The aisles at the Chesapeake Bay Boat Show were uncrowded Monday evening, a reflection of a soft market for recreational boats and marine equipment -- and that is good if you are a prospective buyer.
It is a great time to buy a boat, a time when dealing again has become a necessary function of a dealer.
Because of the soft market, there is increasing pressure on manufacturers and sellers to lower prices. Industry figures show sales for big pleasure boats are off by as much as 60 percent, and the new 10 percent luxury tax on boats costing more than $100,000 might knock sales off even more.
Sales for some runabouts are off more than 30 percent. Among some fishing-boat manufacturers, sales are off more than 20 percent. Used boat sales also are off.
What this means is that the seller is in the position of having to woo the buyer with good prices and package deals that include trailers, electronics, and, in some cases, safety equipment.
On top of the soft market, the show at the Convention Center's Festival Hall comes at the industry's slowest time of the year, when dealers are paying interest on their inventories and taking relatively little money in.
There are, of course, some drawbacks.
The established manufacturers -- Mako Marine, Grady White, Bayliner, Sea Ray and others -- are less likely to slash to bare-bones prices than are less well-known manufacturers. The top names in the business have been through down periods a half-dozen times in the past 20 years and have survived.
The lesser brands, which is not necessarily to say inferior, are perhaps worth a closer look. These are the companies that are feeling the crunch most. Check them out for price, workmanship and design.
Also take into consideration where and when you will use a boat.
Obviously, a 25-foot Mako won't do a bit of good on the Upper Potomac, and a 12-foot Jon boat won't be much for trolling off Bloody Point. But a 17-foot center console might work well for both if prudently operated.
L In looking over the boats that fit your needs, keep in mind:
* A good design is of the utmost importance. One way of determining how well a boat has performed is to find out how long the design has been in production and how many models have been sold. A hull that has been produced for five or more years with only minor modifications should be considered proven. This, of course, excludes new models, which, like some automobiles, can be peaches or lemons.
* An argument can be made that hull strength is directly related to where and when the boat will be used. But it is far better to opt for the overbuilt hull than to take a chance with a thin-skinned boat. In looking at the inside of the boat, look at the hull-deck joint. The best are through-bolted, some are joined with screws and others are lightly riveted. Go for strength here because the deck is vital to the rigidity of the hull.
While inside the boat, check to see how the bulkheads are joined to the hull. This is a good area to gauge workmanship. Are the joints well bonded? Has the glass been trimmed neatly or left with jagged edges? Check little things such as hinges on hatch covers or backing blocks for cleats. Are the hinges of sufficient size? Are the cleats going to rip out of the deck? Has the manufacturer built a solid boat or a go-fast toy?
* The layout of the boat must be functional. A bowrider replete with plush seating and a tanning deck will not do once you begin to bring fish aboard; an open center console, on the other hand, is not especially well suited to sunbathing.
* Engines and electronics are difficult to check in a showroom, but both can cause nagging problems if they are not properly installed. On an inboard or an inboard/outboard, look at the engine compartment to see if there is adequate access to the power lant and sufficient bulk in the bedding area. On outboards, pay attention to the transom. Has it been reinforced? For the electronics, ask about the wiring harness and whether it runs through bilge or above the water line, whether there is easy access at various points. If there are radios, depth finders or Loran units sold with the boat, be certain who backs the warranty on the equipment.
There are about 550 models on display at the show.
The show runs through Sunday. Hours are 5 p.m.-10 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for children.