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Dream boats for well-heeled only

The Baltimore Sun

This is how bad the economy's going: Even the sweater-tied-around-the-neck crowd is hurting.

I found this out when I took in the big United States Sailboat Show this past weekend at Annapolis' City Dock.

On the surface, everything looked fine. The weather was perfect. The place was packed. Some 400 shiny boats were on display. Over 500 exhibitors enthusiastically hawked their wares - one guy was so good I almost bought boat insurance off him, and I don't even own a boat.

But everywhere you went, there was worried chatter on the same topic: the Dow dropping like a car pushed off a cliff.

"Of course it's had an effect on sales," said Dan Nardo, a broker for 24 years with Annapolis Yacht Sales. "If I ask if this downturn has affected your thoughts about buying a boat, nine out of 10 people will say yes.

"But people are still excited," he continued. "There aren't as many people buying. But they're still looking and thinking about their dream boat."

I met Nardo on a gleaming 54-foot Beneteau, one of the pricier boats at $650,000, with teak decks, three staterooms, 42-inch flat-screen TV, all the bells and whistles.

Here's something I learned about boat shows: You have to take off your shoes when you climb aboard these expensive boats.

Apparently, the people selling them don't want you clomping around on their nice new boats and leaving scuff marks all over the place.

So you leave your shoes right there on the dock, which feels kind of strange. And you don't have to worry about anyone stealing your shoes. Believe me, this was not the sort of crowd that steals shoes.

In fact, a lot of these people were wearing shoes that looked like they cost more than my TV.

So if anyone was going to be stealing shoes, it was probably going to be me. But this Beneteau 54-footer quickly became my dream boat, if a guy working in a dying industry can actually dream of owning a boat.

"Three years ago, if you had a pulse, you had a boat loan," Nardo said. I have a pulse, I thought.

"But that's not the case anymore," he continued. "Now you have to have a down payment, income verification and all that stuff." Oh. Well, so much for the dream.

After talking to Nardo, I went to look at an even pricier boat, a 70-foot Hinckley Sou'wester sloop named Misconduct that was selling for $3.5 million. The navigation system looked like something off an aircraft carrier. It had custom-crafted china and glass storage lockers. The owners cabin had a full entertainment system, en suite head and shower.

It made the Beneteau look like a rowboat.

"I take it people looking to buy a boat like this are not the sort of people who worry about downturns in the financial markets," I said to Peter Howard, the Hinckley sales director.

"That's a safe statement," he said.

In fact, people who can afford a boat like Misfortune are the sort of people who, if you mention that the $700 billion bailout doesn't seem to be working, will give you this blank look and say: "Is there something going on with the economy?"

Oh, sure, gas and food prices might be killing you. Your 401(k) might be getting shredded, and you might wonder if you'll be warming your hands over a trash barrel fire this winter.

But the only thing these people are worried about is whether they'll find a boat with enough cherry-wood cabinets in time for next year's sailing season.

My last stop was a tour of an Oyster 82, the priciest boat at the show. Oyster is a British company, and this Oyster 82 sells for a cool $6.5 million and looks like the presidential suite at a Four Seasons hotel below-decks.

This is how upscale Oyster boats are: They have a full-color brochure that's 112 pages thick and weighs about 5 pounds.

"I know, it's like something you'd keep on your coffee table," said Richard Gibson, an Oyster sales negotiator who handed me one.

I'm sure when he first spotted me, Gibson knew right away that the shabby newspaper guy in front of him wasn't popping for a yacht anytime soon.

But that's the thing about the Brits. You can show up and kill their hopes of a commission and they're still just as polite as can be.

Next week, the United States Powerboat Show comes to Annapolis, which is supposed to be even better for people-watching than the sailboat show. Powerboat people are different from sailboat people, Nardo said.

"The testosterone count is definitely higher," he said. "The gold chains count is higher. The high heels count is higher. The miniskirt count is higher."

On the other hand, you could be a powerboat dealer and a man with a shaved head, neck tattoos and a blazer from the Tony Soprano Collection will walk up to you, point at a boat, and casually write a check for a half-million bucks on the spot.

So nobody in Nardo's line of work makes fun of the powerboat people. Their money spends, too.

And they have wonderful shoes.

I might go next week just to check out the shoes.

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