Feature Photography from the Northwest Marine Trade Association Archives
Cheers to 75 years! First held under a tent along the shores of Lake Union in 1947 and growing in size and scope ever since, the quintessential Seattle Boat Show returns next month with an in-person show, new waterfront afloat location, and an updated format for the popular seminar series. In celebration of this landmark diamond anniversary, we take a look back at the historic highlights, creative promotions, and even behind the scenes stories that have helped propel this crown jewel event for seven and a half decades—all as we look forward to the next showcase of our beloved boating community.
1947: Originally founded to fight a proposed tax on boaters, Northwest Marine Trade Association quickly expanded its vision by pitching a tent and holding its first boat show across from Bryant’s Marina on Lake Union. “I visited the very first show in ’47 and I might be one of the few that can still say that,” says Louis Larsen, former NMTA executive vice president (1972-1984). “ I was 18 or 19 years old, and it was all wooden boats, of course. Grandy Boatworks had just launched and that was a big deal at the time.”
1950: The show moved from Lake Union to the National Guard Armory.
1951: Due to the Korean War, NMTA members opted to have “Boat Week” open houses at their respective places of business versus holding a single venue show.
1958: As part of the festivities, the NMTA selected the first Miss Northwest Industries; the honor would be bestowed to a new Miss Boat Show every year until the mid-1970s.
1960: NMTA erected a “Wishing Fountain” to support Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, where attendees could toss in coins to make a good wish for children.
1963: Theshow moved to the Coliseum in Seattle Center, making it the first post-World’s Fair event to be held at that venue.
1968: Dunna nunna nunna nunna…Batman: Designed by Glastron for the hit TV series, the BATBOAT is on display, drawing in crowds and even a guest appearance from Batgirl.
1972: Stuntman Raul Garcia dove 110 feet from a platform nestled in the Coliseum’s rafters, reaching an estimated 90 mph before plunging into a small pool—seeStar Attractions box this page for the insider scoop on the stunt.
1975: Larsen and team began the carpet tradition at the show. But, as much as red carpeting has become synonymous with the show, the first attempt was a different hue altogether. “I wanted to give people a warm feeling when they came into the show,” explains Larsen. “So that first year we added a green rug, landscaping, and trees to the entrance of the Coliseum for a Seattle feel.”
One of the marketing minds behind the Seattle World’s Fair, Louis Larsen came to NMTA in 1972 with grand plans to expand the reach of the show and soon brought in stunning star promotions that drew in those crowds. For example, in ‘72 he hired stuntman Raul Garcia to make a nightly dive into a 9- by 10- by 20-foot pool. But onlookers got a bit of a surprise on the first night. When Garcia hit the pool, the ensuing splash sent a wave of water over the crowd and soaked several nearby boats. “You can bet on the second night, everyone stood way farther back,” Larsen recalls, with a laugh. (Longtime vendor Carl Sutter, owner of Fisheries Supply, adds: “I watched Garcia do it once. But it was so intense that was only time I could watch throughout the whole show.”)
A big proponent of the move to the Kingdome—and the man behind the marching bands that would parade through the venue to open the show, the red carpet tradition, and yes, even that catchy Seattle Boat Show jingle from the ads in later years—Larsen also brought in another storied spectacle in 1981. Captain A. Merica (real name Alan Michael Jones) dove 30 feet into a 4-foot-deep pool filled with 22 piranhas. But on the fourth night, he hit his head on the side at the end of the dive, which delayed his exit by a few seconds. He emerged bleeding from 8 piranha bites, one of which required 50 stitches. As he was being loaded into the ambulance to be taken to Harborview, Larsen recalls that Jones turned to him with a smile and quipped: “‘That oughta bring ‘em in tomorrow!’….. And boy, it really did.” (Great showman that he was, Jones returned to his act the very next night and even added rattlesnakes to the mix for the final show.)
[1977 – 1999]
FIT FOR THE KING
1977: The event moved from the Coliseum to the Kingdome and set record attendance numbers with over 125,000 attendees, and it was the largest consumer show during the dome’s opening year. For the inaugural event, Larsen also requested to add red carpet to the floor, cementing that vivid hue’s role in future shows. (Funny story, though: The crowds of people milling on the carpet built up so much static electricity that red lint was stuck to just about everything; Larsen recalls that attendees left with it stuck on their pants up to the knees! Needless to say, they sourced a different carpeting material in the ensuing years.)
1981: The year of Captain A. Merica’s infamous dive show into a tank filled with piranhas; see page XX for the full story.
Early 1980s: During the first few years of this decade, SBS began offering seminars as part of the lineup of events. According to Larsen, Seattle was perhaps the first in the nation to offer these types of seminars, which have long become a hallmark of the show and are extensive in their breadth and depth. “Those helped us become the second largest show in America next to Miami, we were the envy of the boat show producers across the country,” he states.
1997: For the golden 50th anniversary, the show went afloat as NMTA rented Bell Street Pier and added an on-water component to the show. Showgoers were also awed by the ice sculpture commissioned for the event, a frigid vessel dubbed the SS Golden Queen that had a 5-foot hull and weighed in at more than 1,000 pounds.
