A train of thunderstorms rolled in off the Gulf of Mexico and kept everybody but the Coast Guard off the water for two days straight. Mark LaPrade prayed for a break in the weather so he could get his new 40-foot Formula across the bay in time for this weekend's Tampa Boat Show.
"I don't mind the rain," he said Tuesday after postponing his trip. "It's the lightning that scares me."
LaPrade, a 30-year veteran of the local powerboat scene, had been looking forward to this year's show. "This is a new product for us," he said. "We were hoping to make a big splash."
On Wednesday morning, the skies cleared for a few hours, giving the powerboat dealer from St. Petersburg just enough time to make the run to Tampa.
"What a beautiful day," he said as he headed into the rising sun. "I am optimistic about the future."
LaPrade, like many at this year's show, believes Florida's troubled marine industry has finally turned a corner.
"We probably lost 25 percent of the boat dealers in the Tampa Bay area over the past three years," said LaPrade, who retired from St. Petersburg's Thunder Marine in 2009 and recently opened a Formula store in the same area. "But I think the people that have survived into 2011 are here to stay."
This year's boat show will be significantly larger than last year's show. Event organizers have added 25 more vessels to the docks outside the Tampa Convention Center.
New entries include 46- and 53-foot Grand Banks from Galati Yacht Sales. Galati will also showcase a new 60-foot Tiara and 76-foot Viking in addition to several other 2012 models from Tiara and Cruisers.
Clearwater-based MarineMax has several new vessels on display, including a 42-foot Cabo, 53-foot Meridian and 59-foot Hatteras, as well as five new SeaRays between 35 and 53 feet. Turner & Gould Yacht Brokers will display a 97-foot Marlow Explorer, the largest vessel at this year's show.
"We are definitely up this year," said Larry Berryman, the show's manager. "We have a more boats, more new products. We are bigger and better than ever."
Berryman pointed to the addition of Formula, a company that has been owned and operated by the same family since 1956, as evidence that the boating market may be on the upswing. "It is a high-quality product," he said. "I think the fact that they are here says good things about the industry."
The sporty craft are usually owned by more experienced boaters. "I guess you could say that we are the Mercedes Benz of the boating industry," LaPrade said. "We offer high-end products; cruisers for folks who appreciate performance."
The Formula 40SS that LaPrade delivered to Tampa does not come cheap. The boat lists for $799,000 but is being offered at a special show price of $499,000.
"The more expensive boats seem to be selling as are the entry-level products," he said. "The entry-level boats are doing real well too. It is the middle of the market that seems to still be a little soft."
But if you are a prospective new boater who just wants to learn more about the lifestyle, swing by the Discover Boating Resource Center. Boaters and nonboaters alike can participate in a variety of free interactive and educational on-the-water programs. New courses include ski boat rides, close-quarter boat handling and a basic introduction to sailing.
More experienced boaters can take advantage of a variety of free daily seminars, including several classes aimed at anglers, such as offshore rigging and baiting tactics. The popular Ladies at the Helm series is a training program geared specifically for women who want to feel comfortable in the captain's seat.
But even if you are not ready to buy, this year's boat show is still worth a visit. You can meet the Harris brothers from Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. Jake and Josh Harris, sons of the late captain Phil Harris and deck hands on the crabbing vessel Cornelia Marie, will be available from 5 to 7 tonight, and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.