Camachee Cove: the making of a marina - Soundings Online

Camachee Cove: the making of a marina

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I went to a birthday party a few months ago. Many good friends were there; most were old friends, and most were boaters. As I sipped a draft, the ambience of the party brought a question to mind: Where do marinas come from? And the questions ran on in my head. What goes into making a marina special? Do they just sit on shore, taken for granted by those of us who stop there?

Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor is a premier marine destination in St. Augustine, Florida.

Here’s a story that’s hard to believe. But it’s true. And, incidentally, that birthday party I attended was for a marina: Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor.

Tom and Joe Taylor began their lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where their father was the manager of a textile mill. They made several moves along the way, including to North Carolina. Joe finished high school in Arlington, Virginia, and went to Clemson University. Tom, three years his senior, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and MIT, where he earned two master’s degrees, one in naval architecture and the other in nuclear engineering. He then spent 20 years in the Navy, building and maintaining nuclear submarines.

Joe took a different course and became a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch in Asheville, North Carolina. But he had a dream and a passion — a passion for boating — and it took him through a much different type of life than most of us experience. At age 34, Joe moved on from Merrill Lynch and ordered a Cheoy Lee sailboat, built in Hong Kong. He went over to see it built, but his visa ran out before the boat hit the water.

Boatless, he returned to Hawaii, where Tom was stationed at the time, soon to retire from the Navy. Tom and Joe had built several successful marine-related businesses there, but the waterfront land they needed was owned and controlled by the state, which they didn’t like. So they sailed off into the sunrise — east to California.

They had been a dealer for Islander sailboats, which were built in California, and Joe had been enjoying the Islander 40 they had sailed to Hawaii. But rather than sail that boat to Hawaii, they took off in Tom’s Dutch-built boat — a steel motorsailer that, according to Joe, was a camel. “It had every bad attribute of a compromise,” he says.

Among its winning features were twin diesels, no generator and a well cockpit. Joe embellishes his description of the boat as being a motorsailing sportfisherman. They crossed the Pacific in 1975, well before GPS, and used dead reckoning and took noon sights with an old Navy sextant that Tom had refurbished. For a chronometer (to determine noon) they used a Bulova tuning fork wristwatch, kept in its original box. They were afraid to wear it.

By the time they made it across the Pacific, they had decided to do some upgrading, including doing their own work on the Perkins engines under the oversight of the local distributor. Getting down and dirty was no hardship to these guys, and it was to come in very handy later.

They motorsailed down the left coast to the Panama Canal. Still using dead reckoning, as well as a newly installed used radar, they came upon an uninhabited island (or so they thought) west of Panama. Turns out there was one family there, who pulled their one chair out and into the yard for the comfort of their guests and gave them about eight eggs from their meager larder. The unexpected return from the brothers’ larder overwhelmed the family.

After transiting the canal, they traveled to Fort Lauderdale, where, like so many other boaters, they sold the motorsailer. While in Fort Lauderdale, Tom heard about an auction on the courthouse steps in St. John’s County and drove up to check it out. On July 10, 1976, Tom and Joe purchased the first parcel of land that became Camachee Island — and became part of St. Augustine’s long history.

Tom and Joe Taylor were very hands-on, and the brothers worked hard, creating a much-needed marina in St. Augustine.

The Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the settlement here in 1565. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously settled city of European origin on our continent, but its shores, while providing refuge and a destination for boats, hardly provided the fine protected yachting center that Camachee Island provides today. When the Camachee project began, not many slips were there; the municipal marina had about 35. The Taylors would add 350 and help create a premier marine destination (camacheeisland.com).

Tom and Joe agreed on many things, one of which was that they didn’t want to live where it’s cold. And they wanted year-round boating. They had long ago decided that any land they settled on would have to be below the 30th parallel. The Camachee land just happened to be 29 degrees, 55 minutes south. And so they began. A good alloy is the combination of two metals that together are stronger than each is individually. Joe says he and his brother constituted a very good alloy.

