Marina or Anchorage? — How, When, and Why We Choose Between Them?
Well, Spirited Away is safely tucked away for the Summer.
What? Isn’t Summer when everyone is supposed to be on their boat?
Let me explain.
There are two boating seasons in my life: Fall/Winter/Spring boating, and Summer boating. Together, they keep me on the water 12 months of the year.
This year, Summer boating began on June 1. That's when our Nordhavn went into hibernation until Fall. Summer boating for me is completely different from being a live-aboard. And yet, I owe Summer boating for teaching me how to boat, for giving my dad the idea that live-aboard life could be great for me during my Middle School years, and for his decision to buy a Nordhavn.
Summer boating, and how it relates to my live-aboard life, will be my next blog post. I think you'll really enjoy it.
Here's a hint.
Now on to the current post.
Having just completed our second year as live-aboards and looking back at thousands of photos we’ve taken so far, I wondered why we had sometimes stayed at marinas and sometimes at anchor. I decided to write about it.
We’ve stayed at around 40 marinas I guess — as far north as Hessel, Michigan and as far south as Palm Beach, Florida, returning to some of those twice or more. And I would say we’ve anchored maybe 25 times or so, which is not nearly enough I think. I’ll explain why below.
Every time we move the boat, we have a planned destination — an anchorage or a marina. Sometimes we have a back-up in mind, just in case weather gets bad or something important goes wrong with the boat. In over 8,500 miles travelled so far, we've only had to choose that back-up once. Not bad.
Not all marinas will work for our boat. Some do not have enough water at their approach or at their dock for our nearly 6’ draft, especially when tides are significant. Some don’t offer the 50 Amp power we need. Some are too expensive. Some are not protected from wind and waves, or have docks too old or spindly to safely hold us if weather picks up. And some are just plain “sketchy.” (More about that below, and it's really funny!)
Not all anchorages will work for our boat either. Like marinas, our main concern is having enough depth. Other worries are protection from winds if they are happening or are forecast to happen, protection from wakes, protection from traffic (we don’t want any night barges running into us), and enough room for our boat to swing if current and/or wind is strong. As I wrote in my earlier post about anchoring, we always put down a 7:1 chain ratio for peace of mind, even in calm conditions, so our concern about current at an anchorage is mostly about swinging into another boat (or them into us), if the anchorage is small or crowded. A couple times, we’ve come closer to that than we’d like. It's no fun watching a boat anchored nearby getting closer and closer, or waking up to the sight of one too close.
The reviews in Active Captain are helpful in choosing our marinas because they tell us what each one has to offer, sometimes what they charge, what local places to see or shop or eat at, and what the staff are like. The Waterway Guide and an internet search of the area we are heading to is also helpful in checking out marinas.
Decent anchorages are not that hard to find. Active Captain reviews are an excellent place to start, because they tell us where the deepest water can be found, how to approach each anchorage (if the way in is tricky), how bad the bugs or noise levels are, how much wake from other boats to expect, and whether there is a dingy dock nearby if we want to tender to shore.
This blog post is the first time I had though about what was behind our many choices between mooring in a marina or anchoring. And why we’ve seemed to default so many times to a marina as our first choice.
Reasons to Moor at a Marina
My dad found the first year of running our boat pretty stressful. Ok, really stressful. Amazing, but stressful. I did say stressful, right? (A friend of ours nicknamed him “Captain Stressbuckets.” I still call him that sometimes.) Having never owned a big boat before, he had a lot to learn all at once about running the systems, and navigating in new conditions. And he had to learn how the boat handled in all those different conditions. Because of this, he was pretty wiped out at the end of each day we moved the boat. And we moved her a looooong way that first year. From south Florida up the coast, well into Chesapeake Bay, up the Hudson River, through the Erie and Oswego Canals, the lengths of Lakes Ontario and Erie (including the Welland Canal between them), then to the Northern tips of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. And then, back to Palm Beach. This meant long ocean passages, hundreds of miles of Intra-coastal, many bridges, 30+ locks, and the entire lengths of three Great Lakes — all of these things twice in the span of less than 9 months.
So, at the end of each day, he wanted to tie up to a dock and get off the boat. Given how tired he was, he also wanted to eat out rather than cook.
