September 4, 2016. By now, I’m sure you’re all very much aware of how seasick I get. So you’re probably wondering why in the heck I’d go to a boat show. Especially when just standing on a floating dock gets me queasy. The answer is: I had to satisfy my curiosity about the Norwegian national obsession with fancy yachts. From my vantage point near several of Oslo’s marinas, it seems like everyone and his brother owns a sweet ride for the water. And the Båter i Sjøen (“Boats in the Sea”) show promised to reveal the full spectrum of luxury floatables available to the well-heeled Viking.
Speaking of Vikings, they ruled the sea for centuries with good reason. In Norway alone, the total coastline — including islands and fjords — is 126% longer than that of the United States. Yes, I mean the entire U.S. coastline, all the way around the country, is less than half the length of tiny Norway’s. (This odd factoid comes courtesy of your friendly, all-knowing CIA and their World Factbook.) Anyway, considering the amount of ocean-front territory across Scandinavia, you can understand why boats have always been a preferred means of transportation here. In fact, they’re still the fastest way to get to many heavily populated islands right near downtown Oslo.
Check out a few more fun facts that I gleaned from the 2016 Pleasure Boat International Resource Guide. About 25 percent of Norwegian households own one or more boats, although in 2013, around 46 percent of the population reported having used a boat (via renting or borrowing their buddy’s boat, I’m assuming.) Estimates for the total number of boats in Norway are around 800,000, but it’s hard to keep count, since boat registration isn’t required. Nonetheless, these are pretty impressive stats for a country of only 5.2 million people.
When polled about their most important reason to hit the water, 28.9 percent of Norwegian boaters responded “the nature experience,” followed by relaxation (23.4 percent), fishing (19.8 percent), and social interaction (16.6 percent). “Fast” sports like racing, waterskiing, and tubing accounted for a mere 3.6 percent. Clearly, Norwegians relish the more contemplative side of boating when compared to our American need for speed — an impression born out by the fact that the average Norwegian boat motor is only 30 horsepower, versus 100 hp for American models. Despite this low vroom-vroom quotient, powerboats are still more popular in Norway than sailboats — I wonder if that statistic has Viking ancestors rolling over in their watery graves.
Okay, now that we’re up-to-date on the basics, let’s get to the “Boats in the Sea“ event. It’s supposedly Scandinavia’s largest outdoor boat show, with 270 models that you can tour (and purchase), and about 50 equipment exhibitors that can help you stock your new cruiser with all the posh accessories. Plus, it’s held at Aker Brygge — an old wharf that has been converted into a high-rent district with luxury condos, fancy shops, pricey restaurants, and museums. In other words, you can drop a crapload of cash in just a few hours, if you’re so inclined.
For comparison, I’ve been to the Chicago Boat, RV, and Strictly Sail Show a few times. It has only around 20 boats and is held indoors, meaning that the models are displayed on trailers in the middle of a big, ugly convention hall (yawn). About the most exiting thing is watching “Twiggy, the Water-skiing Squirrel” maniacally whizz around a kiddie pool while being towed behind a remote-controlled, miniature speed boat. (I’m not kidding, check out the surreal video here.)
Beyond sheer scale, the “Boats in the Sea” event offers scenery and experiences that put all other shows to shame. Each oceangoing beauty sits basking in the sunshine while bobbing along the gorgeous Oslo waterfront. You can don booties or shuck your shoes to climb over every square inch of your favorites — and even play with the various navigation systems, or raise part of the deck to get a closer look at an inboard motor. And, if you really want to get out on the water, you can book a test drive, sign up for a lesson with the Norwegian Sailing Federation, or take a kayak out for a cruise around the marina. But should your exertions exhaust you, liquor and lunch await in one of six dockside eateries erected just for the occasion.
Matthew and I spent our first hour at the show simply strolling the docks and comparing classifications of boats with those that are popular back home. In short, it seems that the U.S. and Norway share an affinity for day cruisers and luxury yachts. (Check out some of the stunners we toured in the gallery further below.) But that’s pretty much where the commonalities end. Missing were the ubiquitous bass boats that I’m used to seeing in droves at boat shows, and on every lake and river in the States. I’m guessing they’re too shallow to handle ocean swells but might be useful for Norway’s inland lakes, where freshwater salmon, perch, trout, and Arctic char can be found.
