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A gathering of believers

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I was talking over coffee at the Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland this weekend with a fledgling boatbuilding entrepreneur who has a design in his head for a better mousetrap. We were taking the long way around to his designs by first remembering the good old days. He spoke fondly of the skiffs of his boyhood.

“I challenge you,” he said with passion, “to tell me we had less fun in those boats than we do today in a 42-foot sportfisherman. And we did it at a fraction of the cost.”

It’s the kind of spontaneous, unexpected conversation that I often find myself having at this show, which is held close to the vernal equinox and where you’ve got a better than 50/50 chance of seeing a bit of snow each March. (We were greeted Saturday morning by big wet flakes that expired as soon as they landed on terra firma.) One minute you’re talking to a builder, the next to a designer, and a little later you find yourself in a conversation with a tanker captain as you walk down a wide corridor, a lovely varnished Down Easter to port, a glass version to starboard.

“Each person here is like a Christmas present,” said show founder Phin Sprague Jr., owner of Portland Yacht Services, a full-service yard that hosts the event. Enter into a conversation with a stranger — unwrap that present, if you will — and you’ll come away with something of real value.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re in a booth or walking down an aisle,” says Sprague.

While the number of attendees is small compared to a Miami or Lauderdale, Sprague says, “It’s a target-rich environment.” The show has a reputation for attracting a knowledgeable clientele.

The Maine Boatbuilders Show is different from most in that Sprague requires the builder rather than sales staff to be on hand to meet the public and answer questions. That and the fact that custom and semicustom builders dominate the show give it a different feel.

“If you can’t walk up to someone and learn something, then what’s the point?” Sprague asks.

If you’ve got a question about a repair or woodworking, about a tool, or a design or some aspect of vacuum-bagging, it’s hard to imagine you couldn’t find someone in the big old railroad foundry who can answer it. The show is a nice mix of traditional design, materials and craftsmanship and modern building techniques, synthetic materials and innovation. It is unique on the East Coast for its easy blend of the timeless with the 21st century. Exhibitors exchange information with fellow exhibitors as readily as with show-goers.

The mood of this year’s three-day event was in line with what we’ve seen and heard at other shows this winter. Attendance was up about 20 percent (to roughly 7,600) over last year, “which was just the pits,” Sprague notes, and just below the 2006 level. Exhibitors also were up a tad, to 204. “The trend is in the right direction,” he says. The overall boat size was a little smaller, which Sprague says is an accurate reflection of what people are buying.

“These are the survivors,” said Sprague on Saturday afternoon, looking down a long hall lined with boats and people. “The core, these guys here — none of them has been overly expansive in running their businesses. They’ve stayed close to the ground. They pulled their belts in four notches. They don’t owe the bank anything. They ate peanut butter, and it hurts because they’ve had to lay off some of their friends.”

It helps that many of them service the boats they build — cradle to grave, providing them with an annuity of sorts. You know it hasn’t been easy, but you sense things are starting to improve. “They’re the ones who’ll turn the lights out,” Sprague says. “If they can’t survive, no one can.”

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