Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Marinas - 24 March, 2016
Suzanne and I were talking yesterday about the possibility that we might someday become full time RVers. This is not as radical as it may sound.
Many cruisers, after exploring for years in boats, go to recreational vehicles to continue their explorations inland. The lifestyle of the two
communities is very similar.
We both agreed that the RV lifestyle wasn't for us. We are water people and really have very limited desire to drive across America, stopping
along the way for sightseeing. More importantly, with a recreational vehicle, you have a very limited number of places you can stop and spend the
night. You can go to an RV part or you can go to a large parking lot, like Wal-Mart. In fact, most Wal-Marts welcome RVers, knowing that they will
spend time shopping in the store. With our boat, we can stop in any stretch of water large enough and deep enough to accommodate our anchor.
However, I get the feeling that parking on a residential street for the evening might set off all sorts of local alarm bells. I know it would have done
so to me, when we lived on land.
It did get me thinking, however, about marinas. Marinas are, for most of us, a necessary evil of cruising. There are very seldom times that you
absolutely need to go into a marina. In fact, a well-equipped yacht with a very well-educated crew, in the right cruising grounds, could probably go
for years without ever having the mother ship touch a dock. It would involve ferrying everything needed out to the boat in the dinghy, including
fuel, water and food. It would involved having a large battery bank and an equally powerful inverter to accommodate those tools and electrical
devices that are needed to keep the boat up. It would require a cruising ground that would naturally inhibit the growth of marine life on the hull.
But it could be done.
However, most of us don't want to be quite that "self-sufficient." While traveling, we generally go into a marina for three reasons. First, we like to
be attached to the dock if there is going to be really heavy weather. Second, if we are going to be attached to a dock anyway, we like to do big
grocery runs to stock the pantry - always easier to do if you don't have to make three or four dinghy runs. Finally, if we are doing any maintenance
to the hull, or we feel the hull and topsides have really gotten dirty, we like the convenience of nearly unlimited fresh water and a stable platform to
work from that a dock provides.
Having said all of that, there are marinas and there are marinas. The first marina we were in, we chose because it was convenient to Richmond,
VA. We were both still working at the time and we didn't want to have to drive two or three hours each day in order to keep the boat and get her
ready for cruising. I still refer to that particular marina as a mobile home park for boats - and not in a good way. The docks were falling down, the
slips were silting up and the electrical system was patchwork and scary. The water went out periodically because the entire system was built of
PVC piping run along the dock sides and, when a boat came in a little too fast, the plumbing would get crushed, resulting in a flood of water at that
slip and no water elsewhere. Most of the boats there were either "live-aboards" or abandoned. In this case, live-aboard meant someone with just
enough money to survive, and trying to keep their expenses as low as possible. In at least two cases, boats that were being lived on sank at the
pier and the "owner" simply moved his gear off of his boat and on to another abandoned boat.
This marina suffered from an owner neglect problem, but it was the marina owner that was neglecting it. We have never been in a marina quite
that sketchy again but we have seen it again and again. Marinas are not cheap to maintain. The marine environment is always trying to tear it
down. In addition, marina amenities have changed significantly over the past fifty or sixty years.
Marinas that were "state-of-the-art" in the 1950s included wooden docks and a single 30 amp power line to each slip. Slips were generally
sufficient if they could accommodate the odd 30-footer, but most boats were smaller than that. There might have been a pump-out station and a
fuel dock. The only other amenities would be a bath-house, with a few toilets and a shower. In some places, there wasn't even a "ladies room,"
because there simply were not enough women involved in boating to justify it.
Currently, the state of the art is floating docks, made of a non-slip material impervious to water damage, with two 30 amp, a fifty amp and
sometimes a 100 amp power line. In addition, a lot of marinas provide cable or satellite television. Pumpouts can be done at the slip, and a
powerful, fast Wi-Fi signal is a given. Slips have to be deep and stay that way, entries must be wide and well-marked and there needs to be
sufficient space to turn a 40 footer without difficulty. In addition to a pool and hot tub, there needs to be a well-stocked marine store and a laundry,
a clean, well-lit bathhouse with hot water on demand and a "captains' lounge" with a big screen television is almost a must.
Obviously, someone who owns a pre-1960 marina is going to have a huge expense trying to compete with a marine built - or rebuilt - in the past 30
years. In a lot of cases, the earlier marina is owned by a family and is in the third or fourth generation. Unless someone in the family really wants
to run a marina, the family becomes less and less enchanted with funneling money into "the pit," so the facilities don't get upgraded, or worse, they
Of course, the natural response to this by the boating community is to vote by foot. If you can get to someplace nicer and it costs only a little bit
more, you are moving your boat. Boats are, by definition, movable assets. So, the family owning the marina is faced with three possible solutions.
One, they can try to get enough money together to compete for the boating dollar. Two, they can try to hang onto their remaining customers with
friendships and reminders of the "good old days." Three, they can charge the remaining boaters more every year, as fewer and fewer boats return
each boating season. I have seen all three techniques used.
The family-owned marina will eventually go the way of the family-owned motel. The remaining facilities will eventually fall into such disrepair that
the businesses will no longer be able to pay their taxes and power costs. The families will be forced to sell at pennies on the dollar to the
professional management companies, who will set up limited holding companies with investors to pay for the land and facilities, while the
management company runs the marina and rakes in a hefty fee.
The boater will pay more for the use of the facility, but the facility will be much nicer and more along the line of what the "boating public" has come
to expect. The only real loser in all of this will be that low-end liveaboard. The guy who moved his gear from one sinking boat to the next will move
ashore and find some trailer park to live in.
We, on the other hand, will still be out there, cruising.