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New sailboat show debuts in Philly

Organizers see Strictly Sail Philadelphia as the midwinter event for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic sailors

Organizers see Strictly Sail Philadelphia as the midwinter event for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic sailors

Strictly Sail Philadelphia was a new boat show confronted with a couple of problems: football and heavy snow.

A storm that had been predicted would arrive on the freshman show’s biggest day — Saturday — and be ranked as the city’s ninth worst since the 1800s, dumping about a foot of snow that by midafternoon had commuter trains stalled at stations. And well before the boats and a sailor’s smorgasbord of booth exhibitors arrived at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the Jan. 20 to 23 show, organizer Sail America knew Sunday’s attendance would be blindsided by the National Football League. The hometown Philadelphia Eagles were to play for the conference title that day.

But for most of those who elected to forego the football or brave the blizzard, Strictly Sail was a success, validating Sail America’s choice of Philadelphia as the spot to replace its Atlantic City and New York/New Jersey Sail Expo shows, according to the organizers.

Boats on display ranged from an exquisite Adirondack guide boat — a varnished lightweight marvel for about $12,000 — to a Sun Odyssey 49 with twin helms and nine of its 11 hatches flipped up to scoop any breeze that might blow into its corner of the convention center hall. And there was the usual assortment of vendors. Perhaps a dozen offered roller-furling systems and only slightly fewer pushed an array of refrigeration technologies. These were complemented by the ever-present chamois booth (show special: two bundles for $20), boat financing firms, sailmakers, life raft and EPIRB manufacturers, and charter companies, among many others.

The convention center occupies three city blocks, starting at Market Street — Philly’s main street — and spreading north. The boats and booths were in part of the second-story hall at the northern end of the complex, but there also were 129 seminars for sailors in conference rooms below and beside the hall.

“What we’re trying to be is the midwinter event for sailing [from Maine to Virginia]”, says Scot West, executive director of Sail America, the sailing industry’s trade association. “Philadelphia is more accessible than perhaps any city in that range.”

His claim was confirmed by Chris Price, 48, who had come to the show from Harrisburg, Pa., about 120 miles west. “It’s a lot easier for me to get to [than Atlantic City], more centrally located,” says Price who, with his wife, Dianne, and their three children, sails a C&C 35 out of the Magothy River, north of Annapolis, Md. The family visited the show to “see all the new gear and dream. It’s amazing all the new gear that’s out there,” says Price, who also races a Vanguard 15. “There’s a higher quality of boats here, and it’s nice to see the one designs.”

The one designs and other small boats were among the first displays visitors encountered, stretched across the front of the show. Big boats were pushed against the outside walls, with a huge Hunter display anchoring the right side; C&C/Tartan, Sabre, J/Boats, Elan and Beneteau across the back; and Catalina’s big fleet to the left, beside Island Packet’s offerings. Seasoning the mix were inflatables, the Adirondack guide boats and a few daysailers.

Even as Saturday’s storm began clogging streets, Hunter’s Paul Matrangola, who has worked boat shows for 27 years, was impressed by the turnout. “Yesterday was excellent. We probably accumulated 150, maybe 200 good leads. We met our goal,” he says. “We’ve seen a high level of interest, a good quality crowd, people that have … the ability to buy.”

The Atlantic City show “got tired,” says Matrangola. “Atlantic City was tremendous in the old convention center,” he says, adding that they could raise a mast inside the cavernous hall. He describes Philadelphia as “a good, fresh venue.”

By noon on Saturday Hunter’s daily tally of visitors had reached 200 potential buyers, among them Bob Wenhold, 62, and his son, Dave, 28. The elder Wenhold, who sails a Hunter 37 out of Rock Hall, Md., voted this a better show than last year’s Sail Expo in Atlantic City. He, too, loved the old Atlantic City hall, though, a place where a helicopter once was flown inside as a promotion.

While not as grand, the Pennsylvania Convention Center provided Strictly Sail Philadelphia with about 35 percent more space than the new Atlantic City Convention Center — site of last year’s Sail Expo — and there were 35 percent more vendors, according to West. At the center of the hall was a bar serving drinks, food counters, and a stage with live music for most of the day. A 20-ounce bottle of water was $2.50.

But for those who didn’t need the immediate respite offered by the Crossed Sails Bar, there was the Reading Terminal Market, a bustling farmer’s market left over from when this piece of real estate was one of the city’s railroad hubs. The market’s scores of booths offered food from seven continents as well as strictly Philadelphia specialties: hoagies and cheesesteaks.

Many of the vendors and some attendees could reach their rooms in the Convention Center Marriott without venturing out into the snow. A visitor could easily spend an entire day at the show without looking at boats, however. Frances Morrison of Willingboro, N.J., managed enough time on the floor to buy an $800 EPIRB, but most of her time Thursday and Friday was devoted to seminars.

“I thought generally the subject matter was very good,” says Morrison, who attended courses on night sailing, preparing for offshore passages, and heavy weather sailing. “We did Sailing for Couples. Actually that was excellent. It made me see my shortcomings and maybe [my husband] John’s,” she says.

West says he had expected the show to draw 15,000 to 17,000 visitors. The weather drove that number down to 10,000 by Saturday morning. “We need exhibitors to realize it’s a great facility. The show looks great,” he says.

And maybe the weather will cooperate next year.