There’s another reason my dad preferred marinas. While he had been docking inboard boats his whole life, anchoring was new to him (other than hand tossing a day anchor off a small boat for an hour or two). The thought of running the boat all day and then going through the steps to anchor right seemed like working after working.
Year two turned out to be a way easier year for both of us because we were way more experienced. We knew our comfort levels. And yes, many times we knew the waters we were in and where we were going exactly because, well, we were backtracking the previous year’s routes.
So why did we keep choosing so many marinas?
Choosing marinas in year two was less about needing a place to tie up to relax and more about wanting to return to places we had enjoyed before. I was surprised how good that felt, especially when people at some marinas remembered me and said “welcome back!” Year two also gave us the opportunity to choose not to return to marinas we didn’t enjoy the last time, and to try new marinas we thought we might prefer.
While it’s possible to shop for groceries and bring them back to our anchored boat using the tender, it’s a lot easier to tie up at a marina and provision from a dock, avoiding the need for round trips in the tender and the extra handling of moving stuff from land to the tender to the boat, especially if we have a big shopping list. When we have a shopping list that big, or several stores we need to visit, it’s especially great when a marina offers the use of a loaner car. They can be really old ones, but that makes them fun for
us... uh... my dad.
Speaking of using the tender, the process of hooking the tender to our crane, lifting it up, lowering it, and then raising and stowing it before heading out again takes quite a bit of time. Less, now that we are more familiar with the operation. But still, as with setting our anchor, if going ashore was the plan, it just felt easier to moor at a marina and step off — especially after a long day.
Another reason we’ve favored marinas had to do with our water supply. Our boat holds 400 gallons of fresh water. When we first bought her, we weren’t used to conserving water. We did the things at anchor the same way we did them at a marina: several laundry loads, long showers, streaming water when doing dishes and brushing our teeth, and using fresh water to wash down bugs and dirt from the decks. We’d go through our supply in about 3 days. As a result, the time we could spend between nights at marinas was limited.
Over the past two years, however, we’ve become way more conscious about how we use our fresh water. No laundry (it can wait until we are at a marina). No continuously running water when doing dishes or brushing teeth. No deck wash-downs. And we learned how to take “boat showers.” Boat showers involve getting wet in about 30 seconds, then turning off the water to soap up, then turning the water back on to rinse off. We’ve got it down to about 2 or 3 minutes of water use per shower which, at about 2.5 gallons per minute, means only 5 to 7.5 gallons each.
The longest we’ve gone now with our onboard water supply is 7 days. And we still had around 1/4 of a tank left. In year two, we rarely had to factor in our need for water when deciding between a marina or anchorage.
By the way, we do have a good water maker on board. It filters saltwater into fresh water and is powered by our generator. We never used it our first year because we didn’t need to. (And because my dad didn't want to mess it up.) The first time we tried it was about three months ago — for the experience. It went fine. What this means is we will not have to think about water anymore when we choose between a marina or anchorage. It also means we are more ready than ever to head to The Bahamas or Dry Tortugas, places I really want to see! Right dad?
Incoming weather is the fourth reason we have chosen a marina over an anchorage. Here are two examples.
On September 13, 2019, my dad and I were at Edgewater Marina in Cleveland. A severe, fast-moving thunderstorm came though with winds topping 70 mph. There's not a lot to see in this video we took because the storm turned evening sunlight completely black. I wouldn't want to go through something like that at anchor.
[Dad here. I just love Salter's succession of questions in this! It encapsulates so much of what it's like to be his dad and living aboard together. So many questions. So many opportunities to help him grow. BTW, the Paul R. Tregurtha he mentions here is the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at 1,014 feet.]
The second big storm I remember at a marina happened in mid-November of 2019. We were making our way toward South Carolina when the forecast turned nasty. We tucked into a very protected marina called River Dunes. High winds reached 40 knots and lasted for a few days. I suppose we could have found a sheltered anchorage and waited that out. But the decision to tie up with a bunch of extra lines and listen to the wind howl from the safety of a marina was best.
As we discovered, River Dunes wasn't exactly "roughing it."
