Finding a Marina for Your Sailboat; It's Personal

Find the right marina for you and your boat.

Over the last 14 years, my husband and I have signed annual contracts with five different marinas in the Chesapeake region. That’s an average stay of 2.3 years per marina, though our longest residency lasted five years. We owned two different boats during that time, and the decision-making that preceded marina selections varied due to shifting priorities as we became more seasoned sailors. 

Selecting a marina is a highly personal choice. 

Selecting a marina is a highly personal choice. There are many factors to consider besides overall costs, and criteria will inevitably change as life on land and water evolves. When we bought our first cruiser, I had mostly sailed J/22 engineless keelboats and had never docked a longer boat under power. Finding a marina with an easy approach for less stressful docking was high on the priority list. Fourteen years later I’m a licensed captain and adept at docking but will still give a thumbs up to a well-positioned slip.

When looking for a new home for your boat, marina websites are a good first step before in-person visits. Consider the following before shortlisting candidates:

Geographic Location

Think practically about the ideal marina location, including: 

  • Sailing distance to interesting destinations or races. Racers may select marinas based on distance to races they participate in, while cruisers may choose a marina more centrally located to preferred gunkholes. 
  • Driving distance to boat including traffic at peak hours. For those who work nine to five, sailing may be limited to short evening sails or weekend cruises. Consider evening commute times and potential summer weekend traffic when roads are shared with beach goers. 
  • Congestion on the water. If you are new to boating, it may be wise to avoid marinas on busy waterways to limit challenges as you learn to handle your boat. 
  • Proximity to professional services and a chandlery. If quick access to professionals or parts is a priority, you might highlight marinas that are located near desirable resources. Off-premise contractors may charge travel time if too distant. 

Marina Attributes

Once geographic boundaries are established, assess what type of marina makes sense for the intended use of your boat. Annual slip costs vary greatly due to location as well as marina amenities. Liveaboards will have additional criteria since many marinas limit or deny slips to those who want to live full-time on their boat. Captains who want to run charters from their boat need to inquire if business use is allowed. Other considerations include:

  • Posh marina with amenities or basic boatyard. Some marinas offer a variety of amenities including pools and well-appointed shower facilities, while others function more as a working boatyard with basic restrooms. Since “you get what you pay for,” be sure you will use the amenities if opting for an upscaled marina. Access to easy parking is an added consideration.
  • Travelift: Not all marinas have the capability to haul boats for winter storage, hurricane warnings, or needed maintenance. If haul-outs are important, inquire about sizes and lift availability. Some marinas offer several free haul-outs with an annual slip contract, so factor that into cost comparisons.
  • Access to qualified contractors or do-it-yourself (DIY). Some marinas don’t allow DIY projects but can connect you to qualified professionals or their own staff. Other marinas allow you to do your own work if you follow environmental guidelines and abide by noise restrictions.

Your Boat and Boathandling Skills

As you begin to shortlist candidates, take a closer look at marinas that will ideally accommodate your boat and your boathandling skills. As you visit marinas to review available slips, consider:

  • Length, beam, and draft. While it may seem obvious, the size of your future slip must accommodate your length overall (LOA), including dinghy davits and bowsprits, and boat width. The depth of water approaching the slip, and in the slip, must be considered including extremes due to weather events (when water blows out of the Bay) or unusual tides.
  • Prevailing wind direction. Some marinas are tucked away offering protection from high winds, while others are more exposed. One of our marinas was so sheltered that even if it was blowing 20 knots on the Bay, winds were usually less than seven knots in our fairway.
  • Ease of getting in and out of slip. This is especially important if you or your crew are new to boating or handling a larger boat. If the marina cannot provide a dimensional slip layout, check satellite images and pace off distances at the marina, estimating the widths of alleys especially if you need to turn around or back down. 
  • Ease of getting on/off the boat. Not all slips are created equal. With long piers, sailors can easily reach lines to secure the boat, safely board crew, and load provisions. Finger piers are more challenging, and some can be extremely short, making it difficult to board crew with physical limitations.
  • Bow-in or stern-in. We prefer privacy when relaxing in our cockpit, so we dock bow-in, though we often need longer cables to reach the electrical pedestal. Other boats, especially catamarans, prefer stern-in.
  • On-site storage. When walking the marina, note whether storage bins are allowed at the ends of slips, and if there are dinghy launch ramps and storage racks. 

sailboat in marina slip
Considerations when selecting a marina include ease of getting on/off the boat and ease of getting in and out of the slip.

