as the boats move between Greek Island village harbours.

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Old Jaguar yacht.

This might sound like a recipe for disaster on a catastrophic scale, but 10,000 newbie sailors a year would disagree. “We’ve introduced a lot of people to sailing,” Neilson says wryly, “though we carry hundreds of experienced sailors as well.”

The genesis of Neilson’s eventual acquisition of the Flotilla Sailing Club – and his renaming it as Sailing Holidays – is a colourful, amusing and often fantastical tale – but also fairly complicated. So I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.

The Club operated a fleet of Jaguar 27s. Neilson’s involvement with the company expanded soon after management realised he also had significant sailing experience. ‘Maintenance man’ morphed into maintenance/lead boat skipper. And it all proved valuable preparation for what was to transpire.

Life continued smoothly in the islands, until Neilson was offered a job running a charter flotilla outfit on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Florida Keys, paying double the money. He spent two seasons with the grandiosely-named Sail America – but it all came crashing down when the company ran out of money.

Back in London – he was quickly re-employed by Flotilla Sailing Club. Two projects demanded his immediate attention:
• the company was expanding and moving a fleet of Jaguars to the Istrian Peninsula (then part of Yugoslavia, now Croatia). Someone (Neilson) had to deliver the yachts to the new base
• the company had finally moved on from the old Jaguars and had invested in a small fleet of new Beneteaus. Someone (Neilson) had to take crews to France and sail the boats to the Greek islands.

Wasn’t it awkward/difficult/dangerous working with the communists? Well, as it happened, the ‘manager’ of the new operation was married to Slobodan Milosevic’s sister. “No-one gave us any trouble,” says Neilson.

It was also in Yugoslavia that Neilson met Heidi – his future wife. Heidi confides that he needed ‘organising and sorting out’ – and that this has been a life-long task.

The owner of Flotilla Sailing Club – in the meantime – had also hired an ‘entrepreneur’ to run the company. But it soon emerged that, at best, this visionary was a little myopic. He was fired and, with the company’s fortunes beginning to falter, Neilson made his move.

In 1986 he and Heidi went to see the accountant and negotiated the purchase of a few of the aged Jaguar 27s for £35,000 on a ‘pay-later-slowly-arrangement’.

“We were looking for a way to buy a part of the business – without any money or financial standing. Fortunately, a friend put up a guarantee in exchange for some of the equity. We were blissfully ignorant – didn’t have a clue about shares or directorships.”

Saddled with Jaguars but no bookings demanded urgent action. He and Heidi produced a brochure overnight and secured a stand at the 1986 London Boat Show. By the end of the show the newly-formed Sailing Holidays had sufficient forward bookings – and the heart-rates returned to normal.

The operation snowballed, and over the next few years the company gradually took ownership of the Beneteau fleet. To meet demand, they even began buying up rival – struggling – charter companies on similar ‘pay-as-we-go’ arrangements.

Gouiva Marina Yacht Base_cmyk (Small)

It was far from plain sailing, says Neilson. “For the first 20 years, we couldn’t afford new boats – they were all second-hand and we did them up. We couldn’t get any financing. A bank lent us money in 2001 for the first time – and only after that did the line to credit slowly improve.”

One of these acquisitions demanded physical as well as financial daring.

Yugoslavia descended into civil war in 1991. The fleet of Jaguars Neilson had previously delivered and set up in Istria was now destitute. “They’d been standing in cradles on the hard for a few years, all derelict and without engines. The engines had been removed for the war effort.”

Ever resourceful, Neilson drove across Europe and into war-torn Yugoslavia – negotiating bomb-cratered roads, suspicious border authorities and surly soldiers – and arrived at the boatyard.
He secured the vessels – £2,000 each – but had to repeat the journey a few more times to retrofit new twin-cylinder Volvo engines to each, before they could be sailed back to Corfu.

By that stage Sailing Holidays had employed a real accountant – New Zealander Mark Carroll. The job, he says, gave him grey hairs because guarding the cheque book proved impossible. “Barrie
would come back from a trip abroad and say: ‘I’ve got something to tell you – we’ve bought six more boats.’ My panicked pleas about finding the money fell on deaf ears.”

Today the 180 Beneteaus are spread across three Greek island bases – in the Ionian, Saronic and Sporades islands. The company caters almost exclusively to the British market. As charter
operations go, it uses an unusual model, putting together allinclusive packages with flights, airport transfers and the boat.

The operational model hasn’t changed in all those years and the holidays are now enjoyed by families who had their own, first Sailing Holidays experience as children.

Key differentiators in our operating model, says Neilson, is that we own every one of the boats, and we are bonded and offer financial security.

“Unlike most other charter companies, our vessels aren’t managed on behalf of other owners – we control and maintain the assets. And being bonded means every charterer’s holiday is guaranteed. No-one arrives to find their flight or boat-booking is non-existent. And believe me, there are plenty of internet booking horror stories in the holiday industry.

“Another crucial component of the model,” he adds, “is that we make the sailing simple. Hoisting mains and lazy-jack stack systems are too hard, so every one of our yachts has in-mast furling. The cockpit layouts are designed for easy control – there is no need to go scrambling around on the foredeck.”

Gaios Paxos 1_cmyk (Small)

In addition to the 20 staff members employed in the London booking office, the boat crews based in the islands expand/contract with the season (it starts at the end of April and extends through to October). In peak season there are around 80 maintenance engineers, skippers and hostesses servicing the fleets. All vessels come out of the water during winter for maintenance, standing on the hard at a marina in Corfu.

Nielson Family_cmyk (Small)

Barrie and Heidi with their daughters.

So what’s the underlying lesson here? What’s unique in Neilson’s DNA? Self-belief? A cheerful demeanour? A solid grounding in vivisection? Motorbike racing?

“I know it’s a cliché – but it all comes down to a ‘Kiwi can-do’ view of life.”

And perhaps one of those undiagnosed -isms.