Each year I visit Walton County in the Florida panhandle where the best U.S. Gulf of Mexico beaches are located. South Walton County features 26 miles of pristine sugar-white beaches.
But it’s not all fun-in-the-sun when I make the five-hour drive from New Orleans once or twice each year. The panhandle is also the home of several workboat yards, which I usually visit each time I make the trip. My first stop along the way is often at Patti Marine Enterprises in Pensacola, Fla., located about three-and-a-half hours from New Orleans, or an hour west of where I stay in Walton County. I normally make my final stop at the biggest workboat shipyard in the panhandle, Eastern Shipbuilding, located a few miles east of Walton County in Panama City.
Up until 2009, I would also visit Freeport Shipbuilding, the only yard of the three located in Walton County. The shipyard had been in business since 1978, and although the yard built a variety of boats it was best known for building passenger vessels.
But during the recession in 2009, yard owner Jim Murray closed the seven-acre shipyard. He said the move was “one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.”
But then Stuart Reeves, a close friend and former customer of Murray’s who had four 140′ to 160′ crewboats built at Freeport beginning in 1999 (one, the Miss Linda Lee, is pictured left), wanted to build two more fast supply boats. Reeves, president of Starfleet Marine Transportation in Mount Pleasant, S.C., asked Murray to be a consultant for his newbuilds. So they went to several different yards, but the bids came back higher than what was anticipated.
So Murray told Reeves that if he wanted to build the boats, “the shipyard’s here, most of the equipment’s here, we could start it back up.” Reeves agreed, and Murray leased Reeves the yard and equipment and agreed to run the yard for him. The former Freeport Shipbuilding reopened last year as Gulfstream Shipbuilding with Murray as its general manager.
For, Murray he has enjoyed getting back into the business. For me, I look forward to visiting Jim and his yard again when I return to the panhandle in May.
Editor’s note: Correspondent Dale DuPont contributed to this blog.