It was 1976 when my father took me to my first boat show. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had just founded Apple, Rocky was released and Jimmy Carter had won the election for president. While I don’t remember much about those headlines, I vividly recall that first boat show, as well as the many that would follow.
Like many of the things my father exposed me to, including DIY home improvement, lawn mowing and waxing the family car, I didn’t initially “get” what boat shows were all about.
“There will be all sorts of powerboats to get on and drool over,” Dad said as we drove toward Annapolis, Maryland, to the United States Powerboat Show.
“But you keep saying we can’t afford a new boat!” I exclaimed.
“That’s not the point,” Dad quipped. “Boat shows are all about daydreaming and imagining yourself on that one exceptional boat, doing what you love. The show is an escape; you should keep reality an arm’s length away when you wander around a boat show.”
That thinking sounded pretty solid to me — especially considering that our family’s 12-foot, lime green, Ted Williams-branded Sears and Roebuck skiff had nearly split in half on the Severn River. Maybe there’s a chance we’ll get a cool new boat, I thought, knowing the reality of that happening was about as good as Dad gifting me a Corvette for
Christmas. That said, my friend Paul’s family, who lived a couple of neighborhoods over, had “brought home” a new boat from last year’s boat show, so maybe there was hope.
Banners and flags waved in the crisp autumn wind while the scents of pit beef sandwiches, funnel cakes and hot dogs wafted around the show. The scene looked like a circus to me, but Dad was lapping it all it up.
“Look at that one: I think it’s a Mako 23,” he said. “We could really use that deep-vee bottom when we go fishing.”
Given Dad’s penchant for taking our skiff out with a weather-be-damned attitude, I was excited that he was looking at bigger boats.
“Oooh, there’s a Grady-White center console — that’s a nice boat,” Dad said. It’s one of the earliest recollections I have of my father with a look of total happiness, and today, I can’t walk past a Grady-White without smiling and thinking about him.
We continued pounding the docks as I stuffed my plastic boat show bag with brochures. When we got home, I went straight to my room and cut out pictures of my favorite boats to tape on the walls. Then Dad walked in.
“Which one is your favorite?” he asked.
“I really like the Mako 23 and the
Boston Whaler,” I said. “Are we buying a new boat?”
A look of complete sadness came over my father’s face.
“No, Gary, we really can’t afford it,” he said. “We’ll have to fix up Old Greenie for now.”
I felt as if I’d sucked all the happiness out of the room. I’d walked all over the boat show mellow he’d been enjoying all day.
During the years that followed, I remembered Dad’s mantra: Boat shows are about daydreaming and imagining yourself on that one exceptional boat. Keep reality an arm’s length away. Though we had plenty of family friends over the years who found their perfect boats at the shows, I never again pestered dad about it , and instead enjoyed watching him escape — even if only for an afternoon. We walked around and dreamed together about fishing offshore for marlin, running and gunning to schools of breaking rockfish on Chesapeake Bay, and exploring far-flung creeks and tributaries. Those days at the shows are among the happiest memories I have of my father.
Nearly 42 years later, boat shows are a fun and exciting part of the work we do here at Soundings, and one of the best parts of the job is speaking with new boat buyers at the shows. Between September and March, I’ll attend at least four of them, each a marathon that tests the comfort of even the best boat shoes. “If you don’t have blisters on your feet after the first day, you’re doing something wrong,” an old editor of mine once said.
When my dogs are tired, I remember what Dad said. I take a deep breath, look around and soak it all in. The sight never fails to lift my spirit and reset my psyche.
Get out this year and enjoy one of the shows, if only to dream big.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.