PORTLAND — The year was 1987 and the city’s waterfront, the now-hip Old Port chock-a-block with tony restaurants and fancy hotels, was still mostly just an old port, its streets lined with shabby buildings and bars and its piers home to a busy commercial fishing industry.
As for Maine boatbuilding, the industry was small, diffuse and largely known for its rugged fishing boats, some built as yachts for boaters who appreciated Downeast lines, although Hinckley had a strong, high-end market for the elegant sailboats it built in Manset and Ralph Stanley’s boats were prized by Friendship sloop sailors.
The owners of Portland Yacht Services, Phin and Joanna Sprague, decided to put on a boat show but one different from the usual event that featured glossy models — some of them boats — and limited interaction with the people who actually designed and built the boats and equipment on display. Thus the first Maine Boatbuilders Show opened one weekend in March in the old locomotive works at the eastern end of Portland’s waterfront where PYS had its headquarters.
According to the show’s “mission statement,” the key principle behind the show was to have exhibitors who were focused on quality and who would “represent their own products and will bring individuals on site who are technically familiar with the product and its construction or application.”
That principle hasn’t changed but the show, which began its run on the ground floor of one building of the former PYS facility in the old Portland Co. complex at 57 Fore St., certainly has. Within a couple of years, the show expanded exponentially. Last year, after PYC moved to the other end of the Portland waterfront, the show moved to its current location, the Portland Sports Complex at 512 Warren Ave. near Interstate 95.
“Our first year, we had 12 brave souls that stood with no boats in our old space,” Joanna Sprague said in a recent email. “And by year five we had to move upstairs” to accommodate dozens of exhibitors and boats. Even though the show was in March, there was even one boat exhibited in the water on a dock at the PYS marina.
This year, Sprague said, the show will feature more than 110 exhibitors and the work of dozens of fiberglass and wooden custom boatbuilders, primarily from the East Coast and many from Hancock County, including sailboats, powerboats, canoes, kayaks and rowing boats. Best of all, the boatbuilders will be at the show to discuss and sell their work.
Until it changed venues last year the Maine Boatbuilders Show has always “consistently been around St. Patty’s Day,” Sprague said.
The move pushed the show back a bit and this year the 31st Maine Boatbuilders Show opens this Friday, March 23, and runs through the weekend. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Admission is $15 per day at the door or online at eventbrite.com. Children under 12 accompanied by adults are admitted free. Groups of 10 or more can purchase block tickets for $10 each.
For more information, visit www.portlandcompany.com.