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Frank and Celene Varasano call themselves conservative cruisers. Sure, their Fleming 78 can top 20 knots in a pinch, but as these retirees make their way up and down the U.S. coasts—which they’ve done eight separate years now—they generally cruise at around 10 knots. And only if the weather looks good. “Even trying to do a trip to Nantucket and back from New York when you have a week or two, it’s not the same as when you have the luxury of time,” Frank Varasano says. “Having the flexibility to do what you want, when you want, is absolutely huge.”

In addition to Newport, the Chesapeake Bay draws a number of cruisers traveling the coast. 

In addition to Newport, the Chesapeake Bay draws a number of cruisers traveling the coast. 

The Varasanos’ trawler (which they call simply V, because, “We think a lot of people try too hard with boat names”) is one among an increasing number of boats in the snowbird flock that spends winters in Florida and summers in New England or the Great Lakes. Right now, these snowbirds are either headed for or have already arrived in the South. More than a few of them have been stopping over at the increasing number of facilities that Safe Harbor Marinas has acquired up and down the coast. The company now owns and operates more than 115 marinas in 22 states, including the recently acquired Lauderdale Marine Center in Florida and Puerto Del Ray in Puerto Rico.

“They’re buying up marinas in very desirable areas where people want to go because there are either nice towns or the area is beautiful with natural resources, state parks, things like that,” says Capt. Cory Koch of the 114-foot Ocean Alexander Ziggy. He, too, makes regular runs up and down the coasts. “All the docks are either retrofitted or new, and the power sources are getting better at all these marinas. These boats require a lot of power; some older marinas can’t accommodate us.”

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The Varasanos say they tend to mix Safe Harbor marinas into their itinerary along with other facilities and anchoring out, depending on what they feel like doing. “We do really pretty, secluded anchorages as well as towns, even cities, like Boston, where we go downtown,” Varasano says. “Wherever we can do a Safe Harbor, we like them. They tend to be upscale and well run. There are good people working in those marinas that we can count on.”

Charleston City Safe Harbor in South Carolina is an example of a great city stop, Varasano says, calling it “a must” where they’ve tied up numerous times. The history and downtown life are this couple’s idea of the perfect blend.

“This year, we’ll stop there on the way down for a few days, but coming back up, we’re going to spend all of April there,” he says. “It has superb, New York-quality restaurants. It’s fun to just walk around in Charleston.”

Varasano says he’s very fussy about whose hands are on his boat at any given time, so he tries to hold off as much as possible on shipyard work until he gets to Fleming dealer Burr Yacht Sales in Edgewater, Maryland, or Stuart, Florida. The Maryland stop is one of his favorites, too, since he’s a United States Naval Academy graduate with friends in the area.

But if the boat is in New England and the work can’t wait, the couple heads to Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard in Rhode Island. Varasano trusts the staff there “because they’re a real yard with real capability.”

Charleston City Safe Harbor Marina in South Carolina is a popular stop for those who like a little city action.

Charleston City Safe Harbor Marina in South Carolina is a popular stop for those who like a little city action.

Koch says that for him, Newport is a favorite stop. Not just because the city is so walkable with a salty waterfront, but also because the Safe Harbor Newport Shipyard feels like a destination unto itself.

“What a neat area, just to sit there and watch them work on boats, or to watch the boats coming and going,” he says. “There’s a restaurant there too, called Bella’s Café. Tourists love to go there and just observe everything happening. It’s a pleasant place to sit with these beautiful tents.”

Varasano finds it easiest to plan itineraries by having multiple waypoint options at all times. For instance, if he and Celene are running outside the Intracoastal Waterway, they build in a “bailout point” with a location in mind in case the weather changes.

“We always have backups and where exactly we would go,” he says. “The hardest part is that if the weather turns bad and you can’t get to Marina A on the date you have the reservation, it’s a domino effect. That’s the hard thing to deal with. Ideally, there would be a system in place where you pick the places you want to go and you make the reservation, but in the event you get delayed at the first location, all of the other reservations ratchet back a day. That would be very helpful.”

Generally speaking, the Varasanos cover anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day when cruising, which lets them stop at 15 or 20 destinations along the coast.

“We don’t cruise the boat at night, ever, even offshore,” he says. “We try to do six- or seven-hour days in both the spring and the fall, which gives us flexibility. We occasionally do long days. We almost never do very short days; getting the boat underway and doing all of that is pretty time-consuming. Once you’re underway, it’s nice to put some miles on.”

It’s paramount, he adds, for snowbirds to cruise with someone who shares the same goals and has similar skills, especially without crew on the boat.

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“The other person on board is very important,” Varasano says. “Many, many wives wouldn’t be interested in doing what Celene does. She’s a true mate. She’s very capable.”

But overall, Varasano says, things like watching the weather and finding great stopover points haven’t been barriers to living the snowbird lifestyle. The biggest challenge he and Celene had was getting out of the mindset of the “crazy, work-intensive careers” that used to dominate their lives.

“It took me over a year to figure out that I didn’t need a schedule after I retired, and that’s the key thing—to not have a rigid schedule,” he says. “You should stay longer if you like a place or leave early if you don’t. That’s how we do it. It works for us.” 

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.

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