Annapolis was abuzz: Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had tapped Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew as his running mate, U.S. Naval Academy graduates were headed for Vietnam and parts of Washington, D.C., had erupted in fiery riots protesting the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the summer of 1968, and Rick Franke, a fifth-grade teacher in Annapolis, sought sanctuary from a troubled world aboard a newly purchased 28-foot dragon sailboat that he named Puff, after a popular song about a magic dragon who lived by the sea.
"I wasn't much into politics," Franke said. "It was a way to get away. Most sailors are really hermits."
Nearly four decades later, Franke is the spokesman for the city's 36th annual U.S. Sailboat Show, which concluded Monday, and 34th annual U.S. Powerboat Show, which runs today through Sunday. The annual shows draw tens of thousands of spectators to Annapolis, some of them probably also looking to escape harsh realities, as Franke once did.
"Some people come to the show to buy boats, some come to buy parts and others come to dream," said Franke, who is also manager of the Annapolis Sailing School, which helps put the shows together.
Despite a drop in attendance so far because of bad weather, both boat shows are expected to pump $51 million into the local economy. The events also bring prestige to Annapolis.
"We are the sailing capital of the world. This is a point of pride," said Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) as he visited the sailboat show last week. "Secondly, this is a marketing opportunity for Annapolis and the industry, and third, it points out the importance of boating as a $2 billion part of our economy."
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D) also pointed to the prestige factor as she joined Ehrlich and boat show officials aboard the Arabella, a three-mast schooner from New England where an opening reception was held.
"The boat show has put us on the international map," Moyer said.
Ed Hartman, president of the Annapolis Boat Shows, the corporation that runs the two shows, said, "It is not only a great social event; it brings a tremendous amount of business, employment and pleasure to all of the people who come."
Many of those people were dreamers who strolled along the endless floating docks and fantasized about the day when they can own a boat. They gazed at the playful rubber Zodiac boats, going for $8,294, or gawked at the Hallberg-Rassy 62, a stately yacht that cost $1.5 million.
There were the fat cats and stressed-out salesmen, deep into intense multimillion-dollar deals aboard sleek boats and catamarans. There were owners of smaller boats searching for the latest equipment, including Global Positioning System equipment and weather radios.
In addition to thousands of visitors, the event included hundreds of exhibitors -- including manufacturers and boating groups -- dozens of seminars and more than 250 boats for sale by manufacturers such as Sunsail, Ray Marine and West Marine. This week, more than 500 powerboats will be on display and for sale.
With so many boats and temporary docks in Annapolis, one could hardly see the water. But the crush was welcomed by downtown merchants such as Bob Lawinger, owner of Uncle Bob's Fudge Kitchen, who enjoyed the sea of customers that washed into the city.
"We love the sailboat show, and we love the speedboat show next week," Lawinger said.
While hundreds of international, national and local companies and groups participate in the shows, local officials said they would like to see a more diverse group of exhibitors. Toward that end, Annapolis officials have been making an effort to draw more small and minority businesses to participate in the events.
Alberto A. James Jr., the microenterprise coordinator with Anne Arundel Community Action Partnership Inc., brought some small and minority business owners to the sailboat show.
Shelia Davis, owner of a catering company, said, "I want to get some of that $51 million the boat show brings to Annapolis."
So does Michelle Pouliot, who has launched Docks to Go, a company that she said will "bring concierge services to the docks."
Carroll H. Hynson Jr., president of Image Power Inc., an Annapolis marketing firm hired by the city to promote the shows, said he is trying to diversify the entire maritime industry. "Traditionally, African Americans get involved in power boating, but there is a whole new spectrum as far as sailboating is concerned," Hynson said.
Nonprofit organizations also participated in the sailboat show. Don Backe, founder and executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), was busy buying and selling used boats to fund his group, which teaches disabled people how to sail. Backe, whose spinal cord was severed in a car accident 18 years ago, is a quadriplegic and a force in the Annapolis sailing community.
His "good fortune," Backe says, is "sharing sailing with other people."
After his accident, Backe said, he initially thought there wasn't much to live for: "I really thought I had lost my right to have fun. I figured that I would have a pretty grim life."
But he learned that even though he was in a wheelchair, he didn't have to give up his love for sailing. "I went sailing. It was the single event that transformed my life."
Backe, who uses sailboats modified for people in wheelchairs, sets sail from Sandy Point State Park, where there is special lift equipment.
The sailboat show also attracted a contingent of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen who took part in the show with their civilian U.S. Naval Sailing Association sailing instructors.
"I love sailing," said midshipman Patrick Nolan as he stood on a Navy 44, a sailing training vessel that carries 10 passengers. "Everybody has to know how to sail to move up" in the academy, he said.
Ultimately, all boaters are bonded in their love of open water. "When the sails are up, and the wind is blowing in your face," says sailboat show official Dee Newman, "it is the closest thing to heaven."