As a child, Katie McPhail always looked forward to the annual Seattle Boat Show.
McPhail would work the exhibit booth for her dad’s fishing boat company, Duroboat, and roam the show aisles to check out new waterskiing gear she wanted.
She never imagined back then that one day she would be running the show.
McPhail, 29, took on the position of Seattle Boat Show director last July. The job involves orchestrating a 10-day event with a level of complexity that a seasoned wedding planner might find daunting.
After spending months mapping out the show’s layout and assigning space to several hundred exhibitors, McPhail managed a delivery schedule for the trucks and trailers that arrived at CenturyLink Field Event Center last week to unload hundreds of boats, accessories and other items before the show opened on Friday.
(The show’s outdoor portion, on Lake Union, is managed by the Northwest Yacht Brokers Association, which partners with the NMTA to put on the event).
“There’s been a very steep learning curve,” McPhail said. “I’d like to pretend that next year I’ll be an expert on the boat show, but the show’s been around for 66 years, so to expect to know it all in a year is maybe a little ambitious.
“It’s been really busy, but it’s been a good learning experience, a fast learning experience.”
Running the boat show was far from McPhail’s mind in 2005, when she graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin with a sociology and economics degree. She rented an apartment in Chicago with a few friends, looked for a job and didn’t find much that interested her.
Her father, meanwhile, was shorthanded at Duroboat and asked if she’d like to come and work for him. McPhail was soon the company’s business manager. She jokes that the position put her “second in command of a two-person office,” but says it was a valuable experience that allowed her to take on responsibilities ranging from purchasing materials to overseeing boat deliveries.
“I kind of got a crash course in small business,” she said. “It turned into an amazing experience. I got to see how small business works from the inside.”
Then in 2009, McPhail embarked on an adventure that would solidify her career choice. She trailered a 16-foot Duroboat from Seattle to Chicago, launched it in Lake Michigan and with her younger sister, Elizabeth, embarked on an 84-day trip along a portion of the “Great Loop,” traveling close to 6,000 miles down the Mississippi River, up the Eastern seaboard and around the Great Lakes (read their blog about the trip here).
The sisters wanted to demonstrate that cruising is possible on a small boat. But McPhail acknowledges that summers spent waterskiing on Washington lakes and an introductory boating course didn’t quite prepare her for the weather and navigational challenges she and her sister encountered.
“We were launching the boat into Lake Michigan and I was like, what the hell are we doing?” she said. “Lake Michigan has some pretty big water. For every part of the trip that we thought had to be the worst part, things would get a little harder.”
Most nights, the sisters slept in a tent they pitched over a hatch used to store their gear. They’d planned to stick close to shore, but while crossing the Gulf of Mexico had to travel almost out of sight of land to avoid seagrass. The crossing took five days, during which they encountered a storm and saw their first waterspout.
“Going across the Gulf was pretty scary,” McPhail said.
During the trip, McPhail met boaters who were cruising on expensive yachts, others living on decrepit vessels salvaged after Hurricane Katrina. She was struck by the sense of community that unified them and decided she wanted a job in the marine industry when she returned home. By that time, McPhail’s father was in the process of moving Duroboat operations from Washington state to Tennessee.
McPhail had been working in communications for a private school in Seattle when she saw an ad for the boat show job and decided to apply.
“I had a lot of fond memories of the boat show, so the opportunity to apply for the position was really exciting,” she said.
McPhail said working for her father’s company has given her an understanding of how other small marine businesses operate. When boat show exhibitors tell her about their companies’ challenges and triumphs, she can relate.
So far, she said, overseeing her first boat show has been a varied and rewarding experience.
“The whole thing is new. Every day has been new,” she said. “That’s what I love about it so far. The responsibilities are so diverse.”
The Seattle Boat Show runs through Sunday, Feb. 3. A schedule of events and other information are available on the show’s website.