Shelter Cove harbormaster to retire, but not sail into the sunset

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 18, 2014 

Dave Harris


Dave Harris is picking up anchor.

He has been harbormaster at Shelter Cove Marina on Hilton Head Island since 1983.

When he got the job, the marina was a hole in the ground with a lot of digging going on.

There were no Mediterranean-themed buildings with restaurants, shops and condominiums at water's edge. King Neptune, the 12-foot bronze sundial, was not in place. Shannon Tanner was not yet singing to children, and there were no fireworks every Tuesday night.

Harris retires this month as head of a 170-slip marina surrounded by a non-gated community gathering place that's part of Palmetto Dunes Resort.

"It's not working out for me," he joked. "I guess I've got to go find a real job."

It is unreal, when you consider he was reared in landlocked Wyoming.

Somewhere in the land of cowboys, Harris got the idea to sail around the world.

"I'm not quite sure where that urge came from," he said.

He got a book and learned how to sail in the comfort of his own home.

After nine years as a Marine Corps infantry officer that included two tours in Vietnam, Harris and his new bride, Chris, set out to circle the globe in a 32-foot sailboat. In four years, they sailed from the Chesapeake Bay to South America.

"We weren't exactly in a hurry," he said. "If you've got a schedule on a boat, you're in trouble."

The boat had no electronics. They sailed by the stars and the sun. He said his depth-finder was the keel. Rarely did they stay in a marina. Boating is much different today, Harris said.

Somewhere in the Caribbean, they met Hilton Head Islanders Charles Cauthen and Al Bullard and their families.

That's how they eventually got to Hilton Head, where they've raised three children, and where Chris is an administrator at Sea Pines Montessori Academy.

Harris, 70, is picking up anchor at his job, but with three grandchildren living in Bluffton, Dave and Chris Harris aren't budging from the pluff mud of home. He jokes that his next job might be fry cook, or brain surgeon.

He said he leaves with boating in good shape on Hilton Head. Over the years, he has watched trends evolve, generally moving from smaller to larger boats. He saw the cruise and charter businesses grow. He saw his marina become a place that was always full, with a waiting list.

Then he saw the recession of 2007 and 2008 trouble the waters. The first thing many people did was get rid of their boats. He said the market has bottomed out and is coming back, but it may never be what it once was.

He's seen the original engineering on the marina work so well that it has had to be dredged only once.

But mostly, he's seen a parade of people.

"Some rich characters end up on the water," Harris said. "I wish I'd kept a log."

He said they're good people.

They are people pulled by a tide so strong it can reach all the way to Wyoming.

They are pulled, he said, by a sense of freedom.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at

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