The Water Wonderland loves a good boat show

In its early days in the 1950s, the boat show was held at the Detroit Artillery Armory on Eight Mile Road.

Detroit’s first all-boat show opened for a nine day cruise on Feb. 2, 1957 at the Detroit Artillery Armory on East Eight Mile. The Detroit News-sponsored event attracted a wave of exhuberant landlubbers who forced the doors to be opened an hour early.

More than 3,000 paid to get in before 1 p.m. and by mid-afternoon the 5,000-spot parking lot was filled. Parking along Eight Mile road and in side streets nearby extended a half mile east and west.

Frank Jenkins who had managed expositions of all types since 1946, said, “It was the largest first day attendance,” in his experience.

picture An owner pulls his boat out of the water in Lake St. Clair. Michigan has more than a million boats registered, more than any other state.

More than 150 exhibits were showcased and every exhibit drew a crowd. Ladders and platforms near the larger boats (the biggest was 42 feet long) made it possible for parades of people to get into cockpits and look into the cabins. Vivian Buc remembers that first show day, “walking up the ladders to the luxury yachts and being asked to remove my high heel shoes. I guess in those days topsider boat shoes hadn’t yet been invented.”

An early visitor, A.S. Beeman a trailer manufacturer who had exhibited in the New York Boat Show, said, “I’m amazed. The show is superior to the show in New York’s Coliseum. That one was spread over four floors. This is all on one floor and it makes a great sight.”

One boat-builder alone had 73 different models — everything from a $59 kit boat to a yacht for $90,000.

Houseboats, a popular attraction, housed salesmen promoting a way to get out of paying real estate taxes on a summer cottage.

Visitors found everything from rowboats to yachts, boating gadgets of all sorts and impressive maritime educational exhibits.

During the late afternoon, commodores in full regalia from Detroit boating clubs appeared at the show.

The News movie theater, with 200 seats, offered the latest color and sound film on boating, water skiing and cruising.

Winners of the Detroit News model yacht craftsmanship contest learned who won at the show. Prize money totaled $2,000. From an imposing fleet of entries, 20 won in the junior division, 19 in the senior division and five in the open class. The model boats were rated for craftsmanship in design and building. John H. Gibson and Raymond Vander won in the junior division and received 14-foot Nipper class sailboats. Neither had ever sailed anything bigger than their model yachts, nor had they been on a real sailboat. Both boys were tongue-tied with joy during an interview with Bud Lynch from WWJ.

Luckily the exhibit provided boating classes.

Courses covered elementary seamanship, knots and splices, navigation, piloting rules and boater safety.

Today the Detroit Boat show offers nearly everything for boaters and wannabe sailors.

Michigan leads the nation in the number of registered boats. According to the Michigan Secretary of State, there were 952,960 registered watercraft in the state as of Dec. 31, 1999, and last year topped 1 million. As many as 40 percent of all Michigan residents are boaters, and they spend about $370 million on boat-related expenses.

Boat shows have been key predictors of consumer boat-buying trends, and the trends recently have been upbeat. Sales of motorboats, sailboats and accesories in the United States reached a record $25.6 billion in 2000, up 15 percent from the year before. Sailboats sales are up 32 percent.

picture Bordering four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan has more coastline than any state except Alaska.

      Despite rumblings of a slowing economy, the boating industry sees continued good times ahead. Michigan has 3,121 miles of Great Lakes shoreline — more coastline than any state except Alaska — 11,037 inland lakes and 36,350 miles of rivers and streams. Michigan borders on four of the the five Great Lakes, which contain one fifth of the world’s fresh water. In Michigan you are never more than six miles from a lake or stream and are always within 85 miles of a Great Lake.

According to Michigan State University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Resources, the economic importance of Michigan boating exceeds $2.5 billion a year.

The 43rd annual show opens Saturday Feb. 10 at Cobo Center and runs through Feb. 18. There will be more than 2,800 new boats on display, including this year’s Queen of the Show, a 54-foot Sea Ray 540 Sundancer, which sells for a mere $950,000. (The show’s first Queen in 1957 went for $90,000.) The Sundancer features three televisions, a Bose sound system, custom interior, a wet bar, two 640-hp Caterpillar diesel engines, auto-pilot, radar, and of course, air conditioning.

“This year is almost like a new beginning,” said Boat Show president Van Snider. “Late last year, for the first time in history, Michigan broke the 1 million mark in boat registrations. It has set a higher bar for everything else in the boating industry.”

Lake traffic is usually more tranquil than in the previous photo.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News