10 Great Boating Towns:
To Retire + Play + Thrive!

By Art Pine

Do you daydream about life after working? Would you like to move to a boating paradise once you're free of the daily grind?

Click here to see the Ten Boating Towns we selected!

Photo of a boats on Traverse Bay Photo: Traverse City Convention Bureau

If you're an avid boater, chances are you've begun thinking about The Dream, to eventually move to a community close to the water, where you can go out on your boat whenever you want. Bill Berens is doing that right now. Early last year, the 70-year-old Fredericksburg, Virginia, powerboater and his wife Pauline bought a two-story house on a Tarpon Springs bayou in Florida, and are about to move Red Duster, their 30-foot Chaparral Express, to a new slip in the Sunshine State.

"We've been thinking about this for 10 or 15 years," says Berens, who's been a weekend boater on Aquia Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River just below Washington, D.C., for three decades. "We decided to make it happen." When the Berenses finally leave the Potomac area, they'll enjoy year-round boating and decidedly lower berthing and maintenance costs. And Bill will be able to fish for red drum, tarpon, snapper, and speckled trout. For land-based services and bigger-city life, Tampa is only a few minutes' drive. "There's easy waterway access to the Gulf of Mexico, and plenty of coves and islands around for picnics," Berens says. "And the water around Tarpon Springs is so clear you can see right down to the bottom" — a welcome contrast to the perennially opaque Potomac.

Choosing Isn't Easy

Berens isn't alone in his enthusiasm for looking for a new place to live after retirement. The number of U.S. workers who leave their current hometowns after completing careers may have declined since the 2007-2008 recession, but 16 percent of baby boomers surveyed by the MetLife Mature Market Institute last year still plan to seek new digs once they stop working full-time. Deciding where to go is the fun part, but also the most challenging.

Photo of boating on the Puget SoundPhoto: Mark Saran

"Do your research thoroughly," says Susan Garland, editor of Kiplinger's Retirement Report, which specializes in post-career planning and decision-making. Overlooking special needs — such as quality medical care or major airports if you're going to travel — can spoil a seemingly good choice, she cautions. In this article, we've suggested 10 cities or small towns across the U.S. that offer good opportunities — and good boating! — for active about-to-retire boaters. Notice we didn't say "the 10 best places to retire." The choices depend heavily on what your own preferences are, what you want out of a community, and what you can afford. Here are tips, based on interviews with financial planners:

List your boating needs for slip space, fuel, supplies, maintenance, repairs, and indoor storage if necessary, and write down what each now costs you. Then compare it with prices in the communities you're considering. Add in your other interests: Are you a fisherman? Do you want to be active in a yacht club or U.S. Power Squadrons, or in a boating-service organization, such as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary?

Surf the Internet. Get phone numbers of key sources, such as the local chamber of commerce, real-estate firms, marinas, marine-supply stores, and boating organizations. If you like what you see on the web, call and ask about the availability, quality, and price of the items that interest you. Check the length of the boating season, climate, and how vulnerable the area is to hurricanes and storms. One useful website is Sperling's Best Places, which lets you enter the name of a community and see basic info on living costs, home prices, job market, and so on. Another, Elder Index (compiled by Wider Opportunities for Women and the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston), provides up-to-date statistics on the cost of housing, health care, transportation, food, and other essentials for the state and county you choose. Find helpful websites in the accompanying sidebar.

Study your finances with a financial planner. A professional will help figure out how much you'll really be able to spend, including moving, slip space, maintenance, repairs, and so on.

It's not just about boating. What does the community offer all retirees? In most areas, living costs generally track with home prices. If they're higher than the national average, everything else is likely to be more expensive. Ask yourself, would I be happy in that town if I didn't have a boat?

Spend time in the community. Visit the local yacht club, chamber of commerce, and some marinas; ask about prices (for slips, standard boat-maintenance tasks, winter storage), boatyard rules about DIY, maintenance, yacht-club membership, and so on. Visit places they recommend. If you're a fisherman, drop into sporting goods stores and chat with fellow anglers. Find a good real-estate agent, and get familiar with the neighborhoods that fit your style and budget. Get out on the water and see where you'll be boating. If you can't bring your boat, charter one for a few days.

"Visiting a community for extended periods is one of the most important things you should do," says Gabi Redford, editorial projects manager who compiles recommendations for potential retirement spots for AARP The Magazine. Ask questions about everything, says Redford, a Chesapeake Bay boater. "Otherwise, you won't know what it's going to be like in your new hometown. You may end up bored out of your mind, and not have suspected that until you've actually moved. If you can, take your boat on your visit to get a realistic idea of what your boating experience in that new community will be like."

Visit several towns or cities. Ask everyone you meet about living costs in that community. What are income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and boat-related taxes like? Will you have to pay an ad valorem tax on your current car or boat when you bring it into the state? Cash outlays almost always exceed expectations.

Photo of a retired couple posing in front of their boatPhoto: Gary Kramer

Be sure your spouse is on board. Kiplinger's Susan Garland warns that unless your husband or wife enjoys boating as much as you, and is likely to be on your vessel as much as you are, you need to make sure that your new homeport will have enough activities to make staying ashore enjoyable. Does your spouse want to work part-time? Go back to college? Pursue hobbies that require, say, an arts-and-crafts center with potters' wheels and kilns? If he or she isn't happy, you won't be, either.

Before you seal the deal, have your spouse, or (even better) a family member who's less keen on your proposal, play the devil's advocate and ask tough questions that you've been avoiding while you've been planning. Consider each question carefully. If you're genuinely satisfied with the answers, then go for it! If you have doubts, stop and deal with them before you go forward.

Surprise! No matter how carefully you plan, you may find things will have changed from the way they looked before you retired. This happened to Vince Verneuil, a Fullerton, California, computer scientist, when he moved to Port Townsend, Washington. There, he discovered boating! Vince hadn't gotten interested in boating while still working full-time. But when he and his wife Mary Ann moved to Port Townsend, the Verneuils found they delighted in boat trips to the San Juan Islands and nearby harbors, and bought a 47-foot Maine Cat twin-engine catamaran. Last year, they and Sweet Spot were regulars in a 10- to 15-vessel flotilla that cruised Puget Sound, and Vince served as the yacht club's commodore. "There's not another boating area that can match Port Townsend!" he says enthusiastically.

Today's retirees are a far more energetic and fit population than at any time in our country's history. The 10 communities we feature this month are just a few of the interesting American retirement destinations for this vigorous new generation of boaters. We invite you to send us your own ideas about communities that stack up to these 10, and in a follow-up article, we'll write about more great places for active boaters to live. Write to Magazine@BoatUS.com, and put "Retirement" in the subject line. Meanwhile, enjoy a vicarious escape by imagining yourself living and boating in each of these 10 great destinations. 

Avid boater Art Pine is a freelance writer and former correspondent for several major newspapers.

— Published: June/July 2013

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