Another surprisingly limited category were the houseboats, with only one uber-mod version on display. Same with the so-called cigarette boats. They’re the favorite toy of silver-backed, middle-aged males in Chicago, who race up and down Lake Michigan’s shoreline trying to prove their Viagra-enhanced virility. But I saw only a single speedster for sale at the Oslo show, and it looked like it had few takers. Maybe Norwegian men are more secure in their masculinity — or maybe it’s just that they don’t relish paying the high gas prices and ridiculous taxes that come with owning two 1,000+ horsepower engines. Not to mention that Norwegians definitely seem to prefer boats that can provide a relaxing and full day of socializing for enormous groups of family and friends. Pounding the waves for a couple of hours at top speed with ear-deafening volume to impress just a handful of people doesn’t appear to be their style.
Probably the largest parade of potential new rides we inspected belonged to a class of long-distance cruisers that I’ve seen only on the Discovery Channel and in National Geographic: trawlers and pilot houses. (Think of a hybrid between a spiffed-up version of a fishing boat from World’s Deadliest Catch and an upgraded tugboat). Both are designed for days, and even weeks, of living on board while island-hopping and fishing. They come equipped with everything you need, from kitchens with grills, microwaves, washing machines, and dryers, to saloons with TVs, wet bars, and stereo systems.
Not just about luxury, however, these boats really focus on fuel economy, greater stability and safety, plus a cushy ride on rough waters — courtesy of diesel engines, a full keel hull design, and high bulkheads with railings to keep passengers from tumbling off when the waves kick up. By the way, inclement weather seems to be a given in these boats, as they devote less space to suntanning on deck and more territory to interior comfort, typically hosting multiple lounges, bathrooms, cabins, and kitchens. Yes, they pack in all that and more in what appears to be a smallish space on the outside, but is surprisingly roomy inside. (Although I still can’t imagine being cooped up for weeks in one of these with my family — we’d definitely experience some murder and mutiny moments.)
And while we’re talking about sailing in rough seas, I’ll mention one more boat that you don’t see much of in the States: the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat.) I’m used to these Zodiac-styled pontoons from my days at The Field Museum; they’re favorites of scientists who regularly use such raft-like craft for beach landings in remote locations. But I was surprised to see so many of these part-boat / part-balloon-animals at the Oslo event.
Matthew and I stopped to talk to one vendor about why RIBs are so popular in Scandinavia. “Price, passenger accommodation, power, and seaworthiness” he said. “They start as low as $10,000 USD and can fit from 6 -16 people depending upon the size. Plus, they’re fast and can get you to Stockholm in about three hours, Copenhagen in maybe four. And they’re much more comfortable and safe than a traditional boat because the tubes act like giant cushions. At high speeds, these babies skim the top of the water; they don’t bounce and slam into the waves like a standard hull. Plus, they don’t tip to one side when people climb aboard or change seats,” he bragged.
Hmmm…. traveling to other countries quickly by sea — and not aboard one of those 8-hour barf barges they call a cruise boat? Sign me up! Suddenly, the idea of boat ownership seemed appealing to us. But then the guy continued, “These boats are great in rough seas. When you get out into the area between Sweden and Denmark, where the North Sea and Baltic Sea meet, it’s as if somebody laid down the paving pretty badly there. You can get extreme choppiness and 8-meter swells (that’s a two-story-tall wave, people!) — and yet these boats stay beautifully stable.” Umm, maybe, but I’ve seen the spot he’s talking about from the relative safety of an airplane, and it’s nothing I’d like to tackle in the equivalent of a fancy life raft.
But when we moved onto the next vendor, we again felt the seduction of the sea. The Zar Formenti 65 seemed to offer the best of both worlds — a combo of RIB and conventional hull that still offered stability, but with lots more room for suntanning and socializing. Plus the sleek Italian design, white leather seats, and the bottle of chilling champagne nearly had us smack a SOLD! sticker on the thing. But then in talking price, the vendor continued, “Of course, you’ll have to add on fees for boat insurance, slip rental, a trailer, towing fees, and winter storage.” Cha-ching, cha-ching … and, we’re out.
Needing to experience something reasonably affordable, we scooted next door to Matstreif (“Food Walk”). It’s a huge Norwegian food festival held every year in September, in front of Oslo City Hall right next to Aker Brygge. Food distributors, fish vendors, and farmers come out in full force to give tourists and locals a taste of traditional Norwegian foods, from salmon served raw, smoked, or rotten (called Rakfisk, it’s considered a fermented delicacy) and reindeer meatballs and steaks, to homemade cheeses and produce grown by neighborhood co-ops. So to close this lengthy post, here’s a gallery of edibles.