Story by George Newman and Photography by John Kite
You won’t stumble onto BluHaven Piers by accident. The marina and kayak sales business lies on the shore of Jutland Creek, in the southern reaches of St. Mary’s County, a couple of turns off Route 5 in the hamlet of Ridge. The closest thing to a population center is St. Mary’s College, a few miles north. That’s as it should be, because St. Mary’s is in large measure responsible for the existence of BluHaven.
Although BluHaven has been in business just three years, its roots trace to 1980 when an economist named Bluford Putnam took a year-long break from Wall Street to teach at St. Mary’s. Blu Putnam promptly fell in love with Southern Maryland. He bought property in the area and joined the St. Mary’s College Foundation Board of Directors. As Putnam rose to greater prominence in the world of finance-writing five books, founding his own research firm-he maintained his ties to Southern Maryland. In 2006, when a “for sale” sign appeared on a dilapidated marina on Jutland Creek, Putnam saw an opportunity, not only for himself but also for two recent St. Mary’s grads.
As undergraduates, Darden Pickall and Dan Sweeney had done odd jobs for Putnam. “I liked both guys,” Putnam said, “but more important, I trusted them. I told Dan and Darden, ‘You guys can come and run it, but I got to tell you, it’s a fixer-upper.’”
It’s been fixed up. Environmental hazards, such as an asphalt parking lot on the edge of the creek, are replaced by newly planted grasses to control shoreline erosion. Their goal is to have BluHaven meet the rigid standards for Maryland’s “Clean Marina” certification. The environment also is the focus of kayak tours organized by BluHaven under the auspices of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The tours are open to everyone, not just BluHaven customers, and are guided by another St. Mary’s graduate, Chris Cifone, manager of BluHaven’s marine store.
Those who just want a kayak for recreation can buy or rent one from BluHaven, which features the foot-powered “Mirage Drive” kayaks made by Hobie. BluHaven offers prospective buyers an instant test drive. The operation boasts a floating dock, and the placid creek allows a stress-free tryout although the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay are nearby.
Bluhaven sells only Hobie kayaks and doesn’t sell sailboats, except Hobie’s “Adventure Island” model that is filled with outriggers and is designed to carry a sail, even though it also has the Mirage Drive. Moreover, a sail can be installed on any of the kayaks, which range in length from 9 to 16 feet and are made from a single piece of molded plastic. Prices range from less than $500 for a basic conventional (paddle) kayak to $1,550 or more for a one-person Mirage Drive to about $2,500 for a Mirage Drive built for two. Adventure Island Models run up to $4,700.
BluHaven hasn’t always enjoyed smooth sailing. When it opened for business in 2007, the national economic boom was turning to bust. “It’s been a tough three years for the whole industry,” Sweeney said. “Recreation [is what] people stop doing first.”
Still, Sweeney said, the 50 slips are about two-thirds full, with the sailboat slips almost all occupied, and kayak sales and rentals are brisk.
Marina customers come from all over North America, some of them staying on their boats for long periods. “We’ve got a community growing here,” Sweeney says.
It’s a community with reason to be grateful that 30 years ago, St. Mary’s College invited a Wall Street economist to come teach for a year.
Directions to BluHaven Piers and much more information can be found at www.bluhavenpiers.com.