A Sailor's New Year's Day Down East

The annual Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland marks the start of a new season on the water.

Maine Boatbuilders Show

Visitors to the Maine Boatbuilders Show were greeted by very springlike temperatures and a fleet's worth of cool boats and gear. For more photos from the show, click here.Mark Pillsbury

Driving into downtown Portland on a sun-splashed Maine Saturday, who could doubt that a new sailing season would soon unfold. Indeed, for many of us, the Maine Boatbuilders Show has become the harbinger of spring—for sailors, "it's New Year's Day," says show founder and organizer Phin Sprague about the annual bash he hosts at his Portland Yacht Services yard on the city's waterfront.

Though it was barely mid-morning, we had to thread our way down Commercial Street, past throngs of green-clad St. Patty’s Day revelers awaiting their parade. Our destination wasn’t the lines already forming outside the Irish bars but the dirt parking lots that sit alongside the narrow-gauge railway tracks running past the boatyard, which once was home to a locomotive foundry.

Some years there’s snow in the March air; other times, as on this day, boating’s faithful turn out in T-shirts and shorts for what certainly qualifies as one of the most unique boat shows around. In the rambling buildings that span the yard are exhibits that include big and small sailboats and powerboats made of wood and composites as well as all the gear that you’d expect to find at one of the big, glitzy convention-hall shows and much more that you’d never find in such purely commercial venues. What’s different, too, is that the people manning the booths aren’t the usual sales guys and gals but the boatbuilders and designers themselves, or company principals such as Will and Hank Keene, owners of Edson Marine, or George Kirby of George Kirby Jr. Paint Co., or Fred Hutchison of PYI.

The show, in fact, is different by design, says Sprague. Only those who really know the product are invited to stand in the booths. “You talk to people who really know what they’re doing,” he says. If you have a question about a boat, chances are good that you’ll get your answer directly from the builder or designer. And it’s the knowledge of the exhibitors that attracts die-hard boaters in droves, which in turn brings new companies into the show each year.

Couple the exhibits with an expert-laden seminar series—and a canteen that leaves your mouth watering for more—and what you get is a very good reason to visit Portland for a day. Or two. Every March.

Though the majority of the exhibitors are repeat offenders, on each visit I find that some boat or piece of kit stands just a little taller than the rest. This year what really caught my eye were the daysailers tucked away in a back room of the show. First I came upon the stunning CW Hood 32, designed and built by Chris Hood in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It’s not the first time I’d seen the boat, but it’s long overhangs and traditional looks gave my pulse a little jolt just the same. Chris, of course, was present and surrounded by the curious.

And just around the corner sat Ginger.

Ah, Ginger. Designed by Stephens Waring and built by the Brooklin Boat Yard, the 50-foot "fast daysailer" was first launched in 2007, according to Brooklin's Steve White, who was, himself, mobbed by the smitten. The boat was recently returned to the yard by her owner as a trade-in for the new spirit-of-tradition Isobel, another Stephens Waring beauty that made her debut in classic-yacht circles last summer. Alas, her $400,000 price tag precluded this ink-stained wretch from being a viable suitor, but for the record, I'd be willing to pay a princely sum just for a ride.

Hosting the show is both a colossal undertaking and a labor of love, as the buildings are chock-full of boats stored for the winter. To get ready, vessels are temporarily moved into the surrounding yard and exhibitors are moved in. But first, a flower show is staged a week prior to the builder's show, another event managed by Phin and his troops. (Click here to see a time-lapse video of how the whole affair unfolds.)

All the work, though, is worth it, says Sprague.

“Everyone had a great time, and we sold boats,” he said when asked about the success of this year’s show.

Happy New Year, from Maine.