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A gathering of the faithful

Winter had been long; there were still piles of snow on the ground, and I had an itch to see boats that weren’t covered in shrink-wrap. Instead of fleeing south, I drove northeast for several hours to the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland, which is a great antidote to late, muddy springs and cabin fever.

As the vernal equinox unfolded, I and thousands of others suffering from boat withdrawal once again were able to run our hands along varnished coaming and cast long, admiring glances on pretty Down East hull shapes. Ah, sweet tumblehome. The air was filled with dreamy boat talk.

The Maine Boatbuilders Show is not your typical boat show. You sense that as soon as you walk into the old locomotive railroad foundry where the show is held. Pigeons roost in the rafters, and a little snow-melt leaks through the roof in places. Authenticity comes with a price.

It is not, as one exhibitor put it, “a Tupperware party.” There are fiberglass boats, but no Clorox bottles. I saw nary a boat that I wouldn’t like to own, and how often can you say that after walking through a show?

So just what makes this one different?

“It just has the right feel,” says Ethan Cook, 49, owner of Rumery’s Boatyard in Biddeford, Maine, ( standing beside his Will Frost-inspired Rumery’s Torpedo 38, a lobster yacht with a distinctive torpedo stern. “It’s not like going to a car lot. It’s an amazing event. It’s one of a kind.”

The show is a satisfying mix of such well-known Maine builders as Hinckley, Ellis, Morris, Sabre and Lyman-Morse, and a host of smaller shops from throughout the region producing skiffs, daysailers, canoes, kayaks and more. There were roughly 200 exhibitors spread out over 70,000 square feet typically used to store and repair boats for Portland Yacht Services. A steady stream of people climbed the stairs to see Tar Baby, the John Alden-designed schooner that will be restored by the boatyard hosting the show.

Jay Hotchkiss, president of John Jay Marine of Yarmouth, Maine, ( has attended all the major East Coast shows, either as an exhibitor or a visitor.

“There’s no other show like this on the planet,” says Hotchkiss, 50, who had two boats on display: the Coastal Cruiser 22 by Castine Boat and the Ranger 21 Tug. “In a positive way, you don’t feel like you’re in a boat show. You feel like you’re in a crafts show. No fake plants. No carpet.

“It’s an event rather than a show.”

That’s the kind of distinction that the show’s founder and owner, Phin Sprague Jr., was looking for when he started it 18 years ago. Sprague was intent on attracting exhibitors who knew and cared more about how a boat was put together than calculating the monthly payment on a boat loan.

“A condition of being in the show is that the guy building the boat is in the booth,” says Sprague, who also is president and owner of Portland Yacht Services, a marina and boatyard. “I was interested in getting the people actually doing the work.”

That same spirit — attracting quality builders and quality customers — continues to drive the show today. “I look at it as if we’re throwing a three-day party,” says Sprague. “These are all people we’ve known for years. It’s real, honest boat people. Everybody here badly cares about what they do. This is their passion.”

I have always had a soft spot for traditional skiffs, and so it was inevitable that sooner or later I would make my way over to visit Dick Pulsifer, who builds the handsome 22-foot strip-planked wooden Pulsifer-Hamptons (

We talked first about his open, diesel-powered launches, the design of which evolved from lobster and fishing boats dating back more than 100 years. “This is a calling,” says Pulsifer, 64, who runs a small shop in Brunswick, Maine. “There’s a lot of soul that goes into the finished product. This is for keeps, a boat like this.”

Then we discussed the differences between this and other shows. At a mainstream event, Pulsifer fears, “I’d be a flea on an elephant’s leg. The people coming to the Wal-Mart type shows aren’t interested in this boat. And that’s fine.”

The Maine Boatbuilders Show is as much a forum as a boat show, the builder says. “It’s not a one-way slide of information,” Pulsifer continues. “And it’s not just a selling frenzy. This is a gathering of the clan.”

This year’s show (March 18 to 20) attracted about 8,500 faithful, not counting the roughly 2,000 exhibitor badges also handed out.

I suggest marking it on your calendar for next year. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you’ll probably need it come March.

“If you know boats and you have an itch that needs to be scratched,” says Sprague, “where else do you go?”