On September 24, 1972, The New York Times wrote about a naval architect and Vietnam veteran named Paul Dodson who, following the path of a new and exciting sailboat show in Annapolis, Maryland, had “incorporated the built-in magic of Newport, America’s Cup land, into another successful outdoor sailboat show.”
That was year two of the Newport Sailboat Show in Rhode Island, an event that today is known as the Newport International Boat Show. When the docks open this year from September 16 through 19, it will mark the show’s 50th year—and attendees will receive a kind of two-years-in-one bonus deal of new boats and gear, given that the Covid-19 pandemic threw last year’s boat shows into chaos nationwide.
“You go through so many things—rain, hurricanes, wind,” says Nancy Piffard, who has been the Newport show director for the past 22 years. “But knock on wood, things have been great, and hopefully the Newport show is something people look at and say they want to be at for another 50 years.”
She’s not exaggerating about the show’s fans and their staying power. Piffard says that many of the exhibitors and sponsors at this year’s event have been there right from the start in the early 1970s.
Hinckley Yachts was there on day one, a time when the yard was experimenting with a material called fiberglass and technology to create electric-powered furling mainsails. Lewmar was at the first Newport show, too, no doubt promoting its big product of the day: the Wavegrip jaw self-tailing winch. Edson International, at the time, had made a name for itself with accessories for steering pedestals, and was there on the docks too. North Sails also was at that first show, its team still glowing from a recent gold-medal win at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and just a few years away from entering the age of digital sail design on these big, newfangled, boxy machines called desktop computers.
The Newport show of course has evolved and grown since those earliest days. During its first decade, the show was held at Goat Island, at a marina that took the place of an old naval torpedo station. Then, Fort Adams became the show site. In 1979, the show moved to downtown Newport and the Treadway Hotel—what today is called Newport Harbor Hotel & Marina. Then, in 1979, Newport Harbor Corporation purchased the show and developed the Newport Yachting Center & Marina. That’s also the year the show’s name changed to the Newport International Sailboat Show.
The Newport International Boat Show featuring sail and powerboats alike became the setup in the 1990s, which is also when the show established itself firmly as the largest in-water boat show in the Northeast. And it’s still growing, with Piffard and her team having to get more and more creative about finding space for all the new boats that builders and dealers want attendees to see.
“In a place like Newport, you have all these nooks and crannies and wharfs that are privately owned,” Piffard says. “We had to negotiate with all the owners of the different sites. Now, by the time you stage in and stage out, it can be up to 12 days that we’re taking over their property. That takes a little time and negotiation, but we managed to make it happen.”
The negotiations usually are friendly, she says, given that Newport is a city whose name is synonymous with seagoing vessels of all kinds. Newport has been home to everything from whaling boats in the earliest days of the United States to America’s Cup races from 1930 through 1983. The boat show is now considered part of that storied local history, with the locals proud to keep the tradition evolving.
“Many of them wanted to have the show on their property, to be a part of it,” Piffard says. “You have Bowen’s Wharf, Bannister’s Wharf, Perry Mill Wharf. Now we have Market Square—it speaks well that peoplewant to work with us. Instead of looking at it as an inconvenience, they embrace it.”
This year, the show will need room on those docks for all kinds of new boats. Models to debut include the Back Cove 39O, Hinckley 35, Eelex 8000 all-electric boat, Nordhavn 41, Azimut 53 Fly, MJM 3z, Hylas H57, HH50 catamaran, Salona S46, J/9 and the Huckins Sportsman 38.
Which one will be this year’s showstopper? Piffard never knows in advance, but she recognizes the “wow factor” when she sees it, including lines of attendees snaking down the dock just for a chance to get on board a new model. “I sometimes say ‘wow!’ just looking at the designs,” she says.
The newest designs often appeal to the evolving audience of would-be boat buyers who attend the show. Historically, Piffard says, the Newport International Boat Show has welcomed a mostly middle-aged and male-dominated crowd. But nowadays, it’s just as likely to be a young family pushing a stroller on the docks, looking for a way to get out on the water—exactly what the show exists to help people do.
“It’s great to see,” Piffard says. “That’s what we’ve always wanted, more people coming into the sport.”
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.