Changing of the Guard

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Marina manager’s retirement signals end of an era for Beaufort

By MINDY LUCAS

Rick Griffin’s father had been running the downtown marina for nearly a decade when Griffin returned home to Beaufort in 1974.

A new graduate with a degree in administration management from Clemson, Griffin intended to work for his father who also owned and operated the adjoining service station, though his father wasn’t so sure his firstborn son was up to the task.

“I wasn’t that good of a student,” Griffin said recently from his corner office in the small, red-brick building in the marina parking lot.

Now, nearly 45 years later, and after a career that has seen everything from freak storms, to celebrity sailors and million dollar yachts, Griffin is hanging up his hat as marina manager. 

When the Beaufort native retires this week, it will be the end of an era – not only for Beaufort but for the Griffin family as well.

Dallas-based marina operations company Safe Harbor will take over the marina’s operations as approved by the city in May, and for the first time since 1946, there won’t be a Griffin on the property.

But the 67-year-old Griffin said he’s made his peace with that. He’s ready to retire and move on to other things.

“I guess you just know when it’s time,” he said. 

Built from Scratch

Outside of storm damage, little has changed about the marina since it was built in the mid ‘60s, Griffin said. He was 12 when work to fill in the parking lot began, he remembers.

His father, John Griffin Sr. – Rick is actually John Myrick Griffin Jr. – came to Beaufort in 1946 to take over the lease of the Sinclair Service Station, a white block building that once stood atop Freedom Mall, on Bay Street.

His father eventually bought the marina business but went on to sell it back to the city in 1975, which was in the midst of creating the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. The Griffins, or Griffin Enterprises, Inc., has leased it since.

“We really built the place up from scratch,” Griffin said.

After the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center moved out in the ‘90s, the marina store and offices, once in the building where the laundry and showers are now, moved into the brick building next door, causing little disruption.

The storm, however, was another thing.

Blowing up suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, the ’93 Superstorm, or Storm of the Century, as it was also called, hit Beaufort along with most of the Eastern Seaboard on March 14, 1993.

With hurricane-force winds, the storm dumped snow as far south as Alabama, caused heavy flooding and storm surge around the southeast and left millions without power. More than 270 people died as a result of the storm.

Out on Fripp Island where Griffin lived at the time, he decided to try calling the marina.

“It was snowing sideways,” he said. “In March.”

After the phone rang for what seemed like too long to be a good sign, an overwhelmed employee finally answered.

“I’m on my way,” Griffin said and hung up.

He would spend the rest of the afternoon in his own 23-foot, fully covered Mako, towing and helping to move sailboats away from the splintering docks.

The marina docks were totally destroyed but would eventually be rebuilt – this time with a “T-head” added to its end.

A View to the World

From his modest, back-corner office tucked in at the back of the marina store, Griffin has had a front row seat to possibly one of the most interesting spots for people and boat-watching in Beaufort.

Just outside his window, where the original seawall once stood, across a sliver of parking lot, sits the marina with its gleaming white boats – just one stop along the 1,100-mile Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway or the I-95 of waterways, as Griffin calls it.

However Beaufort’s marina is unique, he says, since it’s one of the few stops where visitors can hop out of their boat and be in the middle of a thriving downtown complete with historic sights, places to eat and things to do.

In the fall, traffic heads south along the waterway toward Florida as boaters head for warmer locales. In the spring, it reverses as boaters head back northeast.

“We’ve seen everything from derelicts bumming their way up the waterway to multi-million dollar yachts in here,” Griffin said.

In fact, the marina has harbored visitors from all over the world from boat captains or crews moving someone else’s boat to owners moving their own boat, to people who have sold their homes and are living off their boat.

Griffin has even met Jimmy Buffett, who used to frequent the area on his fishing boat, as well as legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite.

“He had a nice sailboat,” Griffin remembers.

While the marina currently has 55 tenants, or boats staying on a long-term basis, on a busy day in the fall or spring, that number can swell to 100 from additional waterway traffic just passing through.

“Many people don’t realize just how much money comes in off that dock and is left here in Beaufort,” he said.

A Good Life

Now that retirement is imminent, Griffin and his wife, Mandy, plan to spend more time at their second home in Clemson. To say orange runs through his veins would be an understatement.

He’s served on several boards for the university, is president and chairman of Clemson’s IPTAY executive committee, and currently serves on the university’s foundation board.

He’s also served or belonged to a half-dozen local organizations such as Main Street Beaufort, USA and the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce. In addition, he belongs to another half dozen state or international organizations such as the S.C. Marine Association and the International Marina Institute.

Not bad for someone once considered an average student.

His wife, Mandy Griffin, who manages the marina store, will also retire this week.

A University of South Carolina graduate with a degree in business – something Griffin likes to point out since she went to “that other school” – has been setting the pace in the front of the store for 22 years. The store, he said, brings in a third of the marina’s revenue and sells tickets for area attractions. 

Leaving the business behind will be hard, she said, but she’s looking forward to having more time for football season at Clemson this fall.

“I thought I’d be consoling him,” she said. “As it turns out, I’m the big baby.”

In addition to all the employees, she’ll miss being on the “front lines” at the marina.

“I feel like we’re a virtual visitors center here,” she said.

For Griffin, he believes he’s had more anxiety over retiring than turning over the keys to a new owner, mainly because he thinks the new owner will do a good job.

“I think the marina is in good hands,” he said.

The largest owner and operator of marinas in the world, according to its website, Safe Harbor has three marinas in Charleston and plans to buy Port Royal Landing at Skull Creek are “in the works” said Jeff Rose, Safe Harbor’s Vice President of Business Development, when reached by phone recently.

Outside of future improvements and repairs, the company has no plans to make immediate changes to the marina before getting to know the community and the marina, Rose said. It also plans to keep all current employees on hand.

Still, it will be a big change for Griffin who’s been planning and saving for this day since “the first IRA,” he said. He still has his health and has things he’d like to do, he added.

“I’ve enjoyed the ride. I have,” he said. “Overall, it’s been a good life. I tell people I’m not getting rich, but I’m not look for another job either. I’m just moving on to something else.”

 

Photo by Bob Sofaly

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