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Yes, people buy boats in January in Connecticut

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published January 27. 2013 4:00AM

With daytime temperatures not breaking the freezing mark for a week, you might think people would be putting their leisure focus these days on skiing or skating or basketball, not boating.

Actually, though, this is perfect boat show weather, according to Grant Westerson, president of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, a group representing the state's marine businesses, from marinas and boatyards to new boat dealers.

What better time to entertain thoughts of lazy summer days on the water than when the thermometer is hanging stubbornly in the teens. Super Bowl Sunday is still a week off.

"It's cold outside," Westerson said. "People want to be inside looking at something that will give them a warm feeling."

I ran into Westerson Friday on the second day of the association's 44th annual boat show. It will run through 5 p.m. today at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

Indeed, as Westerson suggested, the show was filling up Friday afternoon with strollers, dreamers and outboard motor kickers.

I dropped in on the show to shake off a little of winter's cabin fever and to see how well the marine industry seems to be shaking off the recession, now that Realtors, home builders and car dealers seem to be feeling a little better about business.

Westerson and others told me that the boat business has rebounded from the terrible slump of 2009 and 2010, and forecasts of good summer weather, as well as low gas prices, could make this a good selling season.

The annual boat show in Hartford attracts a fair number of shoreline businesses, and in my stroll around the huge arena, packed with all kinds of new boats and marine-related exhibits, I saw a lot of familiar names from southeastern Connecticut, marinas and dealers from Old Saybrook all the way to southern Rhode Island.

Price stickers on the boats made the cold outside seem as far away as the recession.

Lots of people were kicking off their street shoes and climbing aboard big boats that ranged in price from $12,000, for a floating barge on pontoons, with upholstered sofa-like seating and carpeted decks, to $182,500 for a 27-foot tugboat-style yacht, with a bunk for two, a head, galley and air-conditioned cabin.

At a booth for Crocker's Boatyard of New London, I ran into Barbara Neff, New London's events planner.

Neff, who said she was attending the boat show in her capacity as part-time New London dockmaster, was handing out fresh new brochures promoting the city's waterfront for cruising boaters.

Neff said she is also hoping to promote the city's new mooring field and services for boaters with a campaign being developed by OpSail Connecticut, Mystic Country and the marine trades association.

The campaign will feature New London and other ports with a boating and marina guide to southeastern Connecticut, similar to campaigns that have created sightseeing trails for antiques stores and ice cream shops.

"It's a question of getting the word out," Neff said about her plans to promote the new moorings in New London.

The Hartford show is dominated by boats that run on gasoline or diesel, from outboards to inboards, jet skis to cabin cruisers. One power boat dealer told me he sold a boat Thursday night, and a few others said they have taken orders. Some said they hope just to plant the seeds this weekend for spring buying.

I did find a collection of small sailboats in the back of the room, their masts reaching up toward the high arena ceiling.

This little collection of nonmotor craft was presided over by David M. Stanton, president of American Sail Inc. of South Carolina, who said he attends the Connecticut show every winter.

He said sailboats do a little better when gas prices are high. But in a recession, he adds, "we are all working for it."

In selling small sailboats, Stanton added, he is also selling a concept, one that should be especially appealing to parents.

"Sailing develops confidence in children. It teaches them something," said Stanton.

That's one pitch you might hear on a cold January day in Connecticut.

Not far away, though, you might also hear talk of horsepower and detachable water ski racks and electric swim platforms, battery-run coolers and iPod docks on the center console.

In any case, it's a place for some people to while away the time, warmly, until Super Bowl Sunday.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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