1999: The last show to occur inside the Kingdome took place in January of 1999. “The Kingdome shows were just so fun,” recalls Fisheries Supply’s Sutter. “We’d be down there before the show, vendors chatting and talking, all while the Mariners players practiced by throwing balls all the way across the show floor… and then later at night, it’d be like a big party, the place would be packed with people at 7:30 p.m….. nothing like it.”
If you’ve ever gazed up at a towering sailboat mast that just about kisses the exhibition hall ceiling and wondered just how it got into place for the show, chances are Jack Wolfe has the answer to that question. Wolfe, along with the fellow family members and devoted crew that make up Associated Boat Transport, have been involved in the behind-the-scenes magic of setting up SBS since the 50s. “Every year, it’s always a puzzle to figure out which boats goes where, and in what order everything has to come in…and then go back out,” Wolfe says.
Each venue has provided its own (sometimes comical) challenges. In the Coliseum, there was not only a very sloped load-in ramp to contend with, but also a sprinkler head located right in the middle of that ramp that constantly got knocked over. In the era before cell phones, Wolfe jokes he probably walked 10 miles a day in the massive Kingdome just going back and forth to the telephone they installed by the doors alone. “I tried riding a bike once, and even got a golf cart, to get around quickly. Trouble was, there were so many masts laying all over the place waiting to be put up that I kept having to abandon it and walk anyways.”
And of course, just getting boats to the buildings is a feat in a city such as ours. “Oftentimes we have to take boats from Fisherman’s Terminal, all the way down 15th Avenue and into SoDo, and there are all sorts of obstacles in the way—power lines, branches, you name it,” he says, sheepishly admitting he cut down one such offending branch with a chainsaw even though a DOT arborist refused to. But, no matter the obstacle, Wolfe says not only is the end result always worth it, but something his family takes particular pride in. “In the years when the show happened after the holiday, we used to spend Thanksgiving morning prepping the show together, then we’d go home and have dinner. The show was part of the family. Still is, actually.”
2000-2002: After the implosion of the Kingdome, SBS 2000, 2001, and 2002 are all held in the existing Exhibition Center as construction of the new football stadium occurs nearby. “The move from the dome really gave us a fresh canvas and a chance to explore new ways of doing the show,” says NMTA’s current president & CEO George Harris.
2003: After the completion of the Seahawks facility once known as Qwest, then CenturyLink, and now as Lumen Field, the event began to utilize the North Hall, expanding into the general footprint the show still uses today. Over the years, SBS also grew into other parts of the events center as well.
2004: Working in partnership with the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, NMTA added an afloat show location in Lake Union. The joint venture ran until 2020.
2005: For one of Harris’ all-time favorite promotions, Nathan Sawaye, one of the top LEGO brick artists in the world, constructed a half-size replica of a Chris Craft boat over the course of the ten days of the show. “At some point, we all realized we were going to need more LEGOS and we were ordering them every day,” he recalls. “They were arriving in Fedex envelopes just about as fast as he was building; it was absolutely gorgeous when he was done.”
2007: Four high-tech vehicles from some of the most famous James Bond film series were displayed for onlookers, including the Diamonds Are Forever “Bath-O-Sub” (1971). The Chris Craft giveaway was also a draw: Set in a pool of water on a Sunstream Floatlift, the vessel rotated 360-degrees above a compass rose set on the floor, stopping at the moment of the show’s end. The attendee who guessed the correct heading of the bow took home the prize.
2011-2017: Nautical-themed fun for all—ten contestants grabbed a tow rope, stepped on to wakeboards, and attempted to stand for up to 72 hours straight behind a 17-foot Bayliner to see who could outlast them all (2011); nightly aerial acrobatic performances sailed over the exhibits and displays (2013); a 28’ long and 14’ high sandcastle of the Seattle skyline was sculpted from 50 tons of sand (2014); dressed in outrageous costumes, competitors attempted to outwit their opponents by knocking them off their stand up paddleboards and into the water of the jousting pool (2015); and, a couple even tied the knot at the show (2017).
2018: NMTA adds another on-water location at Bell Harbor Marina. Back on land, domino artist Steve Price of Sprice Machines used 25,000 dominoes to create an elaborate, 60-foot long nautical-themed display that was then toppled on the final day.
2021: The show must go on—despite the challenges brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic, SBS continued with an online format, offering the popular seminars as well as a virtual walk-through of the show booths to connect consumers to vendors.
2022: Celebrating its 75th anniversary, SBS is back in-person once again! See page XX for full details on all the new developments for this year’s show.
