Snowbird Stopover

by Dec 23, 2015Across the Cape Fear, South Brunswick

Story by Cheryl L. Serra

Southport is the happy middle point for many boaters traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway.

The migratory patterns of boaters along the East Coast of the United States may fluctuate mildly, but overall they’re pretty predictable: south for the winter, back north during spring. Thousands of these boaters travel along the Intracoastal Waterway, passing through or stopping over in Brunswick County along the way.

On a balmy December evening at Southport Marina, Hank Pomeranz, a retired U.S. Navy meteorologist, shared his impressive knowledge about the weather to a “classroom” of these north-to-south transiting boaters. Two couples were seeking Pomeranz’s advice on how an impending storm would affect their travel plans. One couple was trying to decide if the upcoming weather would allow them to sail to the Virgin Islands. The other couple hoped to determine if they could try to push on through the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to Charleston, where they were supposed to catch a flight to Providence, Rhode Island, to spend the holiday with their family.

Pomeranz, who keeps his boat at Southport Marina, frequently shares his knowledge with folks traveling the ICW and offshore. The rest of his discussion that December evening centered on how to safely navigate ICW problem areas, primarily shallow areas due to shoaling, from Southport south to the Savannah River. In the spring, he focuses his attention on weather and navigation for northbound travelers.

Southport’s location and amenities make it the perfect stopover point for boaters, some of whom may have not otherwise known about the quaint town. And the people who stop through here have many interesting stories to tell about their travels and lifestyles.

Earlier in the month, two couples aboard Rejoice!, a 44’ Island Packet, came to Southport, tucking in just south of red ICW marker 8/mile 311 at South Harbour Village Marina. These ICW markers are the roadmap between what people have left behind them when they threw off the bow lines that tethered them to land and what they hope to find on their voyages. And often, it’s the things in the middle that make the most enduring memories.

The owners of Rejoice!, Forest Golden and Susan Walker, are experienced ICW sailors. Susan, a retired laboratory scientist with a specialty in microbiology, and Forest, a retired electrical engineer, began their most recent trek on October 20, 2014, from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Rejoice!’s home port. They’ve done this trip south to north and return, or a version of it, at least six times in the past, on Rejoice! and on their previous boat, a Sabre 38.

“We do it because we like the challenge, the constant need to stay on our toes, so to speak, in terms of seamanship, navigation when out in the ocean, the constant need to need to stay on top of boat maintenance as well as figuring out how to fix things independently,” Forest says.

Jack and Pam Grant, themselves accomplished sailors, began their trip with Forest and Susan on their 47th wedding anniversary. The idea of a shared trip began last August, when the four attended a memorial service for a member of the Newport Yacht Club, of which they are all members. Forest asked Pam if she and Jack were interested in doing a trip to the Bahamas with them. Pam was noncommittal. However, traversing the ICW on TFIN, her and Jack’s Catalina 320, was on their long bucket list. They even took a road trip last year to stop along ICW ports.

The Grants decided to go along.

“Now that we’ve had our experience onboard the 44-foot Rejoice!, we will probably never do the trip on our sweet TFIN,” Pam says.

Boat size and type are big considerations when doing the waterway. You want to be comfortable in the living space but you also want to be comfortable handling the boat. Bad weather happens. All systems and equipment must be in top working order and you must be able to easily locate what you need in a hurry; you never know when situations will arise or how dangerous they can be.

But there are other considerations, as Susan notes.

“The spaces I have to keep organized are much smaller than our Rhode Island home,” she says. “Our meals are much more simple to plan and execute. And I still find time to read material for which I never find the time at home.” The challenges living aboard, albeit temporarily, include being able to shop and store provisions and planning and being able to do laundry “so as not to be down to the last clean skivvies.”

The reasons for doing the transit are as varied as the types of boaters who do it. Jack says the invitation from Forest and Susan to join them on the trip gave them an opportunity to realize their dream of traveling the ICW, but on a much more comfortable boat than TFIN. An added bonus was the experience Forest and Susan brought to the trip.

