Boating south for the winter: Snowbirds drift through Myrtle Beach area

dbryant@thesunnews.comOctober 20, 2012 

— Unlike most visitors to the Grand Strand, Bob and Ann Sherer of New York weren’t in a rush to arrive.

Getting here is half the fun for these snowbirds. Forget the clogged highways or the hassle of flying. By boat is the only way to go for this pair, who ultimately will end up in Key West, Fla.

“It’s the journey, not the destination,” Ann Sherer said while sitting on the pair’s boat named “Fleetwing” that was docked at Barefoot Landing Marina last week. “It’s the trip down.”

The Grand Strand has become a popular stop-over spot for an increasing number of snowbirds from the Northeast and Canada such as the Sherers traveling by boat to Florida or other southern warm spots such as Bermuda, the Bahamas and central America. They’ll dock here -- usually for a night, maybe a few -- then pull out in the water again headed south, with Georgetown, Charleston and Savannah the usual next stops.

These boater snowbirds started trickling through on the Intracoastal Waterway a couple of weeks ago and will continue stopping by for another month or so, area dockmasters said. It’s a nice slice of business for area marinas, which see some of the same faces every fall and then again in the spring on the return trip.

“We see a lot of that traffic,” said Chuck Whitaker with Cricket Cove Marina in Little River. “It seems to be pretty steady. Last year was one of the best we ever had.”

No reservations needed

Many are in just for the night, stopping in time for dinner at a restaurant -- within walking distance, for these car-less travelers -- and maybe some fuel before getting some sleep and pulling out as the sun comes up the next day.

This isn’t a group with agendas planned by the hour, on the hour.

Instead, it’s a trip dictated only by how easy or rough the waters were that day. The boaters know they’ll stop at certain docks and see family and friends spread along the coast, but they’ll get there when they get there.

Dockmasters know and understand that lifestyle. They expect at least a couple of snowbird boaters to float in every evening, but don’t know for sure how many until they get the call a few hours in advance saying, “We’re coming.”

“Anybody who calls you two or three days ahead really doesn’t have much experience,” said George Russ, owner and general manager of Hague Marina in the Socastee area that doesn’t get as many overnight stopovers as he’d like but stays busy servicing some of the snowbirds’ boats.

Art Wissing, a dockmaster at Barefoot Landing Marina, just sits on his boat and waits for their call, jumping to the dock ready to wave them in and help pull the boat in.

“They just call as they go along,” he said. “Boating is not a science. It’s an adventure. That’s why we do it....

“They stop here for a day or two or three,” Wissing said Thursday evening. “Last night we were booked end to end.”

A special anniversary

The Sherers -- who make the Grand Strand a must-do stop on their voyage -- stayed for a few days last week, taking in the show at Alabama Theatre, relaxing on the boat with a happy hour glass of wine and shopping at Barefoot Landing.

“I buy all my shoes here,” Bob Sherer said while lifting a foot to show off a spotless, just-purchased pair of sneakers.

They even celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary with a steak dinner at Greg Norman’s Australian Grille on Thursday night; the anniversary was in August but the pair said they wanted to wait for this more relaxed time to celebrate.

But all the Grand Strand’s usual tourist hotspots don’t really interest this pair. Tell them where the best and nearest grocery store is and they’ll be happy. One of the dockmasters at Barefoot Landing Marina did them one better and drove them to Wal-Mart to buy some necessities. They’ll load up in Charleston, too, where they plan to stay for a few days.

“Charleston has a wonderful Harris Teeter,” Ann Sherer said, pointing out an aspect of the historic city that likely wasn’t considered when readers of Conde Nast Traveler voted it the Top Tourist Town in the World last week.

But don’t think that these guys are roughing it. The Sherers’ boat has a 32-inch TV, air conditioning and heat, a freezer and other staples of a stick-built house.

“This is like a floating condominium,” Bob Sherer said.

For John and Darleen Hochradel of Michigan, their boat isn’t just their home away from home -- it is their home. The pair rents their house to family and has created a cozy abode in their three-bedroom, 37-foot boat named “Island Rhumb.”

“We’ve always had a boat,” Darleen Hochradel said. They have made more than a dozen trips on the Intracoastal Waterway. “It just seemed like an economical way to retire.”

The couple spent Thursday night in North Myrtle Beach on their way to Key West, eating at TBonz Gill & Grill at Barefoot Landing and buying a bottle of wine and postcards -- not too much, though. They don’t have much room on the boat, so they have a rule that if they buy a new piece of clothing, they have to get rid of one already in the closet.

“We don’t buy a lot because we don’t have anywhere to put it,” Darleen Hochradel said while giving a tour of “Island Rhumb.”

But in addition to the lifestyle and adventure, traveling by boat -- checking in docks for overnight stays at the many stops along the way -- is easier than driving and checking into hotels.

“You don’t have to pack and unpack,” Darleen Hochradel said.

Docking their dollars

It’s hard to pinpoint how much these snowbirds inject into the Grand Strand economy.

Most are only here for a night or a few days, but usually eat dinner at a local restaurant, shop at area stores, get service done on their boats or run to the grocery store.

“We don’t depend on transients, but they do help out the economy,” said Donal Wright, who works the docks at Harbourgate Marina in North Myrtle Beach.

And while they don’t rely on the transient business, they would miss it if it weren’t there.

“It’s not our main business, but it matters,” said Doug Smith, who works the docks at the Marina at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach.

These snowbirds are the prelude to the more traditional snowbirds along the Grand Strand, those that will start trickling in during the next few weeks to stay for three to six months at area hotels and campgrounds. The Grand Strand relies on that winter business to help get through the off-season until the throngs of summer tourists return.

On Friday morning, the Sherers pulled out of Barefoot Landing Marina headed to Georgetown, where they stayed for a night before heading to Charleston -- soaking up every sunset, alligator spotting and unexpected moment along the way.

“We are in no real rush, period,” Ann Sherer said.

Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at dbryant@thesunnews.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.

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