Still another reason we like marinas is access to a hose to wash salt and dirt off our boat. It’s amazing how much of that can build up in just a few days, from saltwater spray, anchor mud, engine soot, power plant incinerators, controlled burns, birds, and bugs. A boat feels so much better when it's freshly washed down. In fact, that’s often the first thing we (and most boaters) do when we arrive at a marina, especially if we’ve been in waves on “the outside” (the Atlantic).
One rare reason we needed to chose a marina instead of an anchorage was for repairs. Though mechanics can come and work on the boat when we are at anchor nearby, for bigger projects, it’s just common sense to be doing this from a marina. Their time costs more than the marina stay.
Marinas also offer us the chance to leave the boat for longer periods of time with the peace of mind of knowing it is secure. We would never want to leave her overnight at anchor or on a mooring ball without our being aboard.
Here’s a big reason we have chosen a marina over an anchorage: we like to stay and linger in nice places. Charleston is a great example. We really like walking the city’s historic district. Who wouldn't? It's so beautiful. We’ve become familiar with restaurants, grocery stores, interesting shops, parks, and even a friendly dog.
Aaaaaaand, here's another dog we met at a marina (Kingston, New York). It's a Chinese Crested. Friendly? Yes. But not exactly the "petting kind," if you know what I mean.
Charleston is a city where we also might need to linger for several days, a week, or possibly longer if we are waiting for a weather window to go on the outside (Atlantic Ocean). When we know we are going to remain in a given place for a while, a marina makes more sense to us because we can plug in, eliminating the need to run our generator for hours each day to bulk up our house batteries. It also makes more sense because it means we don’t have to take dingy rides to and from shore each day or more than once each day. Money-wise, the temptation to stay at a marina such as Safe Harbor Charleston can become even more favorable because it, and many other marinas, offer reduced rates with a week’s stay or longer.
And then there’s this: there simply aren't any good anchorages in Charleston. One anchorage near our marina is reported to have scattered debris on the bottom which can foul an anchor. That anchorage is also located in an area with swift current, increasing the risk of dragging. Another nearby anchorage has only derelict sailboats. We never saw a nice boat drop the hook at either one.
Norfolk, Virginia also seems to lack good anchorages. I'm not even sure you can anchor near downtown Norfolk with all the warship restrictions. But Norfolk is a nice stop with some good food and a great battleship to see, so we are happy to choose Waterside Marina each time we pass through.
Here's one final reason why we've chose a marina over an anchorage and it's an unusual one for a Nordhavn. Because some marinas have cranes and expertise lowering sailboat masts, they also have the ability to lower and then raise our boat's hinged, FRP exhaust stack. This is a rare option. When it's down, we can go under low bridges and see places other tall power boats cannot.
Writing "low bridges" reminded me of a song. A song I learned because we passed (sometimes squeaked) under many of those bridges with our lowered stack when we rode the Erie and Oswego Canals. Turn it up and enjoy!
Other Marina Benefits
While these were the main reasons we've chosen to go to a marina, there are other benefits to staying at some marinas, though they didn't drive our choice.
Number one is a pool and/or a hot tub. I really like to swim. Also, since our boat doesn’t have a bathtub, being able to soak in a hot tub under the stars feels great!
There's another marina I can think of with a terrific benefit: Coinjock Marina. I wrote about it in an earlier post, so I'll just get right to the reason with this photo.
Another benefit to staying at a marina is the opportunity to meet other boaters. Live-aboards share a lifestyle. It's a community. It’s amazing to me how helpful boaters are to each other. We share advice, recommend anchorages, discuss different navigation aids and things that make our lives aboard easier, and give tips on where to go for meals, provisions, or sightseeing. Some of this happens before we even step on the dock, because boaters will get off their neighboring boats to help with our lines. That’s how conversations begin. I know there will be more of this when we set out for our third year this fall and get to the Bahamas. That’s when I know I will have a lot more fun with kids my age.
It's rare that I get to meet kids my age at a marina. I now think it's because: 1. They are not on powerboats, but are on sailboats. 2. Sailboats tend to anchor lots more than powerboats. 3. Most of those sailboats go to The Bahamas in the winter. So this winter, we're going over there to meet more kids!
Reasons to Anchor
By now you might be thinking “why bother anchoring at all when marinas are so convenient in so many ways?”
There are several reasons.
Number one is lower cost. In my earlier post about anchoring, I wrote that anchoring costs much less than a marina. Or maybe truly nothing (if we don’t run our generator). I also wrote that a night at anchor basically cuts the cost of a night at a marina in half when you average the cost of both nights.
