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Annapolis shows attract the curious

The annual sail and powerboat shows again drew crowds to Annapolis City Dock

Realistically, there was no chance that Doug Cunningham and Mark Lavenberg, sailing pals from New Jersey, were going to buy new boats the October Thursday they hit the floating docks at the boat show in Annapolis, Md. Like many — but by no means all — of the visitors to annual United States Sailboat and Powerboat shows, they came with more blue-sky dreams than greenbacks they were willing to part with.

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What was certain, however, as they charged toward the 250 sailboats in the water that day (there were 450 powerboats in the same water the following week) was that the boats they would  buy would look nothing alike.

Lavenberg, 45, the manager of a municipal wastewater plant who sails a 30-foot cruising boat, came with an agenda: “Try and see what the very best boats are that are out there. What’s the boat going to be like five, 10, 15 years down the road?” He says he also wanted exposure to “the latest gadgets that are out there.”

Cunningham, 61, a retired gym teacher who has a six-pack license and a small sailing charter business on Chincoteague Island, Va., came with his business model in his pocket. “Every time I look at a boat, I’m looking at the business, saying: Will this boat work for me?” Cunningham says. “How many people can I get on board? Can I single-hand it?”

Another part of the plan in taking in a boat show with his buddy is to have fun.

There were some tire-kickers and a few serious buyers.

“I had a great time, and I learned some stuff,” Cunningham says.

There were about 48,000 visitors to this year’s sailboat show, slightly off from last year’s attendance, and about 40,000 visitors to the powerboat show, a 15 percent decline, according to Bonnie Seidelmann, a spokesperson for the events.

“The booth [vendors] did very well,” says Seidelmann. “At the sailboat show, there were quite a few boats sold. There were some big ones sold at the powerboat show.” She says boat dealers “all said going into the powerboat show they had little or no expectations, given the economy and fuel [price .] But they were pleasantly surprised.”

As were Lavenberg and Cunningham when, early in their visit, they boarded a 32-foot TomCat 9.7 catamaran. “That was a boat that was very interesting to me,” Cunningham says. He particularly liked a long bench seat built across the cockpit astern. “I could definitely make money with that boat. I’d do picnic cruises.”

“That’s the only catamaran that I liked at the whole show,” says Lavenberg. “It was airy.” He noted the simple, uncluttered pontoons are fairly roomy, so turning in for the night wouldn’t “feel like you were sleeping in a torpedo tube.”

That would be the last time the friends would agree on a boat. Take, for example, the Finngulf 46.

“It was like a foreign-built Catalina,” says Lavenberg. “They make these boats look like race cars, they’re so aerodynamic. But they still only go 8 knots.” The low cabin top, with its minimal amount of things to grab hold of or enough cabin tip to brace against while heeling, would make him feel exposed. “I didn’t think it would be the boat I would want to get caught in rough water with,” he says.

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Cunningham, however, found the Finngulf’s clear, low cabin top a plus “because it was easy to move about. You could get up to the foredeck in a heartbeat. Most of the sailing I do is by myself and I need to be able to move. Up top is what I look at. Nice big cockpit. Good for business, with the boom high enough I could sit people up on the cabin top if I had to.”

Moving along the docks, the pair took off their shoes to board the Cabo Rico displays. Cunningham went aboard the Pilot 47 and found it “gorgeous” even though it wasn’t a boat he could see himself ever owning.

Lavenberg swooned, however, when he descended into the cabin of the Cabo Rico 42. “Now there’s a boat you can’t forget,” he says. “That boat was like going into a furniture store, the woodwork was so nice and so solid.” He says he noticed that when stepping aboard, the boat didn’t move. “That was a boat that felt to me that it was ready to go offshore and go safely.”

Lavenberg, who is a big man, demonstrated on some of the other boats he boarded how he could make the floorboards sag under his weight. That is one of the subtle tests to which he put each boat.

When the men arrived at the Seaward 32RK, Cunningham boarded, and Lavenberg went searching for a quote on a new sail. Cunningham found a lot to like in this, the lowest-priced cruising boat they had inspected, with a boat-show sticker of $138,300.

“First of all, for the waters we sail on the East Coast, you need shoal draft. It has that dagger board,” Cunningham notes. “I think that was a great idea.” The “dagger board” is a retracting keel, which gives the boat a draft ranging from 20 inches to six feet, six inches.

“The cockpit, I could easily fit six people in there,” Cunningham says of the Seaward. “Plus, it wasn’t underpowered. It had a 20-hp Volvo. Nice lines, nice portholes, a very attractive boat.”

Boarding the Sun Odyssey 42DS, Cunningham had an issue with the access from the cockpit to the deck, but Lavenberg, who had spent much of the day on massive blue water boats, dove down the companionway of this sleek European with large, elliptical ports.

The variety of boat designs offered options for varied tastes in vessels; more than 450 powerboats were displayed just one week after the docks were lined with 250 sailboats.

“Believe it or not, that boat was nothing but fun,” says Lavenberg. “You have to ask yourself ‘What are you going to do for sailing?’ ” If you’re going to stay in protected waters, Lavenberg says, this would be the boat.

With its open areas below deck, the 42DS “was the kind of boat where you would feel great entertaining people,” he says. “To me, that was one of the best-looking boats in the entire show. It wasn’t hiding any punches. ‘I look fast and I look sharp and that’s what I am. I’m not an ocean cruiser,’ ” Lavenberg says, speaking for the boat.

“You’re not going to see any netting on the lifelines,” he continues. “You’re going to see people in bikinis and probably the captain sitting behind the wheel with a cigar. I was big on the Sun Odyssey.”

Big, maybe, but not buying. Later, Lavenberg went for a pair of binoculars in one of the shoreside booths. Cunningham considered a 4-stroke outboard. It was a good deal, but he postponed the purchase. Maybe later, he says.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.