Annapolis is the site of the U.S. Naval Academy, where bright, determined, patriotic young people come to learn how to command the most powerful naval force that the world has ever seen. It is also the site of the annual Annapolis boat show, where by-definition lackadaisical, undisciplined, impractical dreamers come to see the latest means by which they can get into serious trouble afloat. This seems an odd juxtaposition, like staging historic military reenactments outside West Point, or radio-controlled model airplane conventions at the Air Force Acad– wait, I just Googled those things, and it turns out they actually happen. Maybe we in the private sector seek to emulate, however faintly, those whose job it is to go in various iterations of harm’s way, who are in touch with the Wild, danger, spiritual and physical challenges, and other things that give meaning and zest to life. They are just more organized about it.
Meanwhile we, at the moral-equivalent-of-war end of the spectrum, seek the same things, but must fabricate our own relationship with great forces; sailing, again by definition, puts us at the nexus of wind and wave energies, throws in a laughably fragile, unstable platform, and for good measure gets us as far as practicable from provisions, spare parts, and any form of aid if (actually, when) things go wrong. Sailing is a big, beautiful, slightly dangerous dance, and the boat show is where we go to accessorize. This year, the devastation in the Caribbean highlighted how dangerous things can get, but that just seemed to add an edge to the pastime.
There were of course boats for sale, many of which were so drenched in technology that they could probably be piloted from your condo in Aspen, and a few of which were both seaworthy and relatively (very relatively) affordable. But there were hundreds of vendors there, selling everything from parachute drogues to sunglasses to EPIRB’s to propellers – anything you might conceivably need or want to cram onto or into the absurdly space-constrained artifact called a sailboat. Sailors wandered the aisles, muttering to themselves and each other, making notes, asking questions that they hoped would prompt useful answers, and standing slack-jawed and glassy-eyed as the vendors went into carefully-scripted, possibly accurate descriptions of their products’ virtues, along with equally carefully-scripted, probably distorted allusions to the products of the competition.
Most boat shows are held in climate-controlled buildings, or in outdoor climates amenable to human metabolisms. But this is an outdoor show in coastal Maryland, where 90 degrees at 90% humidity is considered a dry heat, and people take saunas to cool off. This Northwest boy spent the days drenched in perspiration; if I’d had a bay leaf I could have made soup. But those same sweltering days brought a wonderful parade of old friends. And new friends, too, like Brian Gifford, a rigger from South Carolina who haunted our booth throughout the show, practicing knots and splices, discussing installation and maintenance techniques, and acting as our official photographer. And Billy Rudek, rigger from the USS Constitution (see picture) who stopped by and described some of the finer points of the staying of that grand old vessel. And the retired carpenter whose questions about high-modulus rigging somehow segued into an entrancing description of technologically-informed meditation techniques. And our Airhead neighbors (I am not dissing them; they make a composting toilet of that name) whose carefully-scripted, entirely accurate descriptions often wandered off into scatologically-hilarious-yet-somehow-inoffensive-and-distinctly-informative asides. And on and on, throughout the days, human beings prepping for adventure and fun, prepping to embrace hazards joyfully, as opposed to those who prep for hazards by building futuristic, hermetically sealed shelters and filling them with freeze-dried food. Although there is probably a convention for them, too. Right outside NASA headquarters.