Academics frequently go to conferences, and we are no different in that regard. At them, we present papers and listen to others give them, interview for jobs or interview others, and spend time at the book exhibit, browsing through the new releases in our field, talking to editors, and looking for cheap finds. At some conferences, like that of the American Society of Environmental Historians annual meeting, we also go on field trips, which are pretty awesome. But the best part of any conference is connecting with colleagues and hanging out with old friends, usually at the bar. Occasionally, if we are lucky, we also get out to a local restaurant, check out a microbrew, or even end up at the Lincoln Memorial at 3am in zero degrees as I did a few years ago at the American Historical Association conference. Of course, in bringing together a lot of academics you often end up with rooms filled with pompous blowhards, nervous new PhDs, and the most boring panels you can imagine. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy academic conferences, but I cannot remember ever being truly excited to attend one, even the environmental history conferences where I feel at home. But I do get really excited for the cruising equivalent of a conference, a sailboat show.
I remember, back in high school, going to the Sail Expo in Atlantic City with my folks in the midst of February. It was a blast. Not only did I get to meet up with a bunch of my sailing friends, but we also bought my first Laser and I shook hands with Dennis Conner, which was the only time I can remember being nervous around a celebrity. I also came away with a bunch of catalogs and pamphlets from the various vendors that helped me make it through the rest of the winter and surely fueled my young cruising dreams.
Two years ago, just a few weeks after I first met Margaret, I attended the Miami boat show with my Dad. At the time, I was mainly just browsing, although I did have a few specific things I wanted to look into for my Catalina 22. We stayed at a hotel just across from the Strictly Sail portion of it, stepped aboard most of the sailboats, spent hours walking the endless aisles, hung out at the Latitudes and Attitudes party, and sampled some good Cuban food at the Bayside Marketplace. What I did not do was attend any of the many seminars. But we had a great time and also caught a Michigan basketball victory on television.
Last year, Margaret and I went to the Chicago Strictly Sail show, intent on getting Margaret aboard some boats so she could get a feel for them (despite the fact that all were modern, spade rudder lozenges) and attend a few seminars. Though Chicago was a much smaller affair than Miami and it was snowing outside, we had a good time there. Margaret got a little more excited about cruising and learned enough to start to know what she really had to learn more about. For me, it was nice to be surrounded by sailors, and very cool to have my good buddy Matt sit through John Kretschmer’s “Force 10 – Storm Sailing Strategies” with me, and then declare that he wanted to make a passage with us someday (I am going to hold you to it, Matt).
Even given my love of sailboat shows, I was a little reluctant to return to the Chicago Strictly Sail despite the fact that Margaret kept hinting that she wanted to attend. I don’t quite know why I was hesitant. But as we got more serious about buying a boat, I started to think we had some genuine reasons to go beyond just fueling the dream. Over the last week, as I realized we had a purpose in attending, I went from ambivalent to totally geeked about the show. Now, the only concern I have is that we can only attend on Friday because we both start classes this week and Margaret has her feminist book club on Saturday afternoon. So, we plan to drive over to Bloomington-Normal early on Friday morning and catch the train into the city, just in time for the opening and the first round of seminars.
In case you have not already come to the realization that I am a total dork for getting so excited about the boat show, I will walk you through how we plan to spend our day. First, we both have a number of booths that we want to stop by. We will spend our first hour and a half at the show, before the seminars start, covering what we can and try to fit in the rest later in the day.
The first vendor on our list is Mack Sails, a loft based in Stuart, Florida, that has made a ton of cruising sails and more than a few of the sails on the boats we have looked at. I want to talk to them about general costs for different types of sails, learn more about sail cloth for offshore work and sail durability, and talk to them about their stack packs, which will probably be one of our first purchases for the new boat. Since we will, most likely, be buying a boat in Florida, and definitely spending some time there, we figure Mack Sails will be our sailmaker of choice. Getting a little more information about sails and cost will allow us to better budget for our refit and help us further differentiate between the boats we are looking at.
Next, we want to stop by the Sailrite booth, so we can talk to them about their different sewing machines models and find out more about the cost of various projects we would accomplish with the machines. I think Margaret is already chomping at the bit to do at least some of the work we would otherwise contract out to Mack Sails. After Sailrite, we will make a pass by the Walker Bay display, as we just purchased a used eight foot model with the sail kit. We want to take a look at the tube kit that would turn our hard bottom dinghy into a quasi-rigid inflatable. We will also be looking to see if they have any other accessories that could make our dinghy even more fun to use.
