Skip to main content

Maine show has a devoted following

Dubbed the most unique boat show in the world, it is a vital gathering for boaters

For those tired of the average indoor boat-show affair, with potted palm trees and shiny white hulls as far as the eye can see, the Maine Boatbuilders Show offers the antidote.

Don't expect potted palms and velvet ropes at the Maine Boatbuilders Show. This gathering of some of the finest builders on the East Coast takes place in an old locomotive railroad foundry.

Always held around the spring equinox, this year’s Maine Boatbuilders Show runs March 20-22.

“This is the reality you don’t find when you go to those shiny button-down distributor shows,” says Dick Pulsifer, owner of Pulsifer Hampton in Brunswick, Maine, and an exhibitor at the show since its inception.

“This is a place where you can learn from other builders and meet some old-timers in the industry. When I come to this event, it is almost as if I am drawn — it’s an opportunity to meet kindred spirits.”

Joanna Sprague and her husband, Phin, who own Portland Yacht Services in Portland, Maine, began the show in 1987.

“We like having this show because it’s right before the busy season where everyone is trying to get their boat in by Memorial Day,” says Joanna Sprague, who is the show director. “Our thought was if we had it any earlier people might not be around, and March would be much better than fall.”

Some boats come completed and ready to go, but others are incomplete to allow showgoers to see the craftsmanship that goes into construction. The main rule of the show, however, is that the builder or manufacturer must be present. It has been this way since the show’s conception.

The first show was held with a handful of builders behind booths with some fliers and no boats. The location was a railroad foundry on the Portland Company Complex, where it continues to be held today.

“The person working for us at that point was Jane Wellehan, who is now the president of Maine Built Boats,” says Joanna, 55. “She was 21 at the time, and said ‘Let’s do a boat show.’ So we got motivated.”

The show wasn’t boatless for long once word got out.

“In just four years we filled the room with boats and had to move the booths upstairs,” says Joanna. “Now we have anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people coming every year.”

Joanna says they have 170 exhibitors this year; about half of those are boatbuilders.

“Everything there is more about function and form than dazzle and sizzle,” says Pulsifer, 68. “The people there and the people who run the show are real. These are serious boaters.”

Pulsifer’s boats are based off the Casco Bay Hampton, a lobster boat that was built to work hard and endure, according to the company’s Web site

The 22-footer is built from native white pine, oak and cedar, custom sawn and air-dried at their shop. It’s powered by a 29-hp Yanmar 3YM30F inboard. Pulsifer says he will be bringing his 104th vessel, completed in 2008, to this year’s show.

This show is even more important in today’s economy because builders need to show people the craftsmanship behind these vessels and how much love and passion go into them, says Pulsifer.

“I would say we have a lot of 20- to 30-footers at the show this year, boats on the smaller scale,” says Joanna. “We don’t tend to have a lot of wheel-kickers here; most of them are boat owners who know what they are looking for.”

She anticipates attendance will be steady, even though people may be looking for repair work rather than buying new.

“Many companies that just do new construction are realizing they have to go to repairs,” says Joanna. “It’s a struggle … anyone who hasn’t switched is in trouble. Boatowners now are looking more for upgrades.”

For hours and directions visit To watch a slideshow on the event narrated by Soundings editor William Sisson, go to

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.