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At the boat auction looking for a deal

Fresh from his recent victory bidding on a 15-foot Scott Ankor-Craft runabout, Todd Croteau found himself once again flashing his bidder number — 63 — toward the auctioneer wearing the fireman’s red shirt and standing above the crowd on a stepladder.

Fresh from his recent victory bidding on a 15-foot Scott Ankor-Craft runabout, Todd Croteau found himself once again flashing his bidder number — 63 — toward the auctioneer wearing the fireman’s red shirt and standing above the crowd on a stepladder.

Perhaps Croteau didn’t notice that Lad Mills, the man in charge of this 23rd annual boat auction for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., was the one who had raised the bid on the Scott from Croteau’s original $25 to $100. He seemed perfectly happy to have won the snappy runabout with the 40-hp outboard for $150.

And maybe Croteau, 38, of Edgewater, Md., wasn’t listening when Mills, announcing the specifications of each boat before the bidding began, had said the 250-hp engine in the 23-foot Wellcraft Eclipse was “suspect.” And then, it might have been that he was distracted by his two well-behaved daughters, Geneva, 7, and Sarah, 5.

Whatever the explanation, Croteau saw that the bidding on this snazzy speedboat was ridiculously low, and he raised his No. 63 card again.

And again.

In a blur of seconds that might not have added up to a full minute, auctioneer Herb Andrew was at first exasperated that he couldn’t get a $1,000 opening bid (“My land!” he exclaimed betweens calls for a first bid). And then Andrew was pointing once again to No. 63 as the winner, with a bid of $1,600.

Moments later, Croteau was shaking his head as he followed the surging crowd of perhaps 300 toward Andrew’s next offering. “That Eclipse, I shouldn’t have been involved in,” he said. “My wife will kill me about that.”

The annual museum boat auction, a fund-raising event that in 2004 brought in $70,000, began at 1 p.m. the Saturday before Labor Day under a cloudless blue sky with a gentle breeze that made the 80-plus degree sunshine pleasant. The vessels had been advertised for weeks — everything from personal watercraft to cabin cruisers, from an antique rowing shell to cruising sailboats.

It began several hours before Andrew stood beside a wooden crab boat, Long Tom, with a 25-hp Honda 4-stroke engine and asked for the day’s first bid. It began with potential buyers climbing over, peering under and knocking on the hulls of the 54 boats — some on land, some in the water — dreaming, worrying, rationalizing what they could do over the course of the afternoon.

By the time Andrew climbed the ladder the first time, 190 people, many of them museum members, had registered to bid.

David Loprete, 34, his wife Roseann, 49, and their son Nicholas, 9, of Cresskill, N.J., had mounted and dismounted from the clean-looking 1999 Bayliner Trophy parked on the museum lawn, which, with its 150-hp Mercury engine, would make Loprete a very happy fisherman. He thought he might bid, depending on how many others were interested.

Jim O’Brien, 75, of St. Michaels, the owner of a perfectly fine 28-foot Cape Dory trawler, was intrigued by the clean Star boat. He had sailed them before, but had moved on to powerboats. But he clearly was fond of his days racing Stars. Maybe again?

Chris Lyon, 52, a psychologist from Narberth, Pa., was among those inspecting a 30-foot sharpie sailboat with a hull obviously in need of work, but a new trailer and highly varnished wooden spars. Last year he had “dragged home” a Volvo diesel engine from the auction. On this day, he claimed to be “seeing what people are unloading, what people are drooling over.” He found folks drooling over a Chris-Craft powerboat. “Until they think about the price of gas.”

Out on the dock Marianne Yost, 48, of nearby Claiborne, Md., and her friend, Rupert Armitage, 58, of London, England, had divided allegiances. Yost, a museum member, wanted a 27-foot fiberglass Hunter cruising sailboat. Armitage was one of those infatuated by a neighboring wooden Chris-Craft Cutlass Cavalier powerboat with twin engines — not much different from a fiberglass Chris-Craft the couple had sold a week before.

The mob would follow auctioneer Andrew onto the dock in time. But first, drawing Croteau and his daughters along, the crowd found itself beside a wooden wherry, a cheery 16-foot, lapstrake rowboat with a transom-hung rudder. Croteau, a museum member, had this boat on his wish list and was prepared to bid.

