The Boat Show Survival Guide

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 08:40AM - Comments: (1)

The fleet assembles for the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Show in Port Townsend, Washington.

Last weekend at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington I was reminded of the hidden dangers of boat shows. I was sitting in the cockpit of a custom Ed Monk design offered for sale and had forgotten that I had a mortgage and a job that required regular appearances at an office.

“It’s set up for a single-hander,” the owner said. “The previous owner sailed it all over the Pacific.”

I caressed the freshly varnished tiller. It seemed to fit my hand perfectly. “Well, maybe I could convert the bow workshop into a V-berth for the kids.”

The workshop was a gem, with custom-fitted drawers for tools and spare hardware. The owner’s face darkened. “That would be a shame.”

“You’re right, a real shame. Maybe—”

Were it not for the cannon shot signalling the start of the classic schooner race, my kids' college funds would be in even grimmer shape today. I later realized I’d violated the first rule for attending a boat show: Never go alone. Without a clearheaded companion to talk sense into me, my weakness for boats and dreams of the sea was exposed, ripe for exploitation.

Boat Show Survival

With the fall and winter show season just around the bend, I offer these tips to sailors like myself who are prone to boat-show seductions. Having parted with a good share of my wages on unnecessary accessories at various shows, I am clearly no expert on this, so if you have any other advice to share, please do.

Attend opening day, so you can relax and enjoy the sights.

  1. Relax. Arrive for opening day, usually a weekday, so you can set an easy pace. By the time the weekend throngs arrive, vendors have little time for a leisurely chat. Plot the stalls or boats you want to see (download the show map online beforehand), but leave some time for browsing. For big-ticket items, save your purchase for the last day of the show, when prices are often negotiable. (You can often negotiate for the advertised boat-show discount long after the show.)

    LED? What LED? Ye ol' running light serves Plover just fine.

  2. New is different, not necessarily better. When the next best thing is proudly unveiled at the show, remember that sailors have been safely, happily crossing oceans for decades, long before this new gadget existed. Some of the best gear is still found at used gear chandleries.


    Smuggle in a picnic basket and spare yourself the boat-show heartburn.

  3. Eat well. Boat show food is a mixed bag—on par with the county fair. Plan ahead and pack a lunch, or exit midday to sample the local specialty at a nearby restaurant. The best places are often a block or two off the waterfront.


    More than a few local craftsman were caught taking notes on Russel Brown's nesting dinghy, offered as a kit through Port Townsend Watercraft.

  4. Study the details. Even if you are not in the market for a new boat, take a spin around the docks for ideas or products you can use for your own boat. Take pictures; ask discreet questions. The same applies to the gear stalls. Many products you see can be fabricated at home for much less.

    Renowned sailors Lin and Larry Pardey patiently answer questions at their booth at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Show.

  5. Seek out the experts. The gurus of sailing often gather at boat shows, either to represent a product, sell books, or lecture on their favorite topic. Track them down at their booth, shower them with praise, buy their book, then pepper them with questions.
  6. Attend the right seminars. Not all boat show seminars are created equal. The first five minutes of a talk will usually make clear if it’s a marketing pitch or a worthwhile lecture. Sit near an aisle where you can walk out without causing a stir. Look for speakers with standout resumes, or more than just one book title behind them.

    Brown's nesting dinghy rowed well; but after my short spin, I already had a few modifications in mind.

  7. Arrange a test sail (or row). Many dealers offer test sails on the days prior to or after the boat show. These “show tests” are often brief, however, and the wind on that day may not reveal the boat’s strengths or flaws, but it is often enough to recognize what options you might want—or not need.


    If you don't have the time to varnish, beware of seductive sliding hatches like this one.

  8. Beware of the gleam. Remember that these boats are in pristine, show condition, and sitting in a calm marina. As you admire the nine coats of varnish on the caprail, remember the effort it took to achieve that shine. Look beyond the pretty flowers on the dinette table for the things that matter—grippy non-skid, plenty of handholds, systems that are accessible for servicing, sensible running rigging, and so on.

    Arrrgh! If he be wearing ane eye-patch, be wary of his intentions.

  9. Steer clear of pirates. Every show has a few sketchy stalls selling plastic junk that will self-destruct the moment you get home. Look for companies with a history in the marine industry; cast a skeptical eye upon the rest.

    Kids build boats at the craft booth at Port Townsend Wooden Boat Show. Most boat shows have activities for younger children, but a parent must usually be present. If you've got some serious shopping to do, bring two parents and trade shifts. The younger ones are generally not interested in looking at snap-shackles.

  10. Have fun; make a friend. The after-hours parties are a breeding ground for bad dancing and embellished sea stories, but they are a great opportunity to meet people who share your passion for boats. The long-time cruisers whose advice you seek are usually easy to spot. Know them by their weathered boat shoes, rumpled clothes, and tote bags full of parts catalogs.

Comments (1)

Boat show at Metropolitan Beach in Harrison Township, MI, on Lake St. Clair, is this weekend. This advice is very timely! I like the suggestion to review the vendors on line, prior to the show, to minimize wasted time.

Posted by: David B | September 10, 2014 12:08 PM    Report this comment

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