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Watching the fleet depart at show’s end

An end-of-boat show ritual for onlookers has turned into an annual standing-room-only sideshow at October’s U.S. Sailboat and Powerboat shows in Annapolis, Md.

Hundreds gather at dusk at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Pusser’s Landing Restaurant and the Fleet Reserve Club overlooking the City Dock to watch the orchestrated break-up of both shows.

An elaborate, well-timed production that has been honed to perfection over the decades, the dismantling is orchestrated by temporary hires (like the old circus-style “roustabouts”) who set up and dismantle the floating docks and pitched tents, allowing the comings and goings of sailboats and powerboats.

The sailboat show is the first to close, allowing powerboats to enter hurriedly for their time in the sun, but the closing of each show draws a totally different crowd of onlookers.

After the public address system announces the ending of the sail show, a command is issued: “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

When sailors obey that order to start their powerplants, the muffled noise is a bit of a joke as low-horsepower die-sels sound off with mild pops and soft rumbles and whines.

What is exciting and draws cheers comes when the wind is right and one of the smaller J/boats slips out under full sail. That showboating role last October went to Kevin Ryman, vice president of J/Boats Chesapeake in Annapolis, who was at the helm of a new J/100, sailing out under full main and asymmetrical spinnaker.

A following light, shifty breeze made the departure a bit tricky and a couple of well-executed jibes brought the red spinnaker close enough to the dockside crowds to touch it.

At least one temporary piling was bent and broken when a big wooden ketch sideswiped it while departing under power, but all in all the mass evacuation of sail and power went smoothly.

The sailing crowd immediately departed upon the arrival of the first powerboats, only to be replaced by the power crowd.

At the close of the powerboat show, the command of “Gentlemen, start your engines!” elicits a noise that this sailor would describe as loud enough to wake the dead — and with horns and sirens tossed in.

Despite the higher horsepower, these boats take their time exiting the scene. Soon enough, though, all the showboats disappear for another season.