We’ve spent most of summer and early fall in marinas. We’ve always felt it’s those we meet that make any location or event memorable. With our new boat life we are finding this to be all the more true, and between our time as transients while cruising (one or two day stays) and the longer stays we’ve learned a lot about Marina People; this is what gives a place its personality. We’ve liked just about every marina in which we’ve stayed. But with extended time in Norfolk, we feel fortunate to have been a part of a Marina Village where the villagers created a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Boaters are a community, just like anything that centers around a common interest or activity. They love to tell ‘dock tales,’ share experiences, and talk about boats. Quite free with compliments of others’ boats as well as advice if you have a problem, they freely loan each other tools and help with whatever project you might be working on. There’s also quite the ‘small world’ phenomenon among boaters. We have Stillwater, MN written on our stern with the name of the boat, and we’ve met tons of people that have some connection to not just Minnesota but Stillwater as well. We’ve met people from the town next to Stillwater that notiuced the home port on the stern, another who lived there because his dad ran the local marina, and – our favorite – a guy who turned out to be one of Dave’s 7th grade classmates! Then there’s the Navy connection. Our logo featuring the submarine always is a conversation starter. We hired a diver to clean the bottom of the boat earlier in the summer, and it turns out he was previously a frogman and had actually been a rider (not a crewman) on Dave’s boat when he was the XO on the L. Mendel Rivers.
The marina where we spent about 9 weeks total in Norfolk was under renovation after being purchased by new owners. An adjacent old boat storage warehouse had been replaced with a beautiful assisted living facility that looked out over the new docks, providing a source of seniors coming and going along the boardwalk above the marina. A couple residents were frequent sights sitting at the top of the ramps from the docks and chatting up whoever passed by. When we first arrived, the old marina of buildings had been torn down and they were operating out of a trailer as construction continued on marina offices and amenities. When finished, we think the marina is going to be awesome. But in the meantime, it’s constantly morphing.
This is one of the few marinas in the area that allow year-round liveaboards. It seems to us there are two types of people who have an affinity for this lifestyle. The first is the older group who have finished or are closing out their career, mostly couples or divorced, choosing to live on a boat as their reward for work and the raising of families; the lifestyle is the realization of gratification delayed for decades. Most here have been here for over a year with no immediate plans to go anywhere. Cruisers like us are sort of a sub-group of this one, as we only stay for days or weeks or maybe a season.
The second group of liveaboards is younger, overwhelmingly male, and single. They’re a little more diverse on the ‘why’ of living on a boat, ranging from affordable housing to a desire for a simpler lifestyle to a pure love of all things boat. Some were seasoned sailors, others lived on boats that had not left the dock as long as they had owned them. Some boats were better maintained than others. Almost all were sailboats, probably because less expensive to maintain and use. Smoking seems to be an ubiquitous habit. But what we found so remarkable was how this group supported one another and formed their own little subcommunity — their village.
It was like ‘Friends’ did a marina version.
There were the core main characters. J, the laid-back dockmaster who takes everything in stride with a been-there-done-that attitude. T lived in the sport fishing boat next to us, an entrepreneur with an MBA and a focus on tech in the boating world. During our time there he was working with a couple other guys to start their own boat service business. R is former Navy and worked as a civilian doing big ship maintenance stuff, but was now pursuing this business opportunity. He has a penchant for evening dinghy rides in the T’s dinghy. N was the quieter of the threesome with T and R and did boat painting. We had them do our bottom painting, install the underwater lights, and help Dave with some routine engine maintenance when we hauled the boat out after we hit the deadhead. Separately we also hired K, a little more of a loner who does boat detailing and did an awesome job making See Level look new. He came and went on his own random schedule, taking a couple weeks to complete the job. We came back from errands one afternoon to find him fishing off the bow of our boat. It cracked us up because for some reason it seemed perfectly fitting — and we were perfectly okay with it. M is the business end of the marina management, knows everyone and can talk to anyone like she’s known you forever, and bakes the absolute best booze-infused cupcakes on the side to help pay for college. (Her chocolate version with hints of Bailey’s and Guinness were out of this world.)
Other recurring characters made periodic appearances. The marina manager G with his dog Tito, who roams the docks with or without G, frequently stopping by to say hello and drink from Roxy’s water bowl in the cockpit (much to Roxy’s barky consternation). P is a super nice retiree living on a beautiful old schooner, loved to talk to Dave about anything boating and say hello to Roxy.
