New Orleans by Sundancer
A group of Sea Ray owners living along a secluded Louisiana bayou are united by a common ambition: living the good life.
The notion of waterfront living in the swamps of southeastern Louisiana conjures images of rustic Cajun cabins and modest pirogues carved from ancient cypress. Here, though, along a diversion canal that links with the meandering Blind River before it spills into brackish Lake Maurepas, a row of stately mansions gazes out at docks inhabited by glimmering Sea Rays.
The scene disrupts some stereotypes but reinforces others. The residents of this gated waterfront community, like their Cajun brethren, know that the things that make bayou life special are neighbors and nature. From beneath his home’s sprawling south-facing veranda, Tim Melancon nods in the direction of his 380 Sundancer and explains its name, Just Chillin’. “It’s kind of the opposite of what we do. This is a Sea Ray community, and when we get together, we like to party,” he says. “But when other people ask what we’re doing on the weekend, we say, ‘Just chillin’.’”
Another contradiction, sure. But it’s also evidence that Tim and his friends fully embrace one of Cajunism’s core tenets: laissez les bons temps rouler. That is, “Let the good times roll!”
As Tim readies the 380 for departure, his wife, Kim, daughter Ashley, son-in-law, Nick, and granddaughter Khloe (4) settle into the boat’s roomy cockpit. A rendezvous with four other Sea Ray owners at a palatial estate just down the canal awaits them. Tim, a Louisiana State-educated engineer and vice president of business development in the oil, gas and chemical industries for CDI Corporation, has curated an ideal social life here. He has an office in Baton Rouge, about an hour away, but does most of his work from home.
Kim is a supervisor in the nearby Ascension Parish school system. Ashley, a teacher, Nick, owner of a marine audio business, and Khloe live just six houses down along the canal. (Tim and Kim also have three other grown children.) The family’s best friends all live and boat here. As evidence, Ashley submits that all 24 attendees at her marriage to Nick in the British Virgin Islands live along this canal. This idyllic retreat, it turns out, isn’t a retreat at all—it’s home. As Kim explains, “It’s like coming home from work and I’m on vacation.”
Tim eases the throttle forward and settles the Sundancer at an unhurried tempo. Raised in New Iberia, Louisiana—deep Cajun country and home to author James Lee Burke’s fictional detective Dave Robicheaux—Tim grew up with a keen sense of the rewards of hard work. Weekend cruises with family and friends are the apotheosis of his labors. “This,” he says, pointing to the helm and turning to look at his granddaughter sitting next to him on the captain’s bench, “is my relief.”
Khloe, who from four months old has spent nearly every weekend of her life on the water, exclaims, “Poppy’s boat can drive itself!” A grin spreads across Tim’s tanned face. “She loves when I put it on autopilot.”
To the right, southward, the view is uninterrupted marshland, all protected under the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area. Besides other boaters, in other words, Tim’s neighbors are mostly ibises and egrets and alligators. The only sounds beyond the peaceful gurgling of wake behind the Sundancer come from chirping things in the trees and croaking things in the water.
Ahead to port, several Sea Rays bob perpendicular to a wooden walkway fronting a chateau with a tiered infinity pool one would otherwise expect to find perched atop a Mediterranean cliff. There’s a 440 Sundancer, a 420 Sedan Bridge, a 330 Sundancer and a 310 ’Dancer jokingly referred to by its owner as “the minnow.” Today’s a typical roundup; when Tim or one of his buddies sends a customary weekend mass text, as many as half a dozen Sea Rays will answer the call.
They’ll either caravan to swampy Lake Maurepas, where they often stay overnight as a group, or poke around the bayous branching off of the Blind River. The Melancons have taken their Sundancer as far as Destin, Florida. Today, the fleet heads east for the Blind River Bar, a tin-can dive accessible only by boat that would seem incompatible with such a discerning clientele, until you realize that no quality has more currency these days than authenticity.
Besides, a row of Sea Rays parked in front make the most ramshackle shack look like the Southern Yacht Club. (It’s worth noting that Tim does have neighbors and friends who own other brands, but they’re a small minority—and best identified as the folks gawking dockside as the armada of Sea Rays arrive at the bar.)
Despite his Cajun roots, Tim didn’t take to boating until well into adulthood during a six-year stretch in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he and Kim lived near Merritt Island, Florida, home to a longtime Sea Ray production facility. “There were Sea Rays everywhere,” he says. “I said to myself then, ‘One day I’m gonna own one of these.’”
The opportunity finally came in 2011, when Tim bought his 380 Sundancer, a 2006 model, from southeast Louisiana dealer Nunmaker Yachts. The purchase coincided with the move to the Maurepas canal community. “Now,” he says, “on weekends, we use it like a car. We take the boat wherever we need to go.”
“I love the size and comfort,” he continues. “I love the design—it reminds me of a dolphin’s curves. Look at them,” he says, gesturing to the row of Sea Rays lined up outside the bar. “Classy.” Kim doubles down on the comfort aspect, noting that the cabin comfortably sleeps five. The TV inside, Ashley notes, is also a lifesaver when her young one gets antsy. “Khloe will go down and watch that and take a nap while we hang out topside,” she says.
The party inside Blind River Bar crescendos as a DJ plays a medley of Michael Jackson hits while a moonwalking impersonator performs for the crowd—no, there’s nothing ordinary about this bar—but Tim and the Sea Ray crew are hungry, so it’s back to the dock. This time it’s westward, as Tim steers the Sundancer into a crimson sunset that dips behind the cypresses and tupelo gums lining the banks.
Local favorite, Kevin’s Cajun Seafood, is about a 45-minute ride away at this ambling pace; rushing is frowned upon in these parts. The sunset gives way to a deep indigo night, broken up by a full moon the color of honey. Khloe rouses from a cabin nap and urges Tim to put on some music. “Poppy” obliges, cranking up the rich sound system to “All About That Bass” while the rejuvenated 4-year-old proceeds to perform a dance recital in the cockpit. Ashley laughs, coaching her daughter through dance moves, and says what Tim is surely thinking as he turns back to watch: “This boat is really for her.”
As they say in the native tongue, let the good times roll.