What Are They Selling?
November 13, 2003
A cynical view of the boating world would differentiate the population into two broad categories: a bunch of people who buy boats, and materials and services related to boating; and a much smaller collection of people who sell all of the stuff to the first group. Last weekend we met plenty of folks belonging to both groups at Sail Expo in St. Petersburg, Florida. The purpose of boat shows like Sail Expo is to bring together the masses that are eager to consume with the businesses that are equally eager to supply. For making this connection, boat show organizers charge the buyers an admission fee and the sellers an exhibitor's fee. A stroke of marketing genius.
We were in St. Pete mostly to sell, but since the exhibitors' tent we shared with a handful of boating authors was directly across from the beer and food tents, we did our share of buying as well. Eileen performed her original cruising music twice a day at venues that were at opposite ends of the show grounds. This logistical inconvenience kept David busy schlepping sound equipment back and forth so he had very little time to stray into any of the other exhibit tents. Since Eileen spent all of her time either performing or selling her CDs and also stayed clear of most of the selling booths, we managed to escape with the cruising kitty still intact. For us, that's success.
Compared to other exhibitions, the St. Pete show has an old country fair feeling to it. Rather than being housed in a cavernous convention centre, it sprawls over several acres of parkland next to the Vinoy Marina and yacht basin in the heart of town. Fortunately, the weather was fine for most of the show, so attendees could stroll along the seawall and relax on the grass before re-entering the display docks and exhibit tents for another binge of buying. It's a pleasant park setting, but the purpose of the show is still to sell. The intriguing question is what is being sold.
Someone not familiar with boating who attends a boat show like the one in St. Pete could be forgiven for concluding that boating is mostly about stuff. Over 150 vendors were there flogging everything from canvas tote bags to catamarans. Some exhibitors sold financing to help people buy the stuff; others sold insurance in case the stuff that was bought ever breaks or is stolen.
A few vendors were selling something less tangible, the sailing dream. Most of the boating magazines fell into this category. Their glossy cover shots typically showed meticulously maintained boats gliding through crystal clear waters under cloudless skies. They're selling a lifestyle unmarred by gales or bilge waste or leaking hatches. One magazine in particular invariably featured a large breasted, scantily clad woman draped over the rigging on every cover. We're not sure what she's selling, but we suspect it's not a course in refrigeration mechanics. And if you dig a little deeper into the contents of most of the magazines, you discover the same preoccupation with stuff - new gear announcements (always positive), boat reviews (rarely critical), and, of course, lots of flashy ads.
In the food concession area across from our tent, a popular musician entertained passers-by with Jimmy Buffett style songs. He was selling a cruising image of endless beach parties - lots of lust, libido, and libations. The bikini babe on the magazine cover would love his music.
One of the singing seminars Eileen presented at St. Pete was titled "Cruising Expose - what the sailing magazines don't tell you". The second word in the title was supposed to be pronounced "ex-poe-say"; unfortunately, we couldn't find the proper accent symbol in our anglo word processing programme and the show directory left out the subtitle. Consequently, a few audience members might have thought Eileen was going to expose herself rather than expose some of the myths surrounding the cruising lifestyle (those who were disappointed probably also subscribe to the above mentioned magazine). Perhaps it was just as well that the subject of Eileen's presentation wasn't too clear; it might have upset some of the other exhibitors.
In her talk and songs, Eileen stressed that cruising is more than boats and boating stuff and boating nymphs. It's a lifestyle that has its ups and downs. It's a constant learning process that teaches you about the natural world and about new cultures. Equally important, it's a set of experiences through which you learn more about yourself; it challenges you, and in accepting those challenges, you acquire confidence and strength. Most of all, cruising is about relationships. It brings into focus how you relate with the folks you left behind, how you interact with your partner on board, and how you fit into a new transient community of other cruisers. After the embers have died away in that final beach bonfire, cruising is the memories of friends you've made during all your wanderings.
Yes, you need to have a boat and a modicum of equipment to go cruising. And boat shows like Sail Expo in St. Pete are good places to check out what's available and possibly to get a good deal on new gear. But all the stuff in all the boat shows can't provide the experience that comes from cruising. For that, you have to cast off the dock lines and head out into a whole new world. We hope to see you out there.