75 & COUNTING
NMTA president & CEO George Harris has been directly involved with every boat show since the year 2000, but the 2021 show brought with it challenges no one could have anticipated. With the Covid 19 pandemic still raging, Harris and team put on a show like none before, continuing to bring boating to the people but through an online format instead. “One of the elements we continued even coming out of the dome were our seminars, and those have become so important to the community,” he explains. “It was really important to us to find a way to carry on the tradition last year.” Now, with the return to an in-person show for the 75th, the NMTA team has blended the original format with learnings from last year, offering seminars both in person and online, as well as pushing the show forward with that he calls “a full embrace of the new Seattle waterfront” with the addition of an afloat location at Bell Harbor. “We’re so excited to welcome boaters back to this true celebration of Northwest boating,” he concludes. “And if we continue to learn from the past, as well as build towards the future, we can get to the 100-year mark; of that, I am certain.”
Longtime SBS vendors share their favorite memories from the show floor.
“During the years at the Coliseum, in the mid-70s, the exhibits were split into two levels, and our primary competition, Windward Mark, was always located directly above us and we could see up into their booth. Twice over the years, the staff lowered down the owner’s wife, Joan, into our exhibit using a boatman’s chair and she delivered us bottles of Champagne! It broke the ice and was a real credit to the convivial spirit of the show.” — Carl Sutter, owner, Fisheries Supply
“I remember seeing photos of the Seattle International Boat Show back in its post WWII days. What amazed me at the time was how very similar it was to the shows 50 years later in the Kingdome. The biggest difference was the boats were made of wood and all the men wore hats! And now today, the show has grown up into one of the very best in the country…” — Kevin Roggenbuck, president & CEO, Union Marine
“Some of the most memorable moments revolve around people: Observing Seahawk players Jim Zorn and Steve Largent roaming the show back in the Kingdome days; seeing the boat and talking with the four-man Seattle crew that rowed across the Atlantic 14-15 years ago; spotting Jim Whittaker walking the show 55 years after his summit of Mt. Everest; and, meeting and learning from the authors representing their books in our booth.” — Peter Griffes, owner, Captain’s Nautical
“The trapeze show was a ton of fun, right over the middle of the boat displays. Our first VIP Customer night was amazing including the high school marching band coming down the middle of the aisles. There were times when the show was packed with visitors and the long lines to the “big” boats went on what seemed like the length of a football field.” — Alan Bohling, CEO, Seattle Boating Company
“The oldest record that we have is of the former owner of the company, Howard “Smitty” Smith displaying boats in the Seattle Center Coliseum which, I believe, came before the Kingdome, sometime in the 1970s. The Livingstons purchased the company in 1998 and continued to display at the show, launching the Ranger Tugs line of boats with the R-21. In 2006, we displayed the first R-25. It was just the hull and the interior; it didn’t have a deck yet. We actually sold 13 of them that year!” — Jeff Mesmer, vice president, Ranger Tugs & Cutwater Boats
Mark your calendars, get your tickets, and check that seminar schedule—the 2022 Seattle Boat Show set sails February 12th.
The long wait is almost over—the in-person Seattle Boat Show is back! The show hoists its flag on Friday, February 4, and sails on through Saturday, February 12. For this edition, the on-water portion of the show will no longer be at Chandler’s Cove but at the Port of Seattle’s Bell Harbor Marina, making visiting both locations much more convenient for showgoers. Bell Harbor Marina is less than two miles from Lumen Field so attendees will spend less time in transit and more time cruising the show. A shuttle will run between both locations.
Boat Show U this year will consist of 19 different 2-hour webinars from some of the smartest boating minds in the business. These in-depth webinars cover a complete range of cruising topics such as maintenance, weather forecasting, navigation, cruising the Inside Passage and more, as well as a class devoted to new boaters, introducing them to the basics of anchoring, navigation, boat maintenance, and more. Also new for 2022 is the seminar format: The show will have its usual lineup of the region’s foremost boating, fishing, and crabbing experts conducting free in-person seminars. However, all seminars will be recorded and available later, on demand, in the show’s online seminar library. Attendees who can’t make all the in-person seminars on their list can watch the complete library of nine show days’ worth of boating and fishing seminars from the comfort of home for three months post-show. The $99 dollar seminar ticket package includes multi-day admission to the show (a $36 value) and a boatload of goodies, including a copy of the Waggoner Guide featured on page XX.
There will be more than 70 boating and fishing seminars covering anchoring techniques, sail trim, no impact docking, diesel engine essentials, troubleshooting marine electrical systems, tides and currents, squidding, crabbing, shrimping, halibut and salmon fishing and more. Some of the new speakers and topics for 2022 include:
- Aaron Martzke, Rose Point Navigation: Understanding your onboard electronics suite.
- Randy Popp, Marine Floats: Building a dock on your waterfront property.
- Dan Kaseler, Raptor Deck: Patterning and installing foam decking.
- Bryce Hansen, Basta: Boat lifts for beginners.
- Joe Grez, PropEle Electric Boat Motors: Long distance solar power boating and performance.
- Alex Bolton, Sustainable Energy Systems: The first 100% solar electric cruise to Alaska.
>>> For information on ticketing details, Covid-19 protocols, this year’s exhibitors, and a complete schedule of fishing and boating seminars and Boat Show U, visit: seattleboatshow.com.