Every year, thousands of people come to the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis to look at boats. Most of them end up trying to look away.
Glance at a boat too long, seasoned attendees said, and brace for the consequences. A man can come here with a simple boating hobby and, two hours later, leave with a new boat, a lifelong sailing addiction and a serious debt problem.
The show, which ended Monday, connects the casual shopper with more than 1,000 canny salesmen angling to sell a few hundred of the world's best-looking boats at one-time-only prices.
"Everybody ends up buying something," said Art Smith, 67, from Deltaville, Va. "It's just so tempting. You only see a presentation like this once in a lifetime."
Beneteau, a yacht manufacturing company, spent several months preparing for the Annapolis show. It practically set up a full storefront on the harbor. Inside a large tent, three employees sold hats, T-shirts and polo shirts. Out back, 15 salesmen showed off a dozen different boats.
It's here where browsers became buyers. If you peeked at a boat, Regional Sales Manager Mike Thoney pounced. "You like that one?" he asked. "Doesn't matter if you don't. I've got 10 other beauties to show you."
At the 2003 show, Beneteau sold 89 boats, ranging in price from about $100,000 to $350,000. This year the company hoped to sell 100. During the show, Thoney pitched Beneteau's lowest rates of the year. "Just remember," he said, "these prices are long gone a week from now."
Most companies make a similar pitch. Vanguard Sailboats specializes in smaller, beginner boats. Its most popular model is the Sunfish, an eight-footer that sells for $3,100 and fits one person. On Friday, Vanguard President Chip Johns had about 10 people take a boat for a test run on the water.
Half came back eager to write checks.
"Never in my life have I taken someone out on a boat and had them say, 'I don't like it,' " Johns said. "So to me, that's a smart sales strategy."
It works just as well for boat designer Ron Holland, who sometimes sells $1.5 million boats in a few hours. "It's amazing how quickly it happens," Holland said. "I've had people walk onto my boat for a few minutes and suddenly they're saying: 'We could afford this. Let's just sell our house and live on board.' This show is the best place possible to sell boats. Every year, people come to Annapolis and just somehow end up buying."
Even when they are determined to do otherwise. Sheila and Charles Rockholt had just bought a 30-foot boat when they came to the sailboat show two years ago. "We knew we didn't need anything else," said Sheila, from Clark County. "But we thought we'd meet some people, maybe have lunch."
They left with a nautical clock, some new sailing gear and -- whoops -- another boat.
Escalating boat-buying, that's what the regulars call it, and it's more a symptom than a trend. Most boat owners start with something small -- a $3,000, one-person boat -- and slowly buy their way up to 30-footers. How consumed are some boat owners? A recent survey in Boating Magazine indicated that a married boat owner is more likely to carry a wallet photo of his boat than of his wife.
"Once you start buying, there's no stopping," said Frank Senft, who owns a sailboat. "It's hopelessly addicting, almost like a disease."
And even those who suffer don't quite know what to make of it. These escalating purchases, are they triumphs or tragedies?
"It can be good and bad, that's for sure," said Holland, the boat designer. "Sailing is more than a hobby. It's a way of life for a lot of people, and you get wrapped up in it. You can say all you want, 'Oh, we can't buy this or that.' But the truth is, when you love these things, you might not have much of a choice."