For a stingy sailor, boat shows are like going undercover as a spy. You can walk the aisles of exhibits and tour fancy new yachts looking like any other potential buyer but in reality, you represent the antithesis of the new yacht shopper. You’re a mole from the other side, the kind of owner that keeps their aged sailboat, fixes it up, and maintains it in top condition. You’re just there out of curiosity and to get ideas for cool projects to do on your own boat back home. Yacht salespeople would hate us a little if they knew who we really are, top-secret spies.
That’s how I felt as the first mate and I visited the Emerald City in January for Seattle Boat Show 2015. The largest boat show on the West Coast, it hosts 1,000 boats and yachts in two locations, more than three acres of accessories, electronics and boating gear, 430+ exhibitors, 225 free seminars, as well as advanced training classes over eight days.
On Friday as the morning fog thinned, we walked the short distance from our secure location and toured some of the yachts at the on-water part of the show at Chandler’s Cove on South Lake Union, just blocks from downtown Seattle and the iconic Space Needle. A giant 12 flag was flying from its spire in support of the Seahawks post-season success and the whole tower was lit in blue and green at night. I never would have guessed that on Sunday the Seahawks would give away the Super Bowl in the final seconds of the game with the most controversial play call in NFL history.
New and nearly new examples from Jeanneau and Hunter sparkled in the crisp, sunny air. It was especially fair weather for this time of year in Seattle when most outdoor recreation fans hunker down, nurse their Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms, and yearn for longer days.
The first mate pretended she was seduced by the interior of a 2015 Hunter 33 while I couldn’t help but admire its backstay-less rig with in-mast furling mainsail, overhead traveler built into the cockpit arch, and wide-open, uncluttered cockpit. But at $189,000, it would have to be our full-time safe house and she assured me that 33′ was not big enough for that. It’s an impressive sailboat but a well-kept J44 nearby was more interesting to me for staying incognito.
Yacht brokers had filled up the docks with used boats for sale starting with a humble Nonsuch 22 all the way up to the $25 million, 164 foot Westport superyacht Astara.
She features: six luxurious suites; helicopter landing pad; elevator; hot tub; gourmet galley; marble and granite heated floors; spa tub for two in the master suite; and a yacht garage housing a 23’ ski and dive boat. It was the only boat with a line of people waiting outside just to get a glimpse of how the rich and famous travel on water.
Indoor intelligence gathering
On Saturday morning, we rode the shuttle from Chandler’s Cove to the Centurylink Field Event Center for a full day of deep cover infiltration. I was disguised as a middle-aged, inland lake hobby sailor with dreams of cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska.
The first mate was convincing in her persona as the stereotypical empty-nested homemaker in search of exotic romance in her life. Nobody suspected who we really are, TSS agents on a seemingly impossible task. Our mission was to discover and exploit weaknesses in the international conspiracy to overthrow the DIY nation with conspicuous consumerism.
Every kind of boat you could possibly want or not want was there: wake boats, cruisers, a hydroplane, a ski plane, an air boat, tugs, trawlers, fishing boats, pontoon boats, sailboats, SUP boards, kayaks, inflatables, dinghys, row boats, catamarans, and everything that goes with them.
Finding out how they all managed to synchronize their attack was going to be more difficult than I imagined.
We searched many power boats but couldn’t find as much as a fingerprint. They were all wiped spotless.
Undaunted, we made our way undetected to an inconspicuous corner of the exhibits occupied by the sailboats and their gear.
A very unlikely coincidence
A local yacht dealer was showing off hull #1 of the 2015 Beneteau First 22. Obviously a trainer or day sailer, it made our Catalina 22 seem big in comparison due to the First 22’s long cockpit and stubby, sterile cabin.
I was shocked, first by the price sheet, and then by the rust weeping out of the tip of its brand new swing keel. Good thing I had my spy camera with me. I took lots of photos for later analysis.
The irony of being in the middle of my own swing keel refinishing project was palpable. Both are iron swing keels. Both sailboats are 22′ long. There had to be a connection between that simple stain and the secrets back in my lab and I had to find it or die trying. Was the HIN number a coded message?
Unfortunately, attendees were forbidden from climbing aboard the First 22. Besides, I couldn’t risk blowing my cover or else I would have searched it from its blunt bow to its twin retractable rudders.
We wandered nonchalantly over to a suspicious-looking Tattoo (formerly MacGregor) 26. Those long, thin, black windows had to be hiding something. And why would anyone give their yacht company a name like Tattoo anyway? I snooped around inside the lockers while the first mate distracted the salesman with feigned interest.
He told her a fanciful story of how Roger MacGregor had turned the California company over to his daughter Laura who relaunched it as Tattoo Yachts in Florida. My tradecraft training told me something didn’t quite smell right and it wasn’t the pristine interior of the Tattoo 26.
Two long, sinister-looking J Boats stood back to back near the exit, ready for a quick getaway: a well-built J122 obviously passing itself of as a wealthy adventurer, and an athletic J88 made up to look like a sports celebrity.
The J122 wouldn’t talk but I could tell that the J88 was hiding something from me. I just couldn’t tell where, there were so few hiding places in it.
Across the aisle, all the major sail makers had samples set out, including: Doyle, Ullman, Lee, and North. They didn’t lead us to the evidence we needed, so with time running out, we climbed the stairs to the low-rent booths filled with accessory vendors. Surely one of them held a clue to the conspiracy.
The upper exhibit hall bustled with show attendees looking for novelties while the vendors hawked their wares. The swirling colors and deafening clamor reminded me of an assignment I had in Morocco one time when I had to make a dangerous drop in the middle of a village bazaar at midday. I was lucky to get out of there all in one piece.
Every conceivable part or accessory that you could tie, wrap, glue, screw, or plug into a boat was there for sale. A few clever gadgets caught my eye. The first was a fender hanger that I hadn’t seen before, the Fastfender Sail. It twists onto a lifeline and has a built-in clam cleat for your fender whip. It’s easy to adjust and no trial and error bowline or clove hitch tying required.
Another interesting accessory is the RoboCup. It incorporates two deep cup holders with a spring clamp that can attach to most any railing, stanchion, or bimini frame. Unscrew the bottom caps and they turn into fishing rod holders. Velcro straps are included to secure more odd-shaped items.
Both products can be purchased online, as well as many other clever storage and organization products, from Boater’s Pal.
The last products that I added to my most-wanted list were both from BottomSiders, their Hinged Cushions and HookSider. They’re made using a unique manufacturing process that coats 1-1/2″ closed cell foam with several layers of marine grade vinyl. That makes them UV resistant, flexible, durable, and they float. BottomSiders also makes custom-fit cockpit cushions in several colors for most sailboat models.
When we had combed all the booths and stood at the top of the stairs overlooking the entire show, the first mate and I simultaneously looked at our watches, the same watches on which we had received our mission objectives. We had just enough time to make it to the exfiltration location or we would miss our ride out of there. If we did, the Secretary would disavow any knowledge of our actions and we would never be seen again.
Two days were barely enough time to recon the place, let alone capture and interrogate all the suspects. We had to go back to headquarters, analyze the intel we had gathered, develop a new strategy, and come back for another operation. A longer, more dangerous operation. There’s always another operation.