When Hurricane Sally hit the US Gulf Coast in September 2020, Zeke’s Landing Marina in Orange Beach, Alabama lay directly in its path. While it incurred substantial damage, a dedicated team armed with ambitious plans saw the marina reopen just eight months later. Charlotte Niemiec invites marina owner, Lynne Swafford, to talk shop.
Orange Beach, Alabama is well known as a water sports hub, with year-round warm weather, soft white sand, seafood galore and plenty of activities, such as sailing and dolphin spotting, to explore. A hub of maritime activity in the area for more than three decades, the marina offers the largest charter fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, along with its sister sites Sportsman Marina and San Roc Cay Marina. The marina, which was established in 1988 to build upon its premier restaurant that opened three years earlier, has always focused on charter fishing boats, reserving its wet slips for private boats. When Hurricane Sally battered Orange Beach with 110mph (177kph) winds, it devastated the region and obliterated many parts of the marina. Only the category 5 hurricane-rated, 220 slip dry storage building stood firm against the storm as the team helplessly watched Sally sweep away all the docks and the dock store. Undeterred, the team began to rebuild and successfully reopened the dock store in April – just seven months later. The docks reopened a month after that and a redesigned restaurant in September 2022. The marina’s revamped facilities now boast a reconstructed office, a dockside gift and apparel shop, and an event centre, all fortified with state-of-the-art infrastructure designed to hold up against the strongest storm. With its new lease of life, the team envisions the marina becoming a year-round business rather than a seasonal one, as it seeks to expand its operations, introduce more activities to foster stronger relationships with customers and extend its conservation efforts beyond the marina’s immediate environs. “The focus will be on fish conservation, reef restoration programmes and making conservation a lifestyle rather than an effort,” Lynne Swafford explains. Lessons learned The speed and quality of the reconstruction effort stands as a testament to the team’s collective dedication as it rallied to bring supplies together against all odds. Learning valuable lessons from the rebuilding process, Zeke’s Landing prioritised strategies that would “future-proof” the marina in the event of further hurricanes. “Predicting storm strength is challenging, so we went beyond current codes,” Swafford says. “We introduced breakaway pilings to minimise the impact on infrastructure if a boat breaks a piling. We revised our hurricane plan to make it mandatory for boats to leave Orange Beach if it is in the cone of a named storm. We installed larger pilings, relocated our dock store and improved our drainage systems. We enhanced our fuel system with triple-walled tanks and reduced the fuel lines by 400ft [122m]. We brought the entire property up to code and exceeded code in most aspects.” Additionally, the marina doubled its parking capacity by obtaining city approval to rezone the adjacent property. “This reconstruction not only restored our physical infrastructure but also reinforced our commitment to growth and to provide a resilient and high-quality experience at Zeke’s Landing,” Swafford says. Staying afloat throughout Despite the challenges – and without any grants or financial assistance – Zeke’s Landing managed to keep its customers satisfied during the reconstruction phase. It brought in temporary facilities such as floating docks, portable fuel stations, power sources, restrooms and offices. It did so even as the reconstruction effort overlapped with COVID, causing disruptions in the supply chain and construction delays resulting from labour shortages. Today, the full-service marina once again offers 220 drystack storage spaces and 57 wet slips accommodating a wide range of sizes from 24-65ft (7-20m), on two 300ft (91m) floating docks and two fixed pier systems. “We offer fuel at each slip and for dry storage at the launch, including premium fuel. However, we do not provide pump-out services,” Swafford confirms. Although it is not equipped for superyachts, the marina can comfortably accommodate boats up to 67ft (20m) and it has two Wiggins Marina Bull boat hoists and a 1994 Taylor 90 Forklift. The marina is now operating at full capacity with an extensive waiting list since 2019, reflecting its enduring popularity. Zeke’s Landing takes pride in its comprehensive amenities and services, featuring outdoor bars, a full-service restaurant, a dock store, charter fishing, bait and ice delivery, fuel services, fish cleaning stations, an event venue, dolphin cruises, haul-out service, showers, on-site boat maintenance, cleaning and detailing. Its revamped restaurant – now adorned with paraphernalia from the storm, such as fishing rods – reopened last September, along with a new event venue. The marina’s commitment to security is evident through 24/7 personnel, an IP security system, padlocked access and video surveillance. In terms of environmental responsibility, Zeke’s Landing has implemented advanced initiatives, including an underground drainage system for the entire property and plans to add a triple stack storage to increase its dry rack slips by 100. Staff members are trained to identify and respond to oil or fuel releases, with spill kits readily available on the dock. The marina participates in regular trash pickups and disposal services, emphasising its conscientious approach to day-to-day operations. Zeke’s Landing’s story stands as a testament to its resilience, innovation, and commitment to providing an unparalleled maritime experience in the face of both natural disasters and global challenges.