2018 Seattle Boat Show, setting up power boats on the floor of the Seattle Boat Show
First Boats Arrive at the 2018 Seattle Boat Show, Image courtesy of George Harris, NWMTA
Image courtesy of George Harris, NWMTA

Out of the darkness, a huge, white shape looms above the streets of Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. Moving slowly, it rounds the corner of 1st Ave S and South Royal Brougham Way, inching towards Century Link Stadium at the speed of a sea cucumber scooting over the sands of Elliott Bay.

The truck driver is careful. This is a million-dollar yacht we’re talking about, on its way into the Century Link Events Center and its display at the 2018 Seattle Boat Show.

Making the Magic Happen

Setup at the 2018 Seattle Boat ShowBuzzing saws, pounding nails. Sanders grinding, the scent of sawdust in the air. Vendors and their staffs are building platforms alongside boats of all sizes. Orbital waxers buzz as workers buff the boats for maximum shine. This is the beginning of building the biggest boat show on the West Coast.

There are 99 boats at South Lake Union this year, 50 at Bell Harbor Marina, and around 800 more boats at the CenturyLink Field Event Center; everything from tenders to kayaks. But there could always be more.

“If we had more space, we could fill it,” notes George Harris, president and CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, the show’s producer. Every inch of show space is valuable, and every inch is sold.

Planning and working with all the different businesses, vendors, electricians, and all the partners to set up the show requires a tremendous amount of trust between exhibitors and show staff. There are many early mornings that roll into late nights.

“It’s a marathon…we have to pace ourselves,” notes Harris.

Big Show, Small Staff

With a staff of just nine full-time employees—and some extra help at event time–pulling off a show this large is an impressive feat. (The Seattle Boat Show is the largest non-sporting event at CenturyLink Field.)

“I think on the outside, it can look like there’s some really big organization running it. But there’s just the nine of us, with our 13-member board, and our nine-member boat show committee,” Harris says.

Anything Can Happen–And It Does

When it comes to moving big boats down city streets, there can be very uncommon challenges. Truck routes can change, or maybe there’s road construction.

Tree branches growing over the road that wouldn’t bother a box truck driver are a much bigger concern for the owner of a million-dollar yacht who doesn’t want the boat scratched en route to the show.

What to do? Work with the City’s arborist to get the tree trimmed.

This year, show boat show director Katie McPhail and her crew ran into a barrier in getting some of the big boats into the show: Construction on Alaskan Way meant lanes were too narrow to let the boats through, requiring coordination with the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Port of Seattle.

Construction barriers had to move more than four feet so the boats could pass–and boat show organizers will also have to pay to have the barriers moved back into place.

Always Surprising

There are always surprises with an event of this scale, and this year one huge last-minute surprise happened: Just before the show move-in, organizers were told they could not use the parking lot they had planned to use for staging boats going into the show.

McPhail found another lot, but it was about half the size of the planned lot. Of course, that parking lot filled up, and the boat show crew had to find space for another 75 boats in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Fortunately, it helps to be friendly with the neighbors. In the nick of time, show organizers were able to call in a favor with the Seattle Mariners to store some of the boats across the street at Safeco Field.

“Every year, it’s something different. I know there’s going to be a story from this year. I just don’t know what it is yet,” notes McPhail, with a little trepidation.

Who’s Coming

In the Pacific Northwest, there is a great diversity of boaters and what we like to do around here—fishing, kayaking, powerboating, sailing, and more. With that diverse mix of customers comes a similarly diverse mix of exhibitors and vendors.

Getting ready to roll out the red carpet at the 2018 Seattle Boat Show
Getting ready to roll out the red carpet

“We have a really diverse mix (of exhibitors). Other shows get a reputation, like, they’re just a dealer show…Or they’re really heavy on accessories, but they don’t get the big boats,” notes McPhail.

At the Seattle Boat Show, there are boats for every purpose, and that’s why guests come from nearly everywhere in the United States to shop and to learn. They come to soak in the seminars on topics from cruising to weather, and for the love of boating in a beautiful place.

“There are people, in the Midwest, or Florida, or New England, that this is their definition of happiness– cruising on a boat, somewhere between here and the San Juan Islands,” notes Harris.

Show Time!

The Seattle Boat show runs from January 26th through February 3rd at CenturyLink Field Event Center, South Lake Union, and Bell Harbor Marina.

Show hours, location specifics, and more information can be found at the Seattle Boat Show website.

Shuttles will run between all three show locations.