Recession has a way of redefining success. With boat sales in dry dock and the economy sagging, hopes weren't high for a big turnout when the Washington Boat Show opened its six-day exhibit at the convention center last Wednesday.

And indeed, first-day attendance was low -- barely 7,000 people, some 15 percent below last year's first-day numbers, show officials said.

Still, the show's organizers were happy.

"We were down, and a lot of 'lookers' didn't show up, but a lot of bona fide boat buyers did," said Thomas J. Stafford, president of TJS Show Productions Inc., the Springfield firm that organized the boat exhibit.

There were people, for example, like Tom Kianka, a 43-year-old aircraft mechanic from Manassas.

Kianka said he knows that the economy is in the soup, but someone, he said, has to look on the bright side.

"It bothers everyone to have to tighten their belts a little bit," Kianka said.

"But, sooner or later, you've got to loosen up. If you go around worrying about money for the rest of your life, you might as well hang it up."

Kianka said that he was shopping for a 20-foot power boat "in the neighborhood of $30,000."

The recreational boating industry, which has been in a slump for more than two years, could use more people like Kianka.

"Consumer confidence has to come back before we can start turning things around," said Gregory Proteau, executive director of the National Marine Bankers Association in Chicago.

"Boats typically are bought with the last dollar earned," which means that they are highly discretionary purchases, Proteau said.

Economic downturns, war or new taxes -- together or as separate events -- all have a tendency to depress boat sales, Proteau said.

And sales have been falling steadily since the industry's peak year in 1988, when 749,000 boats were sold in the United States. Last year, 504,100 boats were sold, a 32.7 percent drop from 1988 sales.

Further declines are expected this year because of the 10 percent luxury boat tax that took effect Jan. 1.

"Boats are recreation. They are not cars or refrigerators, which people need," said Doug Henschen, senior editor of Boating Industries Magazine, a trade publication in New York.

"When people get a little bit nervous, they automatically begin asking themselves whether they want to crank out money for a boat."

Ben Moses, 31, a computer salesman from Germantown, agrees with that assessment.

Moses already owns one boat, but said that he is "dreaming" about the possibility of trading it in and buying another one, maybe something like the Wellcraft 250 Sportsman runabout he was eyeing at the show.

But with news of the allied forces attack on Iraq blaring from a television at a nearby exhibit booth, Moses said that he had a whole new set of concerns to worry about involving any prospective boat purchase.

"Will I have the marine fuel to drive it, or will I have to put it up in the water and just look at it" because of possible fuel shortages, Moses said.

"You sail," Tom Hatch, co-owner of Backyard Boats in Annapolis, told him.

Hatch, who sells both sail and power boats, said that since October, he has seen "a bit of a trend toward sailboats" over power-boat purchases.

On an otherwise dismal day, Hatch declared himself "quite pleased" and "happy"; on the show's opening day, he sold two boats -- both of them powered by sail.