Life on the Loop
Marinas come in all sizes, shapes, purpose and pedigree. They can be owned by families, towns, yacht clubs or big corporations. Some don’t cater to ‘transients’ at all. Many don’t have fuel or pump outs. Boat repair is a niche sub-business and can be spotty in availability, price and competence.
Guide Books can help with choosing a marina – they usually have blown up maps to and of the marina which are downright useful. But reviews, and even better, forums will give more honest and up to date information, though you sometimes you have to filter through the noise.
Everyone has their own opinion of what 5 stars mean. So I don’t pay too much attention to what reviews say. Just like an anchorage, a marina that generates 15-20 reasonable reviews is probably a good stop. Less than 4-5 generally indicate a marina that doesn’t cater to transients, though they may offer repairs and better fuel prices since they’re catering to locals.
If you’re looking for gold plated bath fixtures, well, you’re not going to find them at marinas. But there are things to look for. Like any business, first impressions are telling. If you have to wait excruciatingly long minutes on your phone or VHF for an answer to if they have room for you or what fuel costs, at best you have a marina that doesn’t train or trust their front people. At worst you have one that doesn’t understand customer service and probably thinks their pump out doesn’t smell.
As a career small business owner, I look for owner operated marinas. Most of these prioritize good service over fancy facilities they can’t afford, which suits me just fine. The one thing to scan for in the reviews are the handful of marinas that offer a daily briefing on the route ahead. People giving them are almost always competent and usually amusing. Local knowledge is a good thing.
It’s a good idea to book marinas ahead of time, especially in busier stretches like south Florida, the Keys, New York and Chicago. I was in the (small) minority of Loopers who operated more by the seat of my pants. I seldom committed to a marina (or anchorage) until I was within sight of them. I enjoyed the flexibility to stop somewhere else if I spotted something more interesting.
I paid for that sometimes. I had to skip Mackinac Island completely and put in a very long day because there were absolutely no slips available and anchoring in that small harbor with all the ferry traffic was not an appealing thought. But it usually worked for me because L.T. could fit in almost anywhere. “What was your length again? 23 foot? Really? Oh, come on in. We’ll find someplace for you."
Some marinas are right downtown (yippee, but more expensive). Many, but not all, more remote marinas offer courtesy cars, particularly along the Tenn-Tom. Some of the ones that offer cars make it plain that they expect you to pay for gas, others don’t. I got into the habit of leaving a $5 bill on the counter regardless. I suspect it bought more beer than gas, but either way I had a clear conscience.
Almost all marinas have Wi-Fi, but it can be spotty, and speed is not often a priority. Usually, you can find reasonable reception somewhere on premise. I did more than one load of laundry while taking care of business on my laptop. Most town and canal walls (the majority of stopping places along the Erie Canal and Trent Severn) do not have Wi-Fi but you can usually find it in nearby coffee shops. In Canada, the ubiquitous Tim Hortons serve Wi-Fi with their doughnuts.
Too many marinas have scripted instructions to your assigned slip read by people who have never had to dock at an unfamiliar marina. Many don’t have very good dock signage, or they place signs where they’re blocked by other boats. The better ones will have someone meet you at your slip, but don’t depend on it. Make sure you have directions that you understand and that you know which docks to go between (fairways) as well as which dock your slip is on.
Most, but not all marinas treat power (electricity) as an add on to the per foot rate. If you’re on a tight budget check the power charge when making a reservation. It’s seldom mentioned and can be pricey at some marinas which don’t understand that honesty and service come before profit. If you’re staying more than a week, ask if they’ll meter your power.
A few have overbearing dockmasters. Mention the ‘Nazi’ dockmaster on the Tenn-Tom and most everybody immediately knows who you’re talking about, even if they frown on the description. On the Chesapeake I was once told to leave a marina if I didn’t tie up the way the dockmaster insisted – which I did and suffered through a long night at a lesser facility. When I told this story to a wiser Captain than me, he said yes, he had had the same thing happen. He listened patiently, tied up the way he was told, then retied his way after the dockmaster left.
There’s a handful of websites promoting ‘free’ docks along the Great Loop. Useful information but be wary. They depend on postings which often include at least one or two to the general effect of “my private dock is not available, much less free”.
There are times when your needs will dictate a marina. You may desperately need fuel or a pump out. You may need a repair or to stock up on groceries. Or you may just want a nice meal after suffering through your own cooking for several days. And yes, sometimes you’ll just be grateful to find any marina.
Marinas are a big part of cruising. Don’t stress. You’ll develop a feeling for what works for you.