There is no way to sugarcoat this. It’s winter. It is in fact an El Niño winter. So, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Sorry to say we have a lot of winter and a cold wet spring yet to come. Brrr… 

Need a cure for winter? Head south on your boat to warmer climes!

Winter is a well-known “recurring” condition. Literally hundreds of your fellow Bay boaters have determined the cure for winter is spending time on their boat, a little farther south, for at least some of the coldest months. If you are among that group, congratulations.  

If you are not, I guess I must ask, why not? Maybe you have an investment in a shrinkwrap company? Maybe you have a secret love of the pink and purple stuff (antifreeze)? Maybe you just like the way your boat looks bigger up on jack stands for the winter?

Since I am an eternal optimist, I am going to assume none of that is true. Following that lead, I have to also assume that a bunch of you have, or will someday, contemplate moving your boat south to serve as a winter respite. Honestly, getting the boat there is not nearly as complicated as answering two key questions: what city? And which marina will be my winter home?

En route to the “city” answer, you need to examine what weather conditions meet your desires for said respite. It is a given that you want to be far enough south to avoid winterizing your boat.  If you want to say play golf and don’t mind cold, but not freezing days, ports in South Carolina may suit you (Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head). If you want to wear shorts all the time, the southeast and southwest coasts of Florida are your best bet.

Airport proximity is an important consideration. Whether still working or retired, most of us need to get back “home” at some point over the winter. Most snowbirds I know make a monthly trip back for one thing or another (grandkids, seeing a doctor, meetings). Some place with reasonable access to a good commercial airport, with hopefully direct flights back home, is high on the list of things you should consider.

Like the decisions you made when buying your boat, there are compromises to be made when selecting a winter home marina. Courtesy of Sunset Bay Marina and Anchorage in Stuart, FL

Most of us don’t want to head south to be hermits and catch up on our reading. As social animals we seek the opportunity to see old friends and make new friends. There are two considerations to boost your social score.

First, where are your friends, the ones who are already down there somewhere? Find out where they have clustered and why. Their locations, experience, (and of course how good a friend they are), will be your guide.  

Second, understand the makeup and social engagement opportunities in your potential home marina. Are there a lot of snowbird liveaboards or just a few? Does the marina host social engagement activities for the slip holders? Do the slip holders themselves set up events? The more your marina acts like a yacht club, the more fun you are going to have.

Is the marina located such that restaurants and other urban attractions are walkable from the boat? In the real estate world, there is a walkability score often attached to residential location. The operating theory: having places to walk to is more attractive than needing to get in a car to get somewhere. This concept applies well to a potential winter season home marina.

Speaking of cars, how about parking? If you are truly going to be south for a good part of the season, you will eventually want a car. While the marina could have a great walkability score, not everything you need will be walkable (groceries, boat stuff, etc). I know of plenty of good seasonal liveaboard marinas where parking is at a premium. A really long walk from the parked car or maybe occasionally finding no parking space available, could nag at an otherwise good decision for a winter home.

Find out the social engagement opportunities in your potential home marina. Courtesy of Sunset Bay Marina and Anchorage

Does the marina and general location offer good athletic pursuits? Do they have loaner bikes for example? Are there gyms, parks, walking paths, golf, etc. nearby? One of the best rationalizations for being south in the winter is the opportunity to be active and outdoors when the Bay winters lock you inside. 

Arts and cultural attractions are a worthy consideration. If you enjoy them at home on the Bay, you will be looking for them over the winter. Are they nearby and accessible?

And let’s not forget marina security and immediate neighborhood security. Nothing can override a good report card on the above subjects than a sense of foreboding leaving the boat in the evening.    

So, how do you find this “goldilocks” marina? I have known folks, yours truly included, who took a plane to the Jacksonville, FL, airport, rented a car, and drove the Florida coast, headed south, looking at marinas and towns along the way. My first mate still rolls her eyes when we talk about that trip. Web research and personal referrals are good, but there is nothing like “kicking the tires” in person. 

To illustrate the point, let me call your attention to the recent exploits of Bay cruisers Avi and Ann Rubin. Considering all of the above, they selected a marina in Miami. Upon their recent arrival they found the slip uncomfortable for their boat, Empty Nest. The concrete dock was actually curved. They found that the marina was a walking path for too many non-boaters and the general feel of security just outside the marina gates less than comfortable.

The nicely manicured entrance to the Conch House Marina and Resort in St Augustine.

Within days Avi and Ann had Empty Nest pointed farther south. They found a much better winter home marina in Key West. So, a “plan B” is always a good idea in case the unexpected overrules a seemingly sound marina selection. 

Now as you contemplate the perfect winter home marina, it is worth noting that there is no perfect winter home marina. Like the decisions you made when buying your boat, there are compromises to be made. The above points to consider are the “science” behind your deliberations. The “art” side of your decisions include the compromises you need to make on your way to a happy, fun, and warmer winter.

A word about winter haven marinas: they are likely full, with waitlists. In fact, high slip demand may indeed confirm your research and selection of a chosen marina. Start looking now for a slip for next winter. 

And a word about waitlists—they are not perfect. A good marina manager keeps a waitlist but factors like the size of a boat, slip configuration, maybe even power demands may make the waitlist a little “flexible.” I have to admit, cookies for the marina staff and bottles of wine for the marina manager can’t hurt. Just sayin’…  

By Mike Pitchford