Ed Hartman pretty much invented this boat show business, and after 37 years of anchoring nearly an acre and a half of floating docks at the Annapolis waterfront to display everything from dinghies to modest outboards to mammoth sail and power yachts, you'd think he'd have seen it all.
Not so. Not when sky-high fuel prices are enough to scare off weekend boaters. Not when the economy leaves buyers, builders, lenders and vendors scratching their heads and wringing their hands.
Not when just about everyone who strolls down to City Dock the next two weekends, admiring an array of power and sailboats will wonder how a staggering economy is going to treat a luxury business like this.
"This thing going on in Washington right now, God only knows," Hartman said. "We're in a slow period, but from what we see, it's just a myth that there's no money to lend."
Early indicators, including attendance at summer boat shows put on by Hartman's United Yacht Sales Inc. in Rhode Island and Connecticut, were off slightly, he said. Still, with about 700 sailboats and powerboats, plus other vendors lined up for the next two weekends of sail and power boat shows here, there's even a short waiting list, Hartman said.
Advance ticket sales in Annapolis are down 4 percent for this weekend's sailboat show (today through Monday) and off 11 percent for the powerboat show that begins a week from today (Oct. 16-19), but Hartman says walk-up sales are what counts, the last-minute crowd who like to window shop in the waning warm days of October.
"Power sales say that it depends on the size boat you want," Hartman said. "A boat up to 21 feet is good now because it'll burn a lot less gas. Anything above 35 feet, and those people don't have to worry much about the price of gas. It's those boats in the 21- to 31-foot range that'll take the hit."
Pat Miller, a financial broker in Annapolis, said banks and other lenders have money but they're requiring more from loan clients.
"These are difficult times, but there is money out there. But the days of the 'no-doc' loan are gone," Miller said. "We're all going to be looking at the boat shows as a barometer on how this will turn out."
At Annapolis Yacht Sales, Vera Sohovich, the sales manager, said they've already had a good fall season and look forward to an above-average boat show, which routinely accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of their annual sales in high-priced sailboats. A dealer for Beneteau and other well-known boat builders, Annapolis Yacht Sales, will have 19 boats in the water this year, including two about 55 feet long that go for $550,000 apiece.
"I don't think we'll be having one of those boat shows where we'll sell 15, but eight to 10 boats would be doable," Sohovich said. "We're lucky to be here in an area that's somewhat recession-proof."
Most likely, Hartman said, the show will help Annapolis tout its still-vibrant maritime heritage to 90,000 to 100,000 visitors when the city pretty much gives itself over to wannabe boat owners who grab a parking place at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and take buses downtown.
City officials say a 2002 study showed that the maritime business is worth an estimated $200 million a year. Annapolis also gets $375,000 a year from Hartman's company for rent of City Dock.
The boat shows, sail and power combined, bring in $50 million, said Michael Miron, Annapolis' economic development director.
"It would be hard to deny that a severe credit crunch will hamper sales," Miron said. "On the other hand, people who've shopped around for a year or two come here to buy."
Susan Zellers, executive director of the state Marine Trades Association, said fuel prices seem to have leveled off since summer.
"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture; certainly credit is an issue," Zellers said. "But boating is a lifestyle decision, and people seem to be waiting to see where things go."
Jack Heffner, who owns the Gratitude Yachting Center in Rock Hall, said he is optimistic after selling two sailboats worth $160,000 apiece at a boat show in Virginia last week.
"We sold the two, then another for around $60,000 back here," Heffner said. "It doesn't have to be some kind of millionaire's boat. The deals are more difficult to put together now, and there's a lot closer look by the lenders."
Meanwhile, down at City Dock, Gary Reiner and his staff at Mills Fine Wine and Spirits are gearing up for two straight hectic weekends - regardless of boat sales.
"We're right here at the dock. How can that be bad?" Reiner said. "In good times, people like to drink. And in bad times, people like to drink."
IF YOU GO
What: United States Sailboat Show
Where: City Dock, Annapolis
When: Press/Trade/V.I.P Day, Today 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets: Today, $35; tomorrow through Monday, adults $16, 12 and under $8.
Parking: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, with shuttle to boat show.