Blaine West Marine Express store manager Deb Morley talks to a customer, Blaine liveaboard Peter Van Schenk. Photo by Jack Kintner.
Every year the West Marine retail boat store chain gathers up its thousand or so store managers from across North America to give them a combination pep talk and training on new marine products. The meeting is known as West Marine University.
Every year or two, one of the managers is chosen for an award based on the kind of peer recognition that can only come from colleagues who know the work and when it’s being done well.
Called the Community Steward Award, it can’t be applied for, so winners don’t even know they’ve been nominated until the award is announced.
This year’s recipient was Debbie Morley, manager of the Blaine West Marine Express store on Peace Portal Drive.
Morley said she was as surprised as anyone when her name was called. “We’d been doing a skit as part of the evening’s program and I still had this blue wig on,” she laughed.
Afterward, she got a lot of slaps on the back but said then as she does now, “There are a lot of people whose work went into this. We have some great employees. That, and the way West Marine sets up the administrative end of things, means Blaine can have its own local marine store.”
Between the Blaine and Semiahmoo marinas, Blaine is home to nearly 1,000 boats, plus those that live on trailers in their owners’ yards. Though they do sell small boats and kayaks, West Marine’s focus is on all the other equipment needed to safely enjoy the water.
Morley has managed the West Marine boating store since it opened on June 18, 2003. In an economic climate where just keeping the door of a local business open is an accomplishment, Morley has succeeded by making the specialty store the center of the local boating community.
The store works closely with the Bellingham squadron of the United States Power Squadron, the local flotilla of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Sea Scouts and the three area yacht clubs.
“She not only promotes and hosts our safe boating classes in her store but always shows up with a plate of cookies and hot coffee for us,” said power squadron instructor Graham Hunter.
But it’s more than cookies and hospitality. Morley’s store also sponsors several local regattas, small ones such as Drayton Harbor Maritime’s dinghy race held during the annual Drayton Harbor Days in August and the International Yacht Club’s big Semiahmoo Regatta. Scheduled for April 28 and 29, it will fill Semiahmoo Bay with sailboats, especially on the second day when the round-the-buoys courses are short and intense.
Another example is her response to the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s decision six years ago to discontinue their safety flare demonstration and disposal program. Flares, required equipment on most boats, need to be replaced every year or two.
“You can’t just throw them away,” Morley said, “so this way they can be safely disposed of and people can see how they work. Without the Coast Guard’s program they’d just be piling up in someone’s garage, which isn’t safe.”
So Morley started her own program at Blaine’s Marine Park, taking over and providing a free service where the Coast Guard Auxiliary left off.
The affable 40-something mother’s no-nonsense, safety-first attitude comes from decades of sailing experience with her husband Dave. In 1981 their 10-meter sailboat “Silverwind” was one of the first vessels to be based in the Semiahmoo Marina. Four years later the couple sailed away to the South Pacific, visiting Hawaii and Tahiti twice before returning in 1991. Daughter Krista was born in 1993 followed by Blaine High School student Katie two years later.
“There isn’t a question you can ask her about sailing that she can’t answer,” said Drayton Harbor Maritime sailing instructor Ron Snyder, “and chances are she’s experienced whatever it is you’re wondering about.”
“Morley embodies West Marine’s mission of giving back to the community,” said her district manager, Patrick Baker.
“What makes this work,” Morley said, “is all the people who participate, from our customers to the staff to a number of boating organizations. The contribution made by West Marine itself is the ability to sponsor races and donate products to worthy events. I think it’s important that the company culture enables us managers to act locally. This award isn’t just based on me, it’s the whole team.”