Backstage At The Boat Show

Often ones first introduction to boating is at one of the many, many boat shows that are staged around the country almost anytime of the year. Some of the largest are in-the-water shows in Annapolis, Miami/Fort Lauderdale and several other venues in coastal cities and inland waterways. But there are quite a few others that are held in convention centers, stadiums and coliseums in cities both large and small. When the doors open and the first of thousands of folks walk through the door, the boats are gleaming and polished, the booths are dressed for customers and the sales folks have practiced their presentations.

But there are major components that very few get to see. It almost begins at the end of the show in preparation for the next, with debriefing sessions and strategies discussed. The move in and out for in-the-water shows are complex, but no where near that for a show that needs to be held inside large buildings many miles from the nearest water. Once the initial layout for the dealer’s area is confirmed and the floor plan is designed, the logistics of getting several large boats over highways and through city streets begins. Transportation via carriers experienced in handling this special cargo must be made well in advance. Those with the equipment and expertise are in big demand for these events so finding one at the last minute may be next to impossible. Many dealers have long established relationships with those carriers so each anticipates the needs of the other and this part of the equation usually works well. But there are always those last minute glitches that can make for anxious moments when show time approaches.

Ship & Sail Yacht Sales in Kemah, Texas is both a sail and power boat dealer that is present at several shows during the year. Houston International Boat, Sport & Travel Show is held at the Reliant Stadium and is by no means the largest show but is one of the first shows of the year, being held shortly after the New Year holiday. An estimated 150,000 people will walk through their doors in the ten days of the show. In most years a 1,000 or more vessels will be on display and over 400 vendors will show their wares. But when you walk through the door, did you ever wonder just how all of this was put together and how in the world did they get those boats in here. Well, it wasn’t easy.

An over the road trip with a large boat has its restrictions. The two biggest are height and width. There are limits for both in many states and special permits needed in most. A large consideration for transport is the bridges the boats must pass under. That means the dealers must virtually disassemble the larger boats to meet those restrictions. A good working relationship with a nearby boat yard is essential. Boats that will be on display will have to be moved to the yard based on availability of haul-out schedules and at the same time coordinated with the transport company that will haul the boats to the venue. Ideally the boats will be hauled from the water, have the bottoms powered washed to remove marine growth, and placed directly onto the trailers that will take them to their destination. If all goes well that is exactly what happens. But trucks break down, drivers get ill, travel lifts quit for whatever reason and sometimes the weather just won’t work with you. But somehow it all gets done and on time.

Once the boats are on the trailers, the process of removing whatever parts that will hinder transport are begun. With the sail boats this means masts, booms and rigging must come down prior to loading. Additional items such as arches and even stanchions and pedestal guards may have to come off. Some times this can be done in advance but again it is usually all done in one event to save time and expenses. For power boats this means hardtops, arches and even superstructures as well as propellers and rudders. This can be a daunting task. Hundreds of wires, cables, steering lines and whatever else runs from the bridge to the inner sections of the hull must be disconnected in such a way that it can be properly reconnected again later. These parts of the vessel need to be unbolted and uncaulked and prepared to be lifted from the hull. Once again sound experience and proper equipment are an absolute must. Some of these vessels are priced in the millions of dollars and working with human beings and large boat parts can pose certain hazards.

Removing masts and superstructures requires the use of a crane or the yard’s travel lift depending upon the size and weight. The sections are removed with great care so as not to damage anything and are then themselves loaded onto the trailers, sometimes sharing space with the boats and sometimes needing their own transportation. With the sailboats, most dealers leave the masts and rigging in storage at the yards until after the show. Each hull and each section needs to be supported properly on the trailers so that they will withstand the trip to the show venue without mishap. Care must be taken to support the load so the vessels won’t suffer damage, due to bumps in the road, sudden twists, turns and stops along the way. Even wind affects on the various parts plays in how the trailers are set up and all of this is done as the boat or sections hang from the crane or lift just above its respective trailer. You might think that once the boats are loaded and secured that the hard work is over. But in fact, it has just begun.


The producers of the show will schedule a time and place for the dealers to stage their boats prior to the show. For the larger vessels, this means hauling the boats to the venue days before set up begins and leaving them until the offloading and set-up starts. For dealers that have smaller boats that will be brought in by trailer other than the large transport, that means beginning the move in once the doors are open for set up. In either case, it is a well orchestrated plan that has been fine tuned over the years. Every consideration has been made based on size of vessels to be moved in and even the location within the building itself. Once again, scheduling equipment and manpower correctly determines how quickly and successfully the whole move-in process goes.

It has been said that from chaos and confusion comes order and this about sums up the move-in process. Consideration must be given to access for the larger boats and the equipment needed to unload and re-assemble them. Trucks carrying necessary supplies to build displays, and carry office supplies, signs and banners and whatever else is needed must be able to reach the display areas and unload. Most of this is directed by the shows promoters. Depending on size, the boats may come in by small trailers behind pick-up trucks or on large flatbeds set up for just this purpose. Sailboats must be lifted by a pair of large cranes and blocked in place. The larger power boats need to be raised off their trailers and blocked in position and the sections that were taken apart for shipping must now be put back together and made ready for the public. Again the large cranes might be called to duty. Decking may need to be built and positioned, and carpet or other floor covering placed in the display area. All of the set-up process is done over a period of days prior to the show. Most vendors will begin very early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. That opening day deadline is on everyone’s mind and the entire process is difficult and grueling.

Once the boats are positioned, decks are built and put in place and the major construction is completed, the finishing touches are put on the display area. This can be video displays, information brochures, lights, plants and anything else the dealer may decide that will make the area more attractive and appealing to the public. The equipment on the boats must be checked out and in good working order. Where needed, electricity should be available. Just before Showtime, the boats will be completely detailed and decorated. Hulls will be polished to a high shine and the stainless fittings and hardware will gleam in the lights of the arena.

And let’s not forget all of the vendors selling their various equipment and wares. Several areas are set aside just for these displays. They tend to be much smaller but still require a fair amount of set-up. They can be as varied as insurance brokers, chandleries, engine shops, equipment suppliers both large and small and sometimes, totally unrelated to boating. These displays are usually the last to be set up and are an indicator that the big day is quickly approaching. While all of this is going on, the promoters are busy hanging signs, setting up electrical connections, planning parking for thousands and even placement of the ticket booths. The entire undertaking is one well choreographed effort that even for those of us that have done this many times still watch the process unfold in wonder.
When the big day comes, the doors are finally opened and that first person walks through, the public sees a spectacular display of all things boating under one roof. The selections are almost overwhelming and the individual vendors are standing by to answer questions and sell their wares. There is little evidence of just what went on in those days just prior. It would appear that everything just magically arrived for their viewing pleasure. And once the last one goes home and the doors finally close on this particular show, well the whole process of taking it all down and getting it back where it came from, and put back together or stored away for the next show begins. But that is a whole other story.

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