Getting shows shipshape

Production: Setting up boat shows is a carefully planned enterprise performed under strict deadlines.

October 13, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It starts at dawn on a Monday with a crew in Annapolis harbor slamming home the telephone pole-sized pilings that will hold the floating docks where more than 200 sailboats will tie up for the largest in-the-water boat show in the United States.

By nightfall, the outline of a village - with tents for exhibitors, a bridge to cross what's known as Ego Alley and floating docks stretching about 100 yards into the harbor - has taken shape at City Dock. The work goes on for two more days, 14 or more hours a day, until the gates open to the VIP day visitors.

Setting up the U.S. sailboat and powerboat shows may look chaotic to the casual observer, but it is an intricate dance carefully choreographed and performed in strict time by a company that numbers into the hundreds.

"We have upwards of 200 people on the payroll for setup, reset and breakdown," says Jim Barthold, general manager of the boat shows. And that doesn't account for the sub-contractors and their crews who set up the circus-size tents, or the show decorators who bring in the carpeting and drapes that mark out booths, or the manufacturers' crews setting up their exhibits.

The instant the sailboat show closes Oct. 14, the reset crew opens gaps in the floating docks and boats start pouring out of the slips to make way for the power boats. In fact, the reset has become an attraction in itself. Crowds fill the dockside bars and balconies of the Waterfront Marriott to watch the spectacle, cheer and even rate the departing boats, holding up scorecards as if they were Olympic figure skating judges.

Amazingly, it comes off every year. Not that there hasn't been a misstep or two along the way, but the organizers have jiggled a little here, juggled a little there to make it work.

"We've been at this a long time, and we have the advantage of having the same people working over the years. They remember what worked and what didn't," says show manager Dee Newman.

As the show has grown, organizers have had to get creative to fit more boats in the available space, and manufacturers have come up with their own plans for the spaces they rent. They have set up extra floats to get customers out of the main flow of traffic, tents, video presentations and complicated docking arrangements.

"Everyone is trying to distinguish themselves from everyone else," says Bryant Phillips, senior vice president of sales and marketing for North Carolina-based Hatteras Yachts. "It's become very popular with most manufacturers to have a gathering spot for customers. And you tie up your showcase product so visitors get a full view of the profile from the main pier."

At the start 33 years ago, organizers used a hand-drawn diagram of the city dock area and cut-and-paste outlines of boats and floating docks to figure out where things would go. Now, a computer spits out blueprints with color-coded docks, floats and boats and the tightly arranged schedule. As setup begins, everybody must know where - and when - to put everything.

Out in the harbor, small work boats push 280-foot strings of floating docks into a staging area as a crew from CYR Marine Services sets the pilings into place guided by sophisticated electronic gear. A single piling as little as one foot out of place would upset the whole delicate arrangement.

Dick Woodard, a boat carpenter from the Eastern Shore town of Wittman, slips into the dock usually reserved for the governor's yacht in a small runabout, drops a line around one of the pilings that have been lashed to the bulkheads and begins towing it out to the driving platform, dodging harbor traffic.

It's his 18th year, he says, and boat show organizers "do a good job of keeping the civilians out."

"The boat show stuff alone makes it enough of a challenge."

At 20 yards away, he slips the line from the piling, pushes it toward the platform and heads back for more. "You gotta be careful with these," he says. "You don't want to have them get going and ram the boat."

Long before the last piling has been driven, the first boats arrive and begin circling the harbor, waiting for permission to head for their spots at the head of the permanent dock.

"It's the prime spot," says Ed Kurowski, whose company, Gratitude Yachting Center in Rock Hall, is exhibiting the boats. "Right where everybody walking by can see you."

Kurowski, at the wheel of an Island Packet 485, one of many boats making debuts, takes another turn around the harbor, talking about the great sail he and his crew had across the bay that morning. He says it's "hurry up and wait time," but soon starts up Ego Alley. Within seconds, Susann Catterton's voice comes over the radio, telling him his spot is ready.

"I knew that," he says, "I've been doing this a long time."

As the crews on Kurowski's boats toss lines to dock hands, the next exhibitors edge toward their spots and the harbor is filled with circling boats.

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