I was launching a one-person plywood dinghy named Loner that a friend and I had just built, when the original boat girl walked by on the city dock in St. Augustine, Florida. Clad in a tennis skirt and yacht brokerage T-shirt, with bleach-blonde hair and her equally blonde little daughter in tow, she stopped to join us for a cheers and spot of whiskey to christen the tiny dinghy, then disappeared on a skiff into the mooring field.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was among marine industry royalty.
Melanie Sunshine Neale wasn’t born in the Sunshine State, but she might as well have been, from her bubbly personality and perpetually bronzed skin to an eclectic personal history apropos of Florida’s reputation as a melting pot. Not to mention the occasional “Florida Man/Florida Woman” story she could tell.
Melanie is a quintessentially salty jack of all trades, and she has a story for everything. Her tales are iconic, like coming of age in the ’90s while living and traveling aboard her parents’ cruising yacht full-time. Or anchoring her liveaboard 28-foot sailboat in front of the Miami Herald where her then-boyfriend was a journalist, while she was getting an MFA in creative writing.
Her storytelling drips with romanticism. Her narratives, whether penned or in person, bleed like a red sky in the morning. Having been in the game so long (since birth, she claims), she knows more about the marine industry, lifestyle, and its inhabitants than is probably healthy. She swears she could smell the fiberglass through the womb when her parents visited the factory in St. Pete while their boat was being built. One could argue it’s all she’s ever known.
She was born a boat girl.
Her father, a retired lawyer, became a prominent voice in the industry, writing articles and literature about the cruising lifestyle and speaking at boat shows. Melanie lapped it up, earning her USCG captain’s license before her high school diploma, and eventually having several columns of her own in nautical literature and magazines. She did pursue academia and her degrees as well as city life for almost a decade before returning to the sailing scene as a yacht broker and single mama.
Now, she owns her own brokerage, Sunshine Cruising Yachts, managing several brokers all over the country. Melanie and her daughter, Maryann, have also lived aboard full-time, just the two of them, on two different yachts, unofficially referred to as “The Mom Boat I & II.” They’ve lived the dream as literal dock queens during the school year and cruising during the summers.
I ended up rent-free in the spare bedroom of Melanie’s then-home, the Boat House, in St. Augustine. It lived up to its name, a place for sailors, travelers, and artists alike. I worked on a fake pirate ship, which was the laughingstock of the harbor, while Melanie taught me everything she knew about the industry. While she may be a girl boss, she doesn’t gatekeep. At least, not from other boat girls.
To tell the stories we lived collectively at the Boat House would need its own chapter of a book, maybe a tell-all à la Melanie’s first memoir. Her book, Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love, and Fiberglass, was published in 2012—much to her parents’ chagrin, as it showed a more raw and wild side to her dad’s wholesome cruising content. All is well that ends well, though. Melanie remains close with her parents. She is also their broker, of course.
Besides, she never had any intention of throwing anyone under the bus. She simply writes her truth, operating very much under a “write like they’re dead” mantra, and in many ways living like there’s no tomorrow.
Melanie is the generation-x to my millennial. The bougie to my frugal. We were inseparable. We were Ozzie and Harriet. Bonnie and Clyde. Besties. No amount of nautical miles can break the bond between boat girls. Because boat girls are forever.
Melanie has always been generous, whether it be offering her experience, a place to stay, or a shoulder to lean on. Like her eyes the color of the Bahamian waters from her childhood, she is nothing short of true blue.
Postscript: Emily is now repping for Melanie Neale at Sunshine Cruising Yachts in Oriental, North Carolina. Visit sunshinecruisingyachts.com for more.