ATLANTIC CITY — At the Progressive Insurance Atlantic City Boat Show, visitors can step aboard the latest in South Jersey’s fishing, cruising, pontoon and luxury boats.
But they also can talk to a reality-TV star, compete in a wing-eating contest or see if Florida native Jeff Quattrocchi gets bitten by a monster alligator for the 15th time in his life.
Participants said a lot is riding on this year’s boat show, the largest and most popular of its kind in New Jersey. The show’s carnival atmosphere helps draw more visitors — and potential buyers.
“This show is huge for us,” said Al Mury, of Little Egg Harbor Township, chief operating officer for C-Jam Yacht Sales in Somers Point.
He sells Cobia and Monterey boats.
“You get a certain number of sales during the show. But we’ll follow these sales leads for a year or two,” he said. “It’s a huge part of our business.”
Of course, not every visitor to the show, which runs through Sunday, is in the market to buy. Most will probably come no closer than daydreaming. But it’s still a nice way to spend an afternoon, Mury said.
“It’s cabin fever. It really is,” he said. “Families mark it on their calendar.”
The annual boat show casts a wide net, with entertainment geared to children (who get in free) and appearances this year by commercial fishing Capt. Dave Marciano from National Geographic Channel’s surprise hit, “Wicked Tuna.”
And then there is Quattrocchi, who three or four times daily tangles with a thrashing 8-foot alligator in a ringside pool. His Swampmaster Gator Show travels to boat shows across the country, at which he demonstrates wrangling techniques that involve jumping on 200 pounds of squirming, angry crocodilian.
“You don’t want to get bit,” he said.
He has the distinction of knowing what that was like 14 times. The worst instance, later posted on YouTube, required 25 staples and 25 stitches after the snapping gator chomped his arm.
“I’ve had a few people from Atlantic City come up to me today saying they have a pet gator back home in their bathtub,” he said.
But the spectacle is all part of the show’s goal of getting more would-be buyers in touch with eager sellers.
“It’s one of the best shows on the East Coast,” said Bob Nylund, of Galloway Township, who owns Tuckerton Marine. The dealer sells 17-to-25-foot Sundance and Sea Born boats.
“This is second only to Miami,” he said. “You look forward to this show all year.”
Nylund has been promoting a hybrid boat that people can use for offshore fishing or back-bay tubing and entertaining. The boats feature a narrow V-shaped hull for cutting through rough water and a flat-bottomed skiff stern for more seating.
“More people are interested in a combination of fishing and pleasure,” he said.
The boating industry is just starting to bounce back from the recession, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. New power-boat sales increased an estimated 10 percent in 2012 to more than $14 billion, the first time the boating industry has seen significant sales growth since the recession.
Powerboat sales had declined sharply since the 2007 recession. In 2011, they accounted for $13 billion in sales, or 5 percent less than 2010.
“Boat shows bring everything together,” said Lou Piergross, of Upper Township, sales manager for South Jersey Yacht Sales in Cape May.
“It’s a good opportunity to see our clients, meet new ones and show off the products we sell,” he said.
Piergross said he has already sold several boats to people to replace those lost or damaged last year during Hurricane Sandy. Their boat yard off Cape May Harbor is especially busy this winter helping boaters make repairs before the spring season.
Despite the other distractions, new boats are still the stars of the show.
Jeff Wilson, 64, a retired teacher from Eagleswood Township, helped his friend Ed Johnson, 68, a retired plumber from Barnegat Township, shop for a new 26-foot Jupiter fishing boat.
The two friends fish several times a week during the season in Wilson’s boat, Shirl Girl.
“Where would you rather be than on the water — sitting at home in front of the TV?” Wilson asked.
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