Further, we plan to stop by Mariners Learning System so we can get the boat show discount on the 100-ton captain’s license course, which my parents gave me for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad!). We also want to price out various self-tailing winches (we wish Winchmate was going to be there), have Margaret try on various inflatable PFD brands and models, and pick up a few splicing accessories to add to the fids and how-to book Margaret gave me, including a whipping kit, Swedish fid, and rope to practice on. As I already admitted, I know I am a dork.
As if that was not enough for one day we also plan to attend a few seminars. There are five seminar sessions on Friday, and we have already figured out the ones we want to attend, though we still have to make some hard decisions and maybe split up to conquer them.
In the first session, there are three possible picks. Nigel Calder, the “guru of sailing systems,” will be giving a seminar on “Lessons Learned Along the Way,” which promises to entertain us with some good stories about his cruising life and provide more than a few insights and tips. Another institution in the cruising world, Lin and Larry Pardey are offering a seminar at the same time on “Cost Control While You Cruise.” While we have read just about all of the Pardey’s books, I am sure they will have a few additional vignettes we have not heard and teach us a new thing or two. Plus, it just seems like we have to catch a seminar by these two at some point in time. However, we – or at least I – will probably end up at the “Short Handed Sail Handling” session with the brothers from Mack Sails, Travis Blain and Colin Mack. They are going to provide an in-depth look at sail handling for the cruising sailor. With our own purchase and summer sailing adventure on the horizon, the need to learn a more about dealing with a much larger sail plan is weighing on me, and I think this session might be a good way for me to start to understand what I really need to focus on in the coming months.
At 1pm, there are another three seminars that are enticing us (or maybe I should say, enticing me). The first is a “Basic Marine Plumbing for Your Sailboat” class. While I know I am going to be dealing with this shit, I am still not too excited about actually getting into the details yet. Another option is “Prioritizing Systems in Refits and Restorations” by Will Keene, which would be quite timely given our plans. However, reading over the description, it promises to offer an overview rather than specifics – and who could blame him when he only has an hour. So, we (again, maybe I should just speak for myself) will most likely be heading over to another Mack Sails seminar, this one on rigging.
Although I will probably already be worn out and in desperate need of liquid refreshment (i.e. beer) by this point in the day, I really want to attend the “Marine Radar” seminar with Tom Igielski at 2:15. I know very little about radar, but nearly every boat we are looking at has some form – from old 1980s era Sea Wolf arcade look alike boxes to the latest chartplotter-integrated models – of the device. Not only will this session discuss the various radar systems, it also promises to teach us how to interpret radar for all sorts of purposes. It sounds like I might learn enough in that hour to save me a few days of aggravation and internet searching as I otherwise try to teach myself.
At 3:30, Lin and Larry have another session, this one entitled, “The Adventures That Shaped Our Lives,” which is appealing for all the reasons their first of the day was. At the same time, Sheryl and Paul Shard are presenting on “Earning While Cruising,” which could be useful for us, though we have already thought long and hard about the topic and have come up with a good group of ways to fill the kitty already (most of them are even legal). Again, I cannot speak for Margaret, but I will almost surely be in the room with Mark Kish where he will be offering tips on “Safety Below the Water Line.” It might not sound all that appealing of a topic, but when you realize a faulty thru-hull or an improperly installed bilge pump might sink your boat, it gets a lot more compelling.
Our seminar choices finish up with two that promise to be the most fun of the day: Bob Bitchin’s “How to Keep a Starboard Attitude While Cruising” and John Kretschmer’s “Atlantic Crossings: Lessons Learned from 20 Transatlantic Passages.” Both of these guys are two of my favorite personalities in cruising. Kretschmer has a great attitude and just an unbelievable amount of experience. But while he is obviously a fun-loving guy, there is no doubt that Bitchin bests him in this regard. A successful magazine publisher, Bitchin has made his living promoting the lifestyles that he loves to indulge in, from motorcycle riding to sailboat cruising. Whatever session we attend, it will be sure to be educational, enlightening, and entertaining.
While I will be attending two academic conferences later in the semester, I am far more excited about the Chicago Strictly Sail show than those others. Now, if the first week of school could just get over with already!