By now Andrew had only to see Croteau move his hand to know that it was No. 63 bidding. Again, in seconds, Croteau, who with his wife owns a small marina and rents boats near Annapolis, had bought another craft — this time for $1,000. “I’m going to fix this one up and have it for myself,” he said.

Once on the dock the bidders quickly raised their offers $100 at a time, back and forth, for a 26-foot Pearson full-keel sloop, the winner bidding $3,200. Next came the Hunter 27. Yost and Armitage never raised their card as the bidding rose quickly beyond their limit. A vacationing couple from Morehead City, N.C., who had just driven into St. Michaels that morning, walked off with a $3,000 cruising sailboat.

Yost and Armitage did not have time to recover from their “losers’ remorse” before the Chris-Craft was being auctioned. Within minutes they were the smiling new owners of an old powerboat, purchased for $1,700.

In the crowd Todd Croteau was still distraught over his emotional purchase of the Eclipse powerboat. “I don’t even like these kinds of boats,” he said. Moments later, when a 28-foot Columbia sloop in great condition that he had planned to buy was offered for bids, Croteau was stopped at $4,000 — because of that darned Eclipse!

Andrew unloaded several more boats on the dock before the auction moved back to the lawn, where his amplified voice echoed off the walls of the museum sheds. Andrew’s ladder was set up beside the Bayliner Trophy and Loprete and his family were right in front of him, offering the first bid of $2,000. Quickly the bidding escalated, and well before someone else’s winning $8,000 offer was reached, the anticipation of ownership had drained from the Lopretes, their bidding card dangling from a defeated hand.

There were, of course, more losers than winners already. Because of changed tax laws, the museum was facing the possibility of joining the unfortunates. Donors who had given their boats to the museum after Jan. 1 would be limited to deducting no more from their taxable income than the amount that the museum took in during the auction.

Fred Keer of Chestertown, Md., had evaded the new IRS rule when he had donated the Scott runabout in December. While Croteau had paid only $150 for the boat, Keer had been free to claim a $600 deduction, a reasonable amount to ask for a clean powerboat.

Lad Mills knew that the new tax law could cause his auction some problems. A boat might have “an honest appraisal” of $3,000. “I may only get $1,600. I think it has cost us some of the bigger donations,” Mills said.

Just as he has for the last five years that he has run the auction, Mills had spent money on bleach and bottom paint, sprucing up the boats before they went on the auction block. He could do only so much with some. One rowboat had a hole in its side. He offered it as a garden planter. But there would be a buyer even for that vessel. The question was only: How much?

After the Bayliner, Andrew managed to get $1,700 for the rough-looking sharpie. He got $100 for the planter boat but only $400 for a nicely finished Chesapeake Light Craft canoe, the kit for which, Croteau thought, would cost $500.

Croteau now was prepared to pay $500 for an 11-foot Gloucester sailboat with a trailer — a useful vessel for renting at his marina, but he saw the price bid up to $1,000. He stood back as a family bid on a fiberglass dinghy and lost it, then bid on another and won. Then, nearly two hours into the auction — with his daughters Geneva and Sarah twirling around his legs — Croteau watched as a grandfather, Fred Domovitz, stood back and let his grandson bid for yet another sailing dinghy. Domovitz had told the grandson, Seth Tanen, 10, he could bid up to $650. With each $50 increase in bidding by another buyer, Seth raised his card. It didn’t take long for the bidding to rise above Seth’s $650 offer, to $700. Seth’s hand shot up again. Andrew saw his card, announced Seth’s bid of $750 and, before Domovitz knew what had happened, Seth had bought the little boat. Domovitz laughed. The crowd applauded. Seth beamed with pride.

There was one more boat on Croteau’s wish list, a pretty 12-foot wooden lapstreak dory with oars and a sailing rig. He had moved close to the boat’s stern, and while the auction focused on the sale of other boats, the father played a game with his daughters in which they lay on the ground blindfolding their eyes with their hands while he danced around them on the grass, stepping gently between them and near them as they strained to keep their eyes shut.

Now the crowd, which in the end would pay $61,000 for 54 boats, moved around the dory, and the game stopped. The girls stood by their father and Croteau simply watched. In no time, there was a winning $1,000 bid, well above his limit. He clenched a fist and gave it a small but heartfelt shake.

“If I didn’t buy that Eclipse,” he said, and he smiled.