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A renaissance for Morehead City marina

Jet Matthews has transformed the historic Morehead City Yacht Basin from a relic of the 1940s into a state-of-the-art marina that is drawing eyes to Morehead City, N.C.’s waterfront renaissance.

Sister city to quaint Beaufort, N.C., a popular stopover for snowbirds, Morehead City is on the “other” side, the south side, of the Intracoastal Waterway and Beaufort Inlet. The city is redeveloping its downtown waterfront, and creating the facilities and ambiance to draw cruising yachtsmen, anglers and tourists. Finished last June, the new Morehead City Yacht Basin is the latest attraction.

“We want to entice people to step over to the Morehead side,” says Matthews, 52, who spent $4.5 million to renovate the marina. Its familiar 57-year-old fixed wooden docks are gone now. Modern floating docks 600 to 800 feet long have replaced them. Decked with Brazilian Cumaru hardwood and pebble aggregate panels, the docks anchor 74 slips 45 to 65 feet long, and 18-1/2 to 24-1/2 feet wide. Some 1,250 feet of side-tied dockage accommodates 250-foot megayachts.

“We’ve designed it for large yachts,” says Matthews, but smaller cruising yachts also put in there. A quarter-mile from Beaufort Inlet and 300 feet off the ICW, the yacht basin is free of the strong tidal currents that run through nearby waters, and is a convenient stopover for cruising yachtsmen. Matthews says the marina has plenty of transient dockage, even though slips are for sale — and moving briskly.

“People are buying them left and right,” he says.

Buyers don’t necessarily keep a yacht in their slip year-round, and some buy slips as investments — betting that as Morehead City’s waterfront resurgence continues, the slip values will soar.

Matthews has dredged the harbor. Low water is 10 feet at the bulkhead, 13 feet at the pier head and 14 feet in the channel. The fuel dock is equipped with high-speed fuel dispensers that can pump 70 gallons a minute using two pumps simultaneously. Matthews has spent $500,000 refurbishing the clubhouse and lounge, and the laundry, restrooms, showers and ship’s store all are new or remodeled. Palm trees, crepe myrtles and other landscaping give the property a resort air. Skippers who have been there before don’t recognize the place and wonder if they’ve made a wrong turn. “People are stunned by it,” he says.

A Morehead City native, Matthews traveled widely for 13 years managing rock-and-roll bands. When he finally settled down, he decided he wanted to build and develop marinas. Fourteen years ago, he built the Matthews Point Marina, a modern, park-like 110-slip sailboat and trawler marina on the Neuse River. He managed the Morehead City Yacht Basin for its doctor-owner for several years, bought it in 2003 and overcame permitting difficulties that had prevented earlier redevelopment of what he saw as a diamond in the rough.

“It’s one of the top half-dozen marinas in the southeast now,” says Claiborne Young, author of Cruising Guide to Coastal North Carolina and other regional cruising guides to the southeastern United States.

“We’re excited about all the people the marina is bringing in,” says Joanne Alpiser, executive director of the Morehead City Revitalization Association, which is leading the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront. “We think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us.”

Since organizing in 1997, the association has seen the downtown change from a run-down waterfront district to an attractive tourist destination with art galleries, antique shops, 16 restaurants, plus marinas, boatyards, chandleries and a fleet of more than 30 charter fishing boats docked along Evans Street. The city is host to a popular seafood festival in October and the huge Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, nearing its 50th year now. The tournament averages 200 boats and 1,600 competitors, and pays out a $1 million purse.

The Morehead City Yacht Basin is rich in history. Boats have been built and stored there for probably 100 years, Matthews says. It was one of North Carolina’s first true “yacht” basins, providing dockage for pleasure boats around the turn of the century as hotels went up and Morehead City acquired a reputation as “Summer Capital by the Sea.” It became a coastal resort town for the wealthy.

The marina took the name Morehead City Yacht Basin in 1947, when the docks were built — the docks that Matthews just tore down. Back then it offered covered storage. “When I was growing up, that’s where all the big boats were, a big boat being a 40-foot Chris-Craft,” he says.

The marina became a hangout for sportsmen — anglers. “A lot of the movie stars, people from New York, came to go fishing,” he says. “People like Errol Flynn and Burl Ives. They stayed on their boats.”

In 1957 the Fabulous Fishermen — a loose-knit group of Morehead City fishing enthusiasts — decided to check out once and for all the stories they had heard from freighter crew. The crewmembers told of blue marlin sightings in the Gulf Stream. With help from local merchants, they offered a sack of silver dollars for the first blue marlin catch, encouraging anglers to venture farther offshore and hunt for marlin. No commercial or sport catches off North Carolina had been reported up to that time.

On Sept. 14, 1957, Raleigh angler Jimmy Croy, fishing aboard the Mary Z with Capt. K.W. “Bill’’ Olsen, landed a 143-pound blue marlin and weighed it in at the yacht basin, establishing Morehead City and the Morehead City Yacht Basin as Meccas for blue marlin fishing. During last summer’s Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, the Morehead City Yacht Basin pumped 38,000 gallons of fuel. Matthews says the marina will continue to host the big sportfishing yachts in its latest incarnation.

The new marina is spurring other development along Morehead City’s waterfront. Land around the yacht basin has been bought up to build luxury condominiums and shops and restaurants on the ground floors.

Matthews believes that’s all to the good. “[The Morehead City Yacht Basin] is going to be a good thing for everybody now,” he says. “It’s a huge thing for our city.”