The weather yesterday was chilly and dreary, and that was as good as it was likely to get at the peak of the five-day run of the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis. But that just meant thinner crowds for serious sailors such as John and Marcia Nielsen, up from North Carolina to "dream and drool" at watercraft bigger and better than their Catalina 27.
"This is the whole shebang, right here," John Nielsen said, looking out across a forest of aluminum masts off the City Dock.
Attendance is down this year at the sailboat show, the oldest and largest such event held on the water in the nation. But promoters hope that won't hurt sales. They suspect many of those who stayed home this year were "hull thumpers," industry slang for those with no intention to buy.
That left the serious shoppers, many of whom had traveled some distance to traverse the maze of 280 floating docks linking an armada of 200 sailboats.
"Boats are being sold. Deals are being made," said Rick Franke, the show spokesman. He predicted overall attendance will fall 10 to 15 percent below the 50,000 normally expected.
The sailboat show and its counterpart, the United States Powerboat Show, are signature Annapolis events that fill the historic downtown over two weeks each fall. They are in their 36th and 34th years, respectively. The sailboat show ends today, and the powerboat show opens Thursday.
In recent years, the shows have come to symbolize perseverance. The 2001 show came just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 2003 show followed the disastrous flooding from Hurricane Isabel. This year's event has endured uncommonly bad weather, and planners are coping with the June death of Kathryn Wood, the boat show president and widow of its co-founder.
The principal order of the day is to sell boats, and merchants predicted a rebound yesterday after the rain and wind of Friday and Saturday. It was dry enough, at least, to climb in and out of the boats without risking a fall into the bay.
At the impressive Beneteau display, the French boat-builder presented a row of sailing yachts accompanied by a line of tents that resembled the sales floor in an automobile showroom. Mounds of discarded Docksiders collected at the foot of each boat; prospective customers were asked to remove their shoes before boarding.
Some shoppers became queasy on the floating docks, there and elsewhere.
"You should have seen it a couple days ago," said Tim Kernan, a boat designer for Outboard Yachts, doing business on one of the 10-by-20-foot sections of floating dock. "It was like being at sea on a raft."
Todd and Joan Casey of Annapolis said they enjoyed being among fellow sailors, a breed they believe is distinct from the powerboaters sweeping in this week. The couple have spoken of retiring on a boat, and they came yesterday to look at a few craft large enough to accommodate them.
"Sailors like it quieter," Todd Casey said. "Not in such a hurry. Like to move on what nature provides."
The Nielsens, of Statesville, N.C., drove up to get a good look at just one boat: a 40-foot Cabo Rico yacht, a potential trade-up from their Catalina 27.
"It's just teak everywhere," John Nielsen said after seeing it. "It puts many of these other boats to shame." And as for his Catalina, Nielsen said, "It's for sale."