The second reason we've chosen to anchor is not a money one. No matter how nice a marina is (and we’ve stayed at some very nice ones), they can't touch how magical anchoring can be.
Yes, some marinas like this one in Manteo have beautiful views and are pretty quiet.
But there's "marina beautiful," like this...
Manteo, North Carolina
And then there's "anchorage beautiful," like this.
Those were a few photos we took of anchorages where we've stayed. Peaceful at sunset, all night, and at sunrise. It's amazing.
At anchor, because our boat is only secured at one point (with its chain), it bobs more in waves than it would in a marina. (Actually, that’s kind of funny, because a boat as heavy a Nordhavn doesn’t really “bob,” it just... well... it “moves”.) And it swings around with changes in wind and current. When I go to sleep the extra bit of movement at anchor actually rocks me to sleep. It’s wonderful.
Sound is another reason anchorages can be magical. The only noise we hear at anchor is waves lapping against the boat, the occasional birds, and maybe the wind passing by. By comparison, marinas can be noisy. For some reason, we’ve noticed many are located right at the foot of bridges, meaning there can be a lot of traffic noise. We have no idea why this is so. In a thick-hulled Nordhavn, all that goes away the minute the doors and windows are closed. But if we want fresh cool air at night, staying at a marina means a trade off between that and the noise of cars and trucks. Other noises at marinas are the coming and going of boats and, at the fancier ones like Palm Beach, the daytime noise of golf carts on the docks and boat detailing crews at work.
Also wonderful at anchor is the breeziness. At marinas down south, we run our air conditioners a lot. We do this because we can run them with shore power, not our generator. We also do this because there’s less of a cool breeze when our boat is sandwiched around others. But at anchor, even a gentle breeze flows right through the boat when our windows and doors are all open. That breeze adds to the peacefulness I feel when I go to sleep. This is why we have never run the generator and AC’s overnight at an anchorage, even in the south.
At anchor, I think I appreciate our boat more. I notice little things, because there's less distraction, no other people around, and no marina wi-fi. (Though it can be inconvenient not having satellite wi-fi, my dad still believes it's better for our experience as live-aboards.) It's just us, and the boat, and nature.
For some reason, I make a much better effort to set things up just right when we anchor. Maybe it's because I find it to be more of an adventure. Water camping?
Up top while at anchor is a great place to watch the sunset (when the bugs aren't bad).
There's one final reason we anchor rather than stay at a marina and that reason is... well, there isn't a marina. Cumberland Island, Georgia is a great example.
Anchoring at Cumberland isn't tricky. There's plenty of space. And the Island is so worth it. The famous wild horses, mansion ruins to explore, conch shells to find, miles of trails in the woods, and miles of hard packed beaches to walk.
Cumberland's wild (feral) horses. We were told "leave them alone and they leave you alone." By the way, we also saw wild horses on the shore at Fishing Bay, North Carolina. We were told they have evolved to get their fresh water from the greens they eat. I don't know if it's that way at Cumberland, but I wouldn't be surprised.
So there you have it. The how, when, and why we’ve chosen between marinas and anchoring.
I think we will be anchoring more when we return to the boat this September.
But what about the extra work in doing this? Well, we’re getting more efficient at launching and retrieving our dinghy, and we are way more comfortable letting go, backing down, and weighing anchor. Plus, we recently bought and began using a Mantus bridle, which takes a huge amount of strain off our windlass, stops the chain from clunking around the bow roller wheel when the boat swings, and makes our 7:1 chain ratio more like 8:1 — even more peace of mind.
In fact, now that I think about it, I believe things have reversed from when we first started our travels. Staying at a marina — making a reservation, getting slip instructions by VHF radio, navigating between other boats, backing in to our slip, preparing and securing lines, lowering and adjusting fenders, hauling the shore power cable fore or aft and plugging in, checking in with the dock-master, and then reversing all these steps when we leave — is actually more work than anchoring.
P.S. Remember early on in this post when I said I had something funny to say about "sketchy" marinas? Well, here it is. An Active Captain review we saw when we were passing by a certain marina. We are still laughing about this review. It starts off bad, then falls off a cliff.