Everyone helped everyone out. Pulling into a slip? People magically materialized to catch lines. We saw this willingness to help other boaters firsthand when we struggled to find anyone that would do the repairs and bottom painting we suddenly needed, and R put together the team, found a boatyard that could do the haul out quickly, and did the work that I mentioned above. They even joined Dave to drive the boat there so I wouldn’t have to change a couple appointments and could drive the truck over to that side of town. When a large boat with an absentee owner needed to be moved to a slip on the next dock, J recruited five of the locals to help. They fired up the engines after a whole season of sitting at the dock. As they dropped the lines, smoke began pouring out of the one of the engine compartments, followed by a lot of loud and colorful language pouring out of the makeshift crew. It was quite the sight and sound as it made the 100 yard trip. But all turned out well and they squeezed it into a slightly too-small slip and got it secured, then I imagine congratulated each other on the teamwork and headed off for a beer.
They frequently took evening sails on each others’ boats and gathered regularly for BBQs on the cement slab of an old boat ramp that served as their version of Central Perks. An old gas grill and a smoker was well used, and the ‘patio’ was furnished with an assortment of curved plastic children’s chairs that looked like they had been rescued from a 1970s third grade classroom. A couple of beat up coolers and a rickety folding table completed the décor. Seeing adults sitting in the chairs with their knees up around their ears always made me smile. Once the construction progressed to the point that the temporary marina office trailer and the boat ramp were removed and the area bulldozed level, they moved everything into the dirt and gravel left behind and continued their gatherings without missing a beat. Someone even repurposed a cement drainage pipe to make a firepit, creating an ambience I would call ‘cozy industrial.’
No community or sitcom is complete without its eccentrics. In all fairness, I supposed you would not be wrong to say that anyone choosing to live on a boat is a little eccentric by definition (including us). But this lifestyle certainly has more than its share of those further out on the Eccentricity Spectrum. Here we had St. Louie, so called because when Dave introduced himself he launched into a story about living in St. Louis and we never did find out his name. He pulled his sailboat into the slip next to us shortly after we arrived in August. He had no qualms about espousing his conspiracy theories, such as how the Navy was sucking the juice out of his battery and Canada was stealing US gold to sell to China. But as with most eccentrics, it wasn’t long before we realized he was harmless. I mean, how much of a threat can a man be that apologizes to ducks when he doesn’t have any bread for them? He seemed to be a relatively new boat owner, but was eager to learn from all the other boaters and asked some good questions, even if he could sometimes be annoyingly persistent. The more we talked to him, the more we realized he was actually very smart. He talked about having been a private pilot, and some of his stories were fantastical but laced with enough knowledge that it was hard to tell what was real and what might be a little delusional. He would pedal off on his bicycle and be gone for hours, returning once with an air conditioning unit strapped to his back and another time with an anchor nearly toppling him backwards into the water as he got off the bike. He worked constantly on his boat, rigging lines and then unrigging them, scrubbing and washing down the deck, and sometimes just moving everything from one side of the boat to the other and then back again. But I really could have done without his proclivity on hot days – and we had a lot of them in August – to work in his underwear. Boxer briefs. Fire-engine RED boxer briefs.
Besides the people here, we’ve enjoyed walking Roxy in this neighborhood. Juxtaposed on this marina community and behind the assisted living facility that shares the marina parking lot is an upscale residential area with open green spaces, families zipping around in golf carts in the evening, and dogs everywhere. The homes are a very beachy style with a lot of character, almost all have well-used front porches. It reminds us a lot of where we lived in Stillwater. The development is sandwiched between the inlet with the marinas one side and a sheltered public beach on the other, where dogs are allowed and Roxy could chase birds, wade into the water, and roll in whatever had washed up. We watched pods of dolphins swim by and beautiful sunsets.
We will be heading back down the ICW to Florida and hopefully the Bahamas for the winter. Hampton Roads will be as close to a ‘home port’ as we will have for the next few years. Dave’s brother is here, and we’re now established with doctors and dentists and veterinarians. We plan on returning to the same marina as we pass through in the early Spring, and look forward to seeing who is still there and reconnecting. In the meantime, we are excited for this next phase in our travels and hearing the stories of more people we meet along the way.
I just hope none of them have red underwear