Some might say that what became Camachee Cove wasn’t much more than a mudhole in the marsh beside the Tolomato River. It was just a work area with some docks. The brothers with a vision began their huge task — planning, dealing with local politics, engineering, meeting environmental regulations, raising money and more.

They financed the construction of the first building with a credit card from First Hawaiian Bank. They lived on their savings and went two years without salaries, after which their pay was a whopping $200 a month. Most of their credit came from sweat equity. An early job applicant came to the site to find the brothers up to their waists in mud, digging footings. The applicant left, saying if the bosses were toiling like this, it was no place to work.

Once, the dike for the dredge spoil retaining area began to break — at the close of the workday, of course. This could have been calamitous, but Joe and Tom got a bulldozer and a front loader, took them into the moving mud, and repaired the gap.

Tom’s engineering abilities, Joe’s business skills and the pair’s hard work paid off slowly. The mudhole became a dredged marina basin. It was unique for the area because it was protected, and once you got inside and out of the river, it was void of currents. This is an area with 6- to 8-foot tides and just next to the ocean.

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After dealing with the mud, the mosquitoes and the snakes, they finally moved their business into buildings and an office where they could look out over the marina basin. Their office area, at the north end of the building, had no partitions. When Joe drew a wall during the design phase, Tom said, “What is that?”

Joe knew he was right. “You get so busy you can’t talk to each other,” he says. “But if you’re in the same room, you see and know what each other is doing, and you’re in sync personally as well as in a business sense.” (Tom passed on in 2010, but his legacy remains strong.)

The brothers acquired two more parcels and developed an island about 1.5 miles long with its own infrastructure, including a water plant. It became a place for residential and resort condos, fine homes and, around the marina, a shopping area concentrating on the interests of boaters. “We didn’t try to do everything ourselves,” Joe says. “We tried to create an umbrella to allow other people to do well.”

There is a hotel at the water’s edge, a restaurant, a yacht brokerage, a sail-sharing business, a deli, a pizza place, a canvas shop and more. The range of businesses is wide and includes Coleman Marine Insurance, run by Bill Coleman, who has been involved with boats since 1950. Just around the basin, First Mate Yacht Services is owned by “Bo” Bohanan and partners. Bo is legendary for his skill in repairing diesels and fixing other mechanical problems.

There is also a full-service yard, where I’ve been hauled out numerous times. The yard’s president, Peter Sabo, is now part owner and president of the parent company, Camachee Island Co. The yard has a 50-ton lift and an enclosed painting area that can accommodate very large boats, and it offers 24-hour emergency service. It’s also an authorized representative for a wide range of products and services.

The marina can host yachts to 120 feet and offers ValvTect gasoline and high-speed diesel. There is cable TV and Wi-Fi, a pool, three shower/laundry facilities and two skippers’ lounges with television, coffee, phones, computer modem hookups and more. The headquarters of the Northeast Florida Marlin Association is on the premises and hosts several tournaments each year. At Christmastime, Camachee Cove has a fabulous party, with the businesses surrounding the basin hosting an open house.

St. Augustine Inlet is just a few moments away, and there are no opening bridges between the inlet and the marina. Crossing the nearby high-rise bridge to Vilano Beach brings you to the ocean, where you can walk along the inlet’s north shore or for miles along the beach. The historical section of St. Augustine is a brisk walk away, but the marina offers two loaner cars to transient guests. There are also taxis, bus runs and a van pickups at the marina for the sightseeing train.

“We’re customer-centric,” Joe says. And based on the full slips, it seems that philosophy is working. Joe is still hands-on, and I have to think that Tom is in some way, too. Joe keeps his brother’s sextant on a shelf in his den.

Last year I saw a name tag on Joe’s shirt. “Joe,” I said, “you don’t need that. Everybody knows you around this marina.”

“I just want them to know that I’m here for them,” he said.

Customer-centric, indeed.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.