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Finding Freedom on the Water: Karen Berry

Outdoors, on the water – this is where Karen Berry feels most at home. And as Vice President of Operations for Freedom Boat Club of the Grand Strand’s six locations, the water is definitely her second home. “I have a real passion for my work – it’s all I ever do!” laughed Karen as we began talking about her life.

Interestingly, this savvy sea captain grew up far from the open water in Illinois. But her father and grandfather taught young Karen to love boating at an early age. “We would fish on lakes in a jon boat – those are some of my best childhood memories.”

Karen has two sons and three grandchildren who are everything to her. She lives happily in her home tucked away in Longs when she’s not working. But this life, as wonderful as it is, came out of a horrible tragedy. “In 1983, my husband and I were living in Oklahoma City, and he traveled to spend time with his parents in Florida. They were out on a beach excursion when he was caught in an undertow and drowned.” Karen tried to pick up the pieces of her life where she was, but decided she needed a fresh new start. “My brother was stationed at the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and encouraged me to come here with my boys. So, sight unseen, I moved and have been here ever since.”

“Not long after I got to Myrtle Beach, I met my best friend,” Karen began. “She’s a boat captain and was giving Hobie Cat rides at the Spanish Galleon. She’s a small person, and I went along as her extra weight!” Karen remembers daydreaming with her friend about the future – and that future always included being on boats. “Today Captain Tamie has her 100-ton Master Captain’s license and has operated boats that can carry 150 people, and I’m VP of Operations for Freedom Boat Club of the Grand Strand.” The two women have definitely made their dreams come true.

“Later on, Tamie designed and owned a 42 foot Catamaran, and ran a business called Getaway Cruises. I would mate for her on my days off. One day we were close to some shrimp boats, looking for dolphins, and saw a loggerhead turtle in distress.” Tamie quickly came up with a plan to save the animal. “She pulled up beside the turtle, lowered the ladder, and I climbed down and helped pull the turtle onto our boat.” The women took the turtle to nearby Bird Island where they stayed with the endangered loggerhead until the animal revived and swam back out to sea. “It was drowning in the shrimp net,” Karen said, finishing her story. “I will never forget that day. These are the experiences that keep me coming back to the water.”

I asked Karen to talk about the growing number of women boaters. “I was on the National Marketing Council for all Freedom Boat Clubs, and we were always looking for new ideas. While there are always a lot of boating activities for guys, not as many are planned for women. I’m a woman and enjoy boating, so I suggested we create something to empower women boaters.” Today, a majority of the clubs have Freedom Boat Divas in place– women boaters go out on the water to learn new skills – and they stop for lunch and shopping. “Every time we go I teach them something, like nautical knots, radio etiquette, or docking skills,” said Karen.

“I love seeing women go out on the water on their own. I tell them that if I can do it, you can do it. I learned everything I know from Captain Tamie, and I’ve taught hundreds of people in my 13 years with Freedom Boat Club.” Karen added that we are never too old to learn to operate a boat safely. “I’ve taught women in their 50s and 60s that have never been at the helm of a boat.  If you can drive a car, you can drive a boat.”

A big part of the joy of boating comes from the relationships you make on the water, and Karen gets a great deal of satisfaction from seeing her members make lifelong memories. Her members have shared some touching stories through the years and, this seasoned boat captain shared a recent story that brought both of us to tears. “A guy joined not long ago and told the captain giving him his training that he joined for his five year old son. His son is battling cancer, and he and his wife wanted to fill the rest of their child’s life with as many wonderful experiences as possible. When they asked their son what he wanted to do, letting him choose anything he wanted, he pointed at a boat and said he wanted to go boating.”

Our boats start in the $45,000 range and go up to $100,000, and are never more than three years old,” Karen said, telling me about the benefits of Freedom Boat Club. “We spend a lot of time training new members and making sure they are comfortable on the waterways. We also offer ocean training if you are interested. You can keep the boat from sunrise to sunset – and we even allow members to keep the boats overnight, but the craft must be docked during the dark hours.” Karen told me that boats are available seven days a week and are stored in the water, ready to go, and members can access boats at 235+ clubs in the United States, Canada and France.

Freedom Boat Club of the Grand Strand also raises money for a wide variety of charities in the area, including over $100,000 over the past 13 years for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. “We also help Julie’s Kids (a local DSS home for children) with Christmas each year, as well as Christmas in July to help with back to school supplies and clothing.” Karen is also proud that her club recently participated in making masks for Tidelands Health. “We contributed supplies for more than 500 masks.”

When Karen takes her grandchildren boating, the family usually makes the trip from Wacca Wache Marina in Murrells Inlet, to Conway. “It’s a wonderful trip down the Waccamaw – one of our area’s most beautiful.” As we finished up our chat, Karen said, “So many good memories are made on boats. This is my life.”

To learn more about Freedom Boat Club, call 843-732-3777 or find @freedomboatclubgrandstrand on social media.

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