Breakdown Day

The Annual Annapolis Sailboat Show breakdown is always a festive occasion. From "Herb's Watch" for October 23, 2008

November 6, 2008

Cornell interview 368

Gwenda and Jimmy Cornell have roamed the world under sail, and these days mostly enjoy coastal cruising from their boat’s current base in Croatia.

From one year to the next, the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, is an ever-changing festival of sail, with each edition showcasing a fresh collection of boats and equipment. But some things remain the same: the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen in their dress blues wandering up Main Street on a Saturday night; the reliable faces of the marine industry, who understand that Annapolis isn’t merely the biggest and best pure sailboat show in the country, but also the closest thing there is to an annual convention for sailors and sailing; and, of course, the beginning of fall on the Chesapeake, though this year’s recently concluded show was conducted during a heat wave that felt like high summer.

But there’s one other thing that happens every year in Annapolis, and while the locals see it as a time-honored tradition, the majority of show-goers miss it entirely. It’s the weird, wild, exceedingly entertaining breakdown of the show that begins at the stroke of 5 p.m. on Columbus Day Monday, when the event officially comes to a close. Ironically, after a weekend of parties, the best one begins once the whole thing is over.

There are numerous reasons that the sailboat show breakdown is the perfect storm of dockside disassemblies. The first and primary one is logistical: the U.S. Powerboat Show begins on the following Thursday and organizers need every last minute to prepare an entirely new event. Hence, out with the old, and in with the new–and make it snappy. Second, the venue at the town’s central city docks offers several tremendous vantage points from which to view the deconstruction. And finally, after five hectic days of disruption and commerce, the vast majority of Annapolitans are ready to blow off some serious steam.


And so, hours before the circus begins, crowds of imbibers gather three deep at the best viewing spots: the sidewalk in front of Pusser’s and the roof deck just above, the raucous Fleet Reserve Club, and the balcony suites at the Marriott Hotel. When the official announcement is made at five, everyone is in serious party mode.

This year, quite by accident, I’d run into old pal Angus Phillips–a fellow CW editor at large and an outdoors writer for the Washington Post–just as the madness got under way. Angus decided we should dampen the dust at the Fleet Reserve, and moments later he was introducing me to a fellow pouring draft beers from a keg that he dubbed “the world’s worst bartender.” To perhaps underscore the point, the poor barkeep proceeded to entirely miss the cup for which he was aiming.

Angus was mortified. “Mr. Miller here is also my crabbing partner,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ll trust him anymore.”


The guys on the water responsible for moving boats in and out have the whole thing down to a science. Like football lineman leading a power sweep, they blast around on Boston Whalers affixed with huge chocks on their prows, in mere moments taking apart wholesale sections of dock, and in the process carving out big holes for the boats to depart. “It’s like a movie set,” said Angus.

There’s little room for error for the drivers of the escaping boats; they are under the microscope and everyone ashore keeps a watchful eye, hoping for the worst. Occasionally they’re rewarded with a poor show of seamanship, which they readily jeer. On the other hand, the biggest cheers are reserved for the savviest of sailors, especially those who actually depart under sail. A few years back, Lin and Larry Pardey popped a chute on the way out aboard their engineless Taleisin, then for good measure threw in a couple of jibes before extricating themselves into open water.

The crowd went nuts.


This year, as in most, a few of the J-Boat guys hoisted sail, including the skipper of a J/92 whose passenger crew included a woman wearing a spectacular lime-green pantsuit–with matching visor!–who waved to the masses as she exited, like Queen Elizabeth at a state function. A couple of dudes on a Jeanneau tossed the flowery remnants of a booth bouquet onto the brine.

But the year’s most spectacular performance went to boat broker and local sailor extraordinaire Garth Hitchens, who dove from an Alerion into the murky sea to retrieve a pair of sunglasses that a client dropped overboard–he got them on the way down–and then was towed out of the show on a trailing line, grinning from ear to ear. Some guys are all about style.

I was in Annapolis on business the following week and ended up driving into town on Thursday’s VIP day for the powerboat show. Now Annapolis is a sailor’s town, one of the very best, and the one thing you can always depend on as you stroll the waterfront is a forest of masts. That is, except during the powerboat show. So you can imagine my shock when I looked over the harbor to the sight of nothing but buildings and blue sky. It was one of the strangest things I ever saw, a boat show in Annapolis without a single spar in sight.

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