The Boat Show Survival Guide

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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.

Its 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 owners face darkened. That would be a shame.

Youre 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 Id 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.

  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.)

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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 its 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.

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  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 boats strengths or flaws, but it is often enough to recognize what options you might want-or not need.

  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.

  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.

  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.
Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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