Looking for better days Boat show opens Feb. 14 with hope that the best is yet to come

February 02, 1992|By Pat Emory | Pat Emory,Special to the Sun

Boat dealers are headiNg to the 10th annual Seaside Boat Show Feb. 14-16 with mixed feelings on whether a two-year recession in boat sales is finally over.

"A boat buyer has not bought a boat in two years, and he's itching to buy," said Linda Esham, general manager of Big Bee Boats on Route 113 in Selbyville, Del., which has stocked its showroom with Wellcrafts in anticipation of the big boom after the 1990-91 bust in boat sales.

"Last year was a ringer," admitted Ms. Esham. "It used to be if you didn't write 13 boat contracts at the show, somebody wasn't doing his job."

Last year, Big Bee Boats sold four boats at the show, but it wasn't the only dealer suffering a decline in sales. Show &L organizers and boat dealers estimate only 100 boats were sold last year, compared with 300 or more in previous years.

Based on the expected large numbers of prospective customers walking through the showroom this year, Ms. Esham says she is "very, very optimistic" that 1992 will be a good year for sales.

Others aren't so sure.

Dealers like Eugene Evans, who sells his boats to commercial watermen as well as pleasure fishermen, fear 1992 may bring him his first really bad sales year.

"Up until now we've been very, very, very busy with a lot of back orders," said Mr. Evans, who builds fiberglass Chesapeake Bay workboats at his Crisfield boatyard, Evans Boat Construction. Each boat is custom-built and can be easily adapted to pleasure fishing boats or commercial work, Mr. Evans said.

Recently, orders for the vessels have declined, leading Mr. Evans to believe the recession has finally caught up with him.

"I'm hoping this show is going to turn my thinking around," he said.

Whether or not the crowd buys boats, the Ocean City boat show, sponsored by the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club, is expected to be another big success, packing the Ocean City Convention Center, as it has in past years, with 12,000 to 13,000 visitors over President's Day weekend.

Fifty dealers will have 250 boats on display inside and outside the convention hall. The boats range from rubber rafts, sailboards, jet skis and canoes to speed boats, pontoons and fishing crafts. For the most part, it is a show for small boat enthusiasts, with the biggest boat being Mr. Evans' 42-foot Somerset.

Show-goers who aren't in the market for a new boat, however, can also browse through 100 exhibits, where everything from boat lifts and boat equipment to nautical clothing and art will be on sale. Local artist Bob Barnes, for example, will be on hand to sell his waterfowl and water scene art.

The chance of winning a pontoon boat, worth $10,000, is one of the show's big draws. For the seventh year in a row, North Bay Marina is donating a Sweetwater Pontoon boat as the door prize. Anyone who purchases a $4 ticket is eligible for the drawing.

Then at the conclusion of the boat show at 5 p.m. Sunday, the Optimists will raffle off a beach-lover's dream: a $100,000 oceanfront condominium. The winner will be drawn from 1,600 tickets sold prior to the boat show for $100 a ticket. (To purchase a ticket, call (410) 524-1200 and ask for Sam Stevens or send a check to the Ocean City/Berlin Optimist Club, P.O.Box 26, Ocean City, Md. 21842.) This year, the condominium being raffled is in the Atlantis, next to the Sheraton in Ocean City.

There's even something for the landlubber sports fan -- Donnie Warren, tight-end for the Redskins, will spend part of Saturday afternoon greeting visitors.

Mr. Warren is the guest of Water Ways, an Ocean City firm that sells, rents and services jet skis and other personal water craft. The football star recently purchased a Kawasaki jet ski from Water Ways, which will stage a mock delivery of the craft at the show, said general manager Jack O'Connor. Mr. Warren will be at the Water Ways exhibit.

The boat show organizers have lined up an attractive weekend program. Still, the biggest draw of the show is undoubtedly its underlying goal: to raise funds for children.

Thanks largely to the popular boat show, which draws visitors from as far away as Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Optimist Club is able to underwrite or make donations to more than 50 children's programs in Worcester County.

The condo raffle enables the club to give away $44,000 in college scholarships to Stephen Decatur High School students, while the boat show, which usually raises another $40,000, supports various projects, from scouts to child abuse clinics.

"All of our money goes to the children," said Charlie Dorman, chairman of the boat show and vice president of the club, which has taken the Optimist motto, "Friend of Youth," to heart.

This year the club hopes to raise $130,000. While the club will raise some of that money at SunFest and SpringFest, "the boat show carries 99 percent of our programs," Mr. Dorman said.

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