Spirited adieu to sailboats

The Baltimore Sun

Music blasted and waiters rushed by with trays of sloshing drinks. It was a fine, warm evening for an outdoor party, and the crowd - with their sunglasses, boat shoes and suntans - proved easy to please. Pressed up to the edge of the water, they drank, hooted, cheered and bid a proper adieu - Annapolis-style - to the boats that had been packed into the harbor all week for the U.S. Sailboat Show.

For as long as the show has existed, locals and boat-show regulars have gathered on the last night to marvel as gleaming sailboats suddenly peel away with choreographed precision and glide into the bay.

Most agree that the best spot to watch from these days is Pusser's Caribbean Grille, the waterside restaurant and bar, and on Monday, the happy throngs began arriving in the early afternoon for the annual breakdown party, a beloved ritual some compare to a block party or a family reunion. Devotees stay until the sun sets and the water turns black to see the powerboats chugging in for their show, which starts today.

"It's just a sight to see. The coordination of it all is ridiculous," said Brad Griesemer, who was there for the fourth year in a row.

"It gets goose-bumpy," said Heather Macintosh, who came with her husband and children.

"To see these big boats maneuver around in a tight space, then head out to where they're going. It's so romantic. ... We all wish we were going with them."

Precisely at 5 p.m., a cannon sounded and the boats on the outermost edges started powering away, one by one. The crowd roared.

On Pusser's second-floor patio, spectators pushed to the railings. Some held up cameras for pictures. Others chattered and drank, occasionally looking up to see a mast float away in the distance.

Sandy Williamson has been attending the breakdown party for 20 years. Back in the day, she said, spectators would make bets about when the Yachting Magazine bridge, a temporary structure installed for the show, would come down. Some years the weather has been abysmal - hurricanes, floods, winter temperatures. She has left the final party before to go home and build a fire.

But not this year, she said, sipping one of Pusser's signature Painkillers, a popular rum and pineapple-and-orange juice concoction they sell by the thousands this week.

The economy may have affected boat sales, but at least the weather was perfect, down to the final hours. The pale blue sky grew darker and more velvety. The almost-full moon rose. And the 250 boats continued to ship out in quick succession, followed by chunks of floating dock, which are also part of the massive logistical puzzle.

"Get your Painkillers!" a bartender shouted, as the crowd grew livelier and sloppier.

The new owner of one of the boats struggled to get his 50-foot purchase out. Onlookers booed as the boat lurched toward them.

"Show a little love!" someone shouted from the deck.

Some captains were showing off as they coursed through the narrow "Ego Alley" passage. To shouting and applause, they zipped backward or turned 360 degrees or veered toward the crowded dock before stopping suddenly. Some threw T-shirts and plastic discs to the roaring crowd. Then, flags fluttering atop the masts (almost no one had their sails up), they slipped away and disappeared into the night.

By the time the last boat departed, around 7:15 p.m., the sky was an inky blue-black and lights glimmered in the water. The powerboats began to arrive.

"It was awesome," said Michelle Chase, a breakdown party newbie still loitering in the upstairs spot she had arrived early to claim. "It's like nothing you've ever experienced."

She was impressed by the handy maneuvering, the racer boats, the dismantling of the floating docks, the moon, the lights reflected in the water. And now, to top it off, the powerboats were quietly huffing into place.

"No matter what, to be on the water on a night like tonight is special," she said. "It is the night you always wish for."

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