By Dave Vardaman | Photography by Dave Shelikoff
Nestled within the bay community of Niceville, Florida, lies a quiet marina that has served as the area’s focal point for more than thirty years. It is now ushering in its third generation of “water fowl,” people who have come to rely on the marina harbor, as a place to enjoy the sunset, a shelter from storms, and a setting for connecting with old friends or making new ones. What is this little piece of heaven? Bluewater Bay Marina.
To understand the marina, you first need to understand the community that it serves. Niceville, positioned along the north shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay, is a classic bay-front community made up of families that are connected by their love of the water. It has a simple, laid-back lifestyle where dressing up is defined as wearing your fancy flip-flops and a belt, and where local boys enjoy a Friday night by gigging for flounder after the high school baseball or football game. It is a place where the tunes of Jimmy Buffett are second only to the national anthem. People who are accustomed to being around water are drawn to the area, whether they are longtime residents or transplants by way of retirement or military duty. The joys of fishing, powerboating, sailing, or swimming in the calm bay waters are a common thread for all ages. This lifestyle is not only endorsed by the Bluewater Bay Marina, but it is also in the very blood of its owners. And that is where the story begins, in 1980.
From his neighborhood across the bayou, Ray Hinely, a soon-to-be-retired Air Force fighter pilot, was excited to see a community marina under construction for area residents. A lifelong seafarer who grew up sailing in his hometown of Miami, Ray paid a visit to the developer and asked if the marina might need help with boating sales and expertise. In that timely meeting, he learned that a harbormaster had not yet been chosen, and the developer asked Ray if he might be interested in the position. It was a pivotal moment and there was no looking back. The decorated Vietnam veteran, with his wife and four children, had found life’s next adventure. Ray’s first office—his own sailboat, with the finest equipment available in 1980—was soon docked at the marina, with a telephone line running from shore and a lawn chair for conducting business on the dock. Little could Ray have imagined that this new opportunity would become the epicenter for his family, and the community, for generations to come.
As you can imagine, the early days were quite slow. The construction of 5,500 homesites for future families was just getting under way and would continue for years to come. While Ray brought the marina online, his school-aged children worked weekends and summers helping out, while his wife, “Be,” ran the marina store. As the years passed, the children took on greater responsibilities and became more involved in the daily operations. And when Mother Nature’s bad mood showed up, it was all hands on deck. One boat improperly secured during a hurricane or heavy storm could spell disaster for the rest of the pack. As storms ran their cycles of changing wind directions and tidal surges, the Hinelys stood vigilant watch to make necessary adjustments to boat moorings. And it wasn’t just the Hinelys; neighbors—many of whom didn’t even own a boat—came down to the marina to lend a hand or provide a meal as the “militia” rode out the storm for a few days. In fair weather or poor, the marina galvanized the community.
Over the years, and by sheer happenstance, children and grandchildren became the primary operators of the marina. Even the old family dog, who roamed the docks for more than a decade, is immortalized—the dockside bar, Schooner’s, carries his name.
As the Hinely children matured, they never lost their connection with the marina. Other jobs and opportunities presented themselves over the years: one child served in the military, one sold and delivered yachts to boaters east of the Mississippi River, one served as a boat captain, and one moved to Tampa. But without fail, at some point or another, you would find them back on the docks, usually providing guidance on proper boating methods to their own children. Over the years, and by sheer happenstance, children and grandchildren became the primary operators of the marina. Even the old family dog, who roamed the docks for more than a decade, is immortalized—the dockside bar, Schooner’s, carries his name.
Over the years, the marina evolved, as did the local area. More and more people discovered the enjoyable lifestyle of the bay area and chose to make it their home. Some growth came from the local Air Force base and some as a product of the 1993 installation of the Mid-Bay Bridge, which provided a direct path to Destin’s white sandy beaches. The local military influence evolved as foreign servicemen from as far away as Australia came to the area for training classes. Yet, somehow, the marina’s character changed very little. Sure, the docks were expanded and a high-and-dry boat storage facility was added, but the family essence remained. And that is where we stand today, thirty short years from its inception.
Local shrimp boats still begin their voyages with a visit to the marina to load up on fuel and boat supplies. After work on Wednesdays, local sailors still hold their weekly regatta and then rally at Schooner’s to boast of their sailing acumen. And on Saturday nights, football fans watch the broadcast of their respective alma maters while enjoying the splendid view of the sun saying farewell through the sixty-foot-high long-leaf pines that dot the passageway into the marina. As a true measure of harmony, even fans of rival schools sit side by side and socialize as their teams compete. If you don’t recognize the significance of such unique civility, you need someone to explain the emotions involved in the rivalries of Florida State vs. Florida and Alabama vs. Auburn! Regardless of the season, you will find a blended crowd drawn to the marina. On any given weekend, you are likely to see a military promotion celebration, a boy and a girl on their first date, or a class reunion (scheduled or impromptu) reliving old times at the same place they spent their childhoods … the Bluewater Bay Marina.
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To get to Bluewater Bay marina, here's how you do it:
If coming by sea, the natural cove marina is located on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, three miles north of the Intracoastal Waterway and seven and one-half miles northeast of Destin.
If coming by land, from Highway 20, Niceville, enter at the Bluewater Bay sign at Bay Drive. Follow Bay Drive until it dead-ends at the Bluewater Bay Marina Complex.
Dave Vardaman has been a Niceville resident or visitor since the early 1980s.