Leslie Whitener, new harbormaster, and Warren Holland, new assistant harbormaster, pose in front of the famous striped lighthouse at Harbour Town Yacht Basin, where their office is located. ROB TIPTON/SEA PINES RESORT

It has been a year of transition at the Sea Pines Yacht Basin in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. While the staff are masterfully adept at handling customer service curveballs, the forces behind that service have been remarkably consistent.

Nancy Cappelmann has been setting the gold standard for nearly 40 years as the Sea Pines harbormaster. For nearly as long, Leslie Whitener has been her trusted right hand, for the past 25 years as assistant harbormaster.

Just as two of the signature structures in the marina, the Quarterdeck restaurant and the harbormaster’s office, are literally being torn down and rebuilt, boating denizens said goodbye to Cappelmann at the end of 2020 and welcomed Whitener as the new harbormaster.

“Nancy set the bar here, that you treat everyone like you want to be treated. (If) you don’t know the answer, you ask somebody and you always focus on first impressions with our guests,” Whitener said of learning from her long-time friend and mentor.

“Leslie and I grew up together. She’s family, she’s godmother to my children, we’ve been neighbors, traveled together, fished together so much. We’re best buddies and have experienced the world together for four decades,” Cappelmann said of Whitener. “I’m just as proud of her as I can be and no one could do this better than her, it’s just meant to be.”

The yacht basin is the first glimpse of Hilton Head Island for the many boaters that come into Calibogue Sound and Harbour Town.

“We are their base of operations on land. They get a bottle of wine when they dock, we hook up their power, tie lines, get them toiletries and help with supplies if needed. We are their concierge and ambassador to the island,” Whitener said. “We take that role very seriously, but we work in this amazing setting, so we take ourselves too seriously. It’s hard too with this gorgeous backdrop. We’re all just kids in a candy shop here, living an ocean dream.”

Tapping Whitener to take over was a no-brainer for Sea Pines officials. Since 1984, she has worked her way up from dockhand to the top of the chain of command, doing every job in between.

After the Newberry native graduated from her hometown Newberry College in 1983, she made her way to Hilton Head, beginning her island life working in catering at the former Calibogue Café (now the Crazy Crab). The restaurant had cookouts five nights a week and the Sea Pines marina staff were frequent customers.

“One of the crew, they told me about an opening and boy, my eyes lit up,” Whitener said. “I started as a dockhand. I dumped trash, caught boats as they came in, helped get them tied up, loaded fuel and did every attention to detail task that was needed. It was hard work but doing that work near the water, it was just perfect. My family always had boats, I’ve always loved boating, so it was just a great match.”

Her rise up the Yacht Basin ranks was a slow progression. She went from dockhand to working in reservations, booking yachts coming in, as well as fishing and charter excursions out of the marina. From there, Whitener got into accounting and learned the daily operations side of the business. 

“It has always been a small staff, like six or seven of us. Nancy set the bar, she did anything and everything she’d ever ask her staff to do,” Whitener said. “I was promoted to assistant harbormaster in the mid-’90s, but the titles, it was a nametag. All of us do whatever it takes to make our guests happy. We don’t have in-stone job descriptions. It’s just all about creating relationships and happiness.”

Whitener said that Cappelmann was a strict boss with a loving heart.

“Nancy was the serious one. The role we serve to our guests, she takes it to heart. It was sometimes tough love with staff. Nancy was tireless, but she made all the work look so effortless,” Whitener said. “As the assistant, I always got to do the fun side of the job, but the more responsibilities I took on, the more I marveled at how Nancy juggled it all with such seeming ease.”

She said that was the most important part of mentoring with Cappelmann, who became her best friend almost from Day One at the Yacht Basin.

“You work together for 39 years, you better get along,” she joked before returning to praise Cappelmann. “You pick up a lot over time and making the logistics run smoothly becomes second nature. But it’s that attention to detail with our guests, that’s what I learned from Nancy the most. Remembering pet’s names and kids and grandkids and their favorite ice cream or wine. You become a mental database over time.”

That can be a lot in juggling thousands of clients. But there’s the secret sauce right there. For Cappelmann, Whitener and the staff, the guests were their closest friends.

“We saw these folks more often than most families see each other nowadays. Whether it’s a small boat or a billionaire, they’re just people that love the water,” Whitener said. “When you treat them like people and you respect their needs and know their families, the friendship isn’t an act. We’re all just one boating family.”

Cappelmann echoed the sentiment. “It’s hard to leave the family at Sea Pines, but it makes it much easier knowing Leslie is taking over,” she said. “I know she’s going to carry on our mission there.”

Whitener said that The Heritage is the special time of the year for this boating family. Even after four decades, the magic of that week never gets old. And with the crowds and many long-time Heritage guests absent last year, it hit home just how special that time is.

“They tie up and just get to go watch PGA Tour golf and have an instant party and network with old friends. How cool is that? It’s endless hours for the weeks leading up and the week of, but it is the absolute best.

“The Masters has strict rules and a certain way, and then these players and families and fans come here the week after and let loose,” she said. “And we make sure that party atmosphere has some structure behind the scenes.”

As much as she loves the challenges of reading tides and knowing the waters inside and out, the service side of the job is what constantly makes her smile.

“We anticipate needs. We see someone having a dinner for 20, we make sure they have enough trash bags, enough ice, we help deliver catering if needed, help with luggage, flower arrangements, whatever is needed,” she said. “It’s the anticipating, and seeing the looks on our guests’ faces when we nail it that makes this such a blast. We’re not working in a doctor’s office, it’s not ties and uptight here. Boaters are very chill overall, but we want to set a standard for the whole island here.”

Whitener said the new harbormaster’s office will help her staff continue to raise that standard.

“It’s going to be amazing to just take our tech and have the space that lets us organize for this new generation,” she said. “I’m sending pictures to Nancy all the time. She’ll be jealous of some of the new tech we get to play with.”

Boating has seen a boom during COVID, as outdoor life has become even more treasured. And the Yacht Basin has seen that rise in interest as well. Whitener said the charter business has specifically exploded, with sales up 800 percent year over year.

“And it’s amazing for our bottom line, but it’s more fuel, more folks to get every detail right for. And I love the challenge as much as my staff,” she said.

The rise in guests has made it a challenge some days to see her wife of 38 years, Eve, and their fuzzy schnauzer, May Day. But it’s a challenge she treasures.

“When I got here 39 years ago, the island maybe had 15 charter boats total. Now every marina has at least five or six. It’s phenomenal to see so many people enjoying and experiencing this boating life. Folks come here for the first time, and so often end up buying a house and making this part of their journey. To be part of that discovery for them, it is the ultimate joy. I pinch myself every day that this is my office and my life.”

Have a boating life story you know the world needs to hear about? Contact writer Tim Wood at timwood@blufftonsun.com to let us help you tell your story.