By Don Markus
The Baltimore Sun
4:34 PM EDT, October 12, 2013
The heavy rain had pretty much stopped late Friday afternoon, but along City Dock in Annapolis, the sailing enthusiasts continued to come by the Buster's Marine merchandise tent. David Schmidtt, who had started going to the United States Sailboat Show when he was 12 with his father, Buster, was not surprised.
"This show is amazing," Schmidtt, 35, said as potential customers looked at his stock of Mercury Marine inflatable boats. "I've been to 22 shows this year, and this is by far the most crowded. You could go to an indoor show in New York City on a [rainy] day like today, and it would be empty. Here, there's rain and wind, and it's packed."
Paul Jacobs, the show's longtime general manager, said the sailing industry that the recession nearly sunk in 2007 is slowly, and finally, starting to turn around.
According to Jacobs, this year's show needed a record for square footage to accommodate some 600 to 700 vendors. Jacobs said he heard a member of the Annapolis City Council announce that the sailboat show and the United States Powerboat Show the previous weekend would generate "around $100 million" for the local economy.
"I've been pleasantly surprised by the numbers," Jacobs said Friday about a show that started Thursday and will run through Monday. "People who come out in weather like this are serious about being at a boat show."
Jacobs said he expects higher sales revenue at this year's show than at any since 2007, when government officials announced the economy's recession on the same day the sailboat show opened in Annapolis.
"There's been an increase of around 2 to 5 percent [in sales] the last couple of years, and we're going to be beyond that this year," Jacobs said
Bob Pattison, a technical director for Connecticut-based Neil Pryde Sails, said the recent federal government shutdown presents its own set of challenges. While he's seen a small bump in sales the past couple of years, "We need a little help [from the overall economy], and the guys in Washington aren't helping us."
Nor was Mother Nature, at least not Friday, when an early-afternoon deluge left many potential customers hunkered down in larger merchandise tents and a few local restaurants and bars.
Joked Jacobs, "Whoever was selling boots and rain gear did very well."
That didn't help Chuck Paine, a prominent boat designer from Maine. The recession forced Paine to close a lucrative yacht design company he had started over 30 years before. He decided to retire and build a sporty, trailerable 14-foot keelboat for himself, but after a friend wrote a story about Paine in a Maine boating magazine, a few local sailors wanted to know whether Paine could build one for them, too.
Business was a bit slow for Paine's boat in Annapolis on Friday, in part because of the price tag ($38,500), but also because of the weather.
Paine said he recently returned from a trip to Europe, where despite the economic chaos in a number of countries, "the sailing industry is thriving." Acknowledging that he is a glass- half-empty kind of guy, Paine said the U.S. sailing industry "getting a little better, but we've got a long way to go."
Industry veterans such as Paine say smaller boats sell better than larger boats, and Schmidtt thinks inflatables, such as the ones he sells out of his Queens, N.Y., location, do better than anything else these days.
While he wouldn't say how many inflatables he has sold so far this week in Annapolis — "We're doing well," he said with a smile — Schmidtt said Annapolis attracts the largest numbers of sailboat consumers of any show in the country.
Earlier in the day, when the rain was at its heaviest, Schmidtt said, "I should have taken a picture of the rain coming down, and we're selling our inflatables."
Jacobs has what he calls "an unofficial theory" about the rain at the sailboat show. When the sun is shining, many of the sailing enthusiasts congregate around the larger boats docked on the show's perimeter. But rain forces most of them inside, to the covered merchandise tents.
"The rain," Jacobs said, "can work in our favor."
Amid a cloudy, rainy weekend in Annapolis, the sailing gods were smiling on his show.
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