Paris, Natch

The oddest thing about the City of Light was its dreary darkness. Mon dieu, where did they get that nickname?

The oddest thing about the City of Light was its dreary darkness. Mon dieu, where did they get that nickname? During a whirlwind three-day trip to Paris early last December, at all hours the place was cloaked in the hues of midnight: The heavens were bleak and overcast, the Seine looked gray and frigid, the buildings seemed painted in a fresh coat of gloom. The only outdoor visual relief was a beacon spinning atop the Eiffel Tower, which cast a searing beam into the otherwise black night. It was as wondrous a sight as a lighthouse at landfall after a difficult passage.
But that was the scene under the open skies. Indoors, it was a far different story.

I’d never been to the Paris Boat Show (aka the Salon Nautique International de Paris), but I’d heard that, in style and presentation, it was in a class apart from the U.S. shows. So when our advertising-sales rep in charge of Southern Europe, Ted Ruegg, invited me to accompany him, I happily accepted. And from the moment I walked into the show’s gleaming headquarters--the clean, well-lighted Parc des Expositions--I knew I wasn’t Stateside anymore.

On the Friday morning of the show’s opening "trade day," we hit the ground running. The giant, main exhibition hall, with one row after another of fully rigged sailboats of all sizes and description, was truly impressive. So, too, were the adjacent stands and viewing platforms, which in most cases incorporated elaborate office space for sealing deals. Despite the state of the global economy, many were being put to good use.

As we walked the aisles, the degree to which French companies have made inroads into the U.S. market was evident. New boats from Amel, Dufour, Beneteau, Jeanneau, Catana, Fountaine-Pajot, and Privilège were all on display. Then again, each of those companies exhibited boats at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, last year, among other U.S. venues. Apparently, when it comes to contemporary boatbuilding, it’s a small world after all.

One of the show’s more enjoyable aspects was having the opportunity to inspect boats before they’re introduced in the States, including new flagships from Beneteau (the handsome Farr-designed Beneteau 57) and Jeanneau (the sleek, deck-salooned Sun Odyssey 54 DS). Dufour’s new 40-footer, the 2003 Boat of the Year in France, was also an eye-catcher. And the builders of Lagoon catamarans were showcasing a model of the Lagoon 440, which will be introduced early in 2004. The 440 sports what may well be the Next Big Thing in cruising and charter cats: a Hatteras-like flybridge. You read it here first.

Along with the boats, there were more than a few international sailing celebrities spotted in the aisles, including American offshore racer Cam Lewis, British solo sensation Ellen MacArthur, and our own contributing editor and author Jimmy Cornell, a native of Romania who has a home in England and was delivering seminars in French. Jimmy’s sort of a one-man United Nations task force on cruising under sail. But the highlight of the day actually came that evening at an event called Nuit Nautique, which transformed the entire show into an open party: The champagne and vin rouge flowed, and at displays like Fountaine-Pajot’s, the fresh oysters just kept coming and coming.

So, compared with its counterparts here in the United States, is the Paris Boat Show really all that novel? Yes and no. Certainly the French bring a special joie de vivre to the proceedings that’s unmistakably unique, gallic, and inviting. And there’s a wonderful multinational flavor to it all. On the other hand, when you strip away the glitter, what’s left are great boats and gear, and an avid bunch of sailors eager to take it all in. Just like the oceans, when it comes to loving sailing and the sea, there are no boundaries.