Final Considerations

Once you have narrowed your search, ask for detailed lists of all costs associated with your preferred slips, including electrical and water. Request a sample contract and ask about insurance requirements. Then, consider these additional factors before making your final decision:

  • Security. Before signing a contract, it’s important to understand what security measures your marina takes to protect your boat, especially if located in a busy public area. Are there gates and do they lock? Are there cameras? Are the docks well-lit? Do staff regularly walk the docks and check on boats? If you are out of town, will the marina look after your boat during your absence?
  • Proximity to amenities and conveniences. When selecting a slip, note distances to the bathhouse, carts, parking, and other amenities. It’s also helpful to locate nearby fuel docks and pump-out stations or boats.
  • Social activities. If you are a social butterfly, inquire about activities and sponsored events. Many marinas offer regular gatherings to meet boat neighbors and transients.
  • Keeping your boat clean. When walking potential marinas, note the cleanliness of docks and boats. Bird droppings, staining autumn leaves, and vehicle exhaust from nearby roads can directly affect how often you must thoroughly clean your boat.

Once you’ve shortlisted marinas and reviewed costs, it’s time to decide. Some marinas offer calendar year contracts while others might offer April to March or one year from the date of signing. Sailors with boats exceeding 40 feet LOA or a five-foot draft may want to expedite decision-making since many marinas have a limited number of slips for longer or deeper boats.

Whatever you decide, remember that your boat will soon settle into her new slip and both of you will enjoy the Chesapeake for another sailing season. Before you know it, it will be time to renew your contract or relocate to yet another beautiful corner in the land of pleasant living. Search Chesapeake marinas by amenities, slip size, lift tonage, and more.

by Captain Cheryl Duvall

About the Author: Captain Cheryl Duvall is a USCG Licensed Master, Inland 100 GRT, and the program director for the Chesapeake Area Professional Captains Association (CAPCA). She recently returned from 101 days at sea from Annapolis to Maine and back on her Gozzard 44 Belle Bateau:

A Cruiser's Dilemma: Marina Slip Renewal

boats at anchor
View from high on a  hill in Northeast Harbor, ME, at the edge of Acadia National Park. Photo by Cheryl Duvall

At the beginning of last year, we did not renew our slip contract despite enjoying our marina. We had planned an extended coastal cruise to Maine and did not want to pay marina costs when we would be absent for most of the sailing season. Since we were not heading north until early June, we needed to find a temporary home for one month after spring contractors completed their work where our boat was hauled.

We researched transient rates and signed on at a marina conveniently close to our house.

Monthly transient rates are typically reduced compared to daily or weekly rates. However, we optimistically estimated when our boat would be splashed, and the clock started ticking at our slip before the contractors were done. We ended up paying for 10 days we could not use which also delayed our departure date. After refusing to adjust the dates of our contract, the marina offered us an additional week at the prorated monthly rate. We also considered snagging a mooring ball in the Annapolis Harbor since the daily rate was similar, but we did not like the idea of dinghying back and forth with supplies.

Fast forward to the fall when we returned to Annapolis just before the Sailboat Show. We needed a temporary boat home again until we hauled out for the winter. We had been warned to make transient reservations early due to boat show madness, so in July we secured and pre-paid another monthly transient slip at the same temporary marina, though in a less desirable slip than in the spring. The overall timing worked out. We saved a few thousand dollars by not renewing our slip contract at our prior marina. However, when we inquired about returning for 2024, they had no available slips for our boat size, so once again we must find a new home for our boat. Ah, such is the cruising life. Every decision has its risks and rewards. Thankfully, the Chesapeake region has abundant slip choices. ~C.D