“The navigational planning (tides, currents, bridge openings, water depth below the keel, time and distance between ports and anchorages) was unprecedented for Pam and I,” he says. “Completing the ICW takes navigational planning to a new level. Equally important was the planning, purchasing, storing and preparing three meals per day and the always-necessary daily snacks.”

Pam adds, “Long-time cruisers show the newbies the way of the waterway and cruising.”

Another cruising couple, the Antons, also members of the Newport Yacht Club, had similar cruising motivations but somewhat different plans.

“We wanted to take on the challenge and see more of the East Coast at a sailboat pace,” Lauren Anton explains. “Our plan is to keep moving south, hopefully get a weather window to cross to the Bahamas for a few weeks, and then slowly head back north toward home, and then head north to Maine and Nova Scotia for the summer.”

While Pam and Jack Grant didn’t get to spend much time in downtown Southport, Jack says its location—close to both the ICW and the ocean— is ideal for boaters. The waterfront is pleasing and the town appeared welcoming and easy to walk through. His impression of the marina and restaurant left him with a positive impression and a desire to return to explore the area more fully.

Duffy and Kathy Doherty came to Southport intentionally. Three years ago they’d gone to the Annapolis Boat Show and rented a car to drive here. They say it reminds them of a smaller Scituate, Massachusetts, where they grew up. On this trip, they stayed in the area for several weeks, spending Thanksgiving aboard their boat, not being with their family on the holiday for the first time in 30 years (yet another adjustment boaters cite). They left their boat in town when they went home to celebrate an early Christmas with the family.

This is their first time taking their boat, Sea Turtle, a Leopard 40, the length of the ICW. They bought the vessel in St. Martin and brought her north to their home in Maine. In July, they sold their house and moved on board. They departed, due south, on October 10, 2014.

They love this area, particularly Oak Island, Duffy says. They’re not certain if someday they will call it home for good, at least when they’re not cruising. For now, they plan to head to the Bahamas. Duffy, an app developer, still works remotely from his boat, so his travels are dictated by the strength of internet connections.

One of the memorable parts of traveling that the Dohertys recall—perhaps not very fondly, at first—is the October night they headed south from Maine, aboard Sea Turtle. They were outside, or in the ocean, versus in the protected ICW. The boat was banging hard in the waves. Their puppy, Dory, was nervous, hovering near Kathy as she helped manage the boat. The davit, a system that keeps their dinghy out of the water when traveling, took such a beating it cracked and they almost lost the dinghy. It might not sound fun to some, but the Dohertys love the overall adventure (perhaps not that much adventure, though).

The Antons had never been to Southport until this trip. And because of the weather system Pomeranz had talked about at the marina briefing, they left their boat in Southport and drove to Baltimore, rather than taking the ICW to Charleston to catch their flight from there to Providence. So they had more time to explore the area. All told, they were in Southport nearly a month.

“Our impressions are all good, beginning of course with the marina and its staff and amenities,” Bob says. “Everyone we’ve met from town has been very friendly and welcoming. We like that there are good restaurants and shops within walking distance and a grocery not too far from the water.”

They plan to return to Southport on their northbound transit.

Hank Whitely, manager of Southport Marina, which earned the 2013 Marina of the Year award by Marina Dock Age magazine, says the marina is busy year-round. But, he adds, the “snowbird” cruisers heading south from early October to mid-December and returning from mid-March to late May make up a great deal of the business. In general, the number of overnight boats staying less than a month, or transients, at the marina increased from 1,377 in 2013 to 1,521 in 2014. Hank believes that the baby boomers becoming eligible to retire are having a huge impact on the area’s businesses, including recreation, hospitality and real estate.

Southport’s location makes it the perfect spot for boaters, he says. And once they’re here, Southport becomes a happy middle memory for many boaters.

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