It was 1998 when Bruce Popham motored into the Middle Keys on his 46-foot Hatteras looking to begin the next chapter of his life after 20 years in the corporate world with S.E. Johnson. Before long, he had joined Marathon’s Economic Development Council (where he would meet his wife-to-be Sherry). And, not long after that, he purchased the Marathon Boat Yard from the VanBeuren family. At the time it was mainly a storage yard with a grand total of three employees.
The first thing that had to change, Bruce decided, was … oh, everything, including the entire industry.
“Back then almost every yard in the Keys was a do-it-yourself type operation, or you would hire subcontractors to come in and work on your boat while it was ‘on the hard,’” he said. “I wanted to offer comprehensive service. I wanted to offer the best service. And I wanted to put in place best management services.”
Sherry said, “I think we were the first boat yard in the Keys to have a computer, the first to offer professional estimates.”
Today, Marathon Boat Yard Marine Service is a thriving big business in a small town. With 25 employees and $10 million in sales, the expertise runs from the options on brand-new Parkers to the minutia of repairing expensive GPS units. It has haul-out service plus thousands of feet of seawall to accommodate more than 150 boats in the water and up on cradles.
“I think the key to our success is that we have the most qualified and comprehensive marine repair team ever assembled in the Keys,” said Sherry.
It is a true working boat yard in the sense that it serves a wide array of clients and their vessels — from luxury 70-foot sportsfishermen to lobster boats to little dinghies. It also services the boats of agencies ranging from the National Marine Sanctuary to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
The Pophams think the property, located on the Oceanside of Marathon at the mouth of the Boot Key Channel, started its life as a boatyard back in 1959. But the first person to live on the property was also Marathon’s first postmaster. (The offices of the Marathon Boat Yard Marine Center are in the original Conch house-slash-office of A.E. Woodburn. He was also instrumental in starting the electric cooperative and the San Pablo Church.)
After Bruce purchased the property in the late ’90s, he immediately saw the need to expand. The first acquisition was Cadiz Diesel.
“We bought the equipment and hired his guys,” said Bruce.
Then it was the junkyard next door where the sales yard of new boats is now. Marathon Boat Yard moved its sales office into the old West Marine when that franchise built new on the other side of the yard. Somewhere in all of that, Bruce also acquired the Sue Moore historic home. It sat, up on blocks, in the yard for years until he connected with Marathon developer Brian Schmitt who moved it again. The business also acquired the mangrove just behind and to the west of the yard.
“It has no use, but it was filled with garbage,” said Bruce of the property purchased for the sum of back taxes owed. The Pophams negotiated with the City of Marathon to waive the accumulating fines in lieu of cleaning it up.
“We pulled a couple tons of debris out of the mangrove and hauled it off,” Sherry said.
The cleanup of the mangrove is just one small instance of Marathon Boat Yard’s civic involvement. Besides the day-to-day operations of fixing and selling boats, its principals believe in four core principles affordable housing for Marathon’s workforce, state-of-the-art training for marine professionals, protecting the Keys environment, and preserving a working waterfront. To that end, both Bruce and Sherry have participated in a host of initiatives and partnerships to make that happen. The list of boards the two serve is impressive including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Board.
By utilizing a state program where sales tax can be diverted to a certified non-profit, Marathon Boat Yard has been instrumental in building five Habitat for Humanity homes in Marathon.
Bruce and Sherry have helped develop the protocols from everything to pump-out service, to clean marina certification, to best practices for marine repair facilities.
They have partnered with the local high schools, the college and Yamaha for the creation of marine mechanic training. And they are proud to claim that four of its mechanics are ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) certified.
“Our employees have defined this business,” said Sherry.
“They are exceptional people, top notch,” said Bruce.
That’s not to say it has all been calm seas. Bruce said his initial plan was to run the yard for 10 years and then sell it — but fate intervened with a nationwide recession. And it’s a risky business.
“Believe me, your heart is in your throat when there’s a $5 million yacht in the sling,” said Sherry. “It’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
The Pophams and Marathon Boat Yard have also survived two hurricanes — Wilma and Irma. Through a herculean effort of the employees, the yard opened just five days after Hurricane Irma. It took hours and hours to cut loose a trawler from the other end of the harbor that wedged itself into the travel lift. Of the 160 boats in the yard, only seven sustained damage. The Pophams attribute that record to three reasons:
“One, we were lucky. Two, because of the direction of the storm, Boot Key took the brunt and slowed the surge,” said Sherry. “And three, we have the most experienced yacht crews in the Keys. They know how to block and chain, how to set everything up right.”
“We had well-exercised plan,” said Bruce.
Running a boatyard isn’t simple, and it isn’t easy. It begs the question why.
“Well, my background is as a registered nurse. I went from sick people to sick boats,” Sherry said, laughing.
“And I am an avid boater. It used to drive me crazy when I would get my boat repaired and it would be returned to me filthy,” said Bruce.
What’s next? Well, there is reportedly an offer on the table to buy Marathon Boat Yard Marine Center; more details to come.