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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

So You Want To Be A Charter Boat Captain, Chapter 1

I've been at this business, the chartering business, for most of my adult life and even a good portion of my teenage foolish years, starting with a three year stint as the water skiing instructor at a summer camp when I was 16 and could carry a 55 hp outboard over my shoulder and swim the length of a cold mountain lake faster than an angry pickerel. That's nearly 40-years (stop doing the math in your head) of dealing with paying passengers on all sorts of different boats. Does it make me an expert? Hardly. But I think it gives me some measure of skipper-for-hire wisdom. At least in this one area -- chartering -- I feel I have a certain expertise from which I can speak comfortably. Readers beware. What follows is not necessarily the stuff of dreams.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is: Do I really want to own and run my own charter boat?

Back when I got into this business, my very smart father gave me some great advice I totally ignored. He said: If you really love being on the water, why make it a job? Won't that take all the fun out of it? In fact, at least half the time you're doing it for profit, it's not much fun. The other half of the time, it is fun, and rewarding as hell. And some days you just can't believe your getting paid to do what you're doing. However, unless you're paying a mechanic, boat yard, maintenance crew, etc., you better take into consideration the time you need to put in to keep the boat in tip top shape. Oil and filter changes and emergency repairs at midnight to early morning are no fun at all. Neither are the times you get home from the engine room, shower, and head back out to meet an early morning charter party. You'll probably be in something of a foul mood, but don't let your passengers see it. Being successful with a charter boat depends entirely on repeat business. Nobody wants to come back to a boat run by a surly captain with bloodshot eyes and a nasty attitude.

This, of course, brings up the question of people skills. Are you a people person? You really have to love people to do this kind of work, even the people who may not be worth loving, for example; passengers who spend the entire trip puking over the rail and then ask for their money back at the end of the day, drunks who get confrontational when you shut them off and then ask for their money back at the end of the day, fishermen who complain they didn't catch enough fish, and ask for their money back at the end of the day. The list goes on.

To be honest, I have not really experienced many bad eggs on my boats. But it was a different story when I was the hired captain on other boats. You have a lot of control when you're the sole owner and operator. You have the ability to say to someone: Get the hell off my boat. Or . . . Don't ever come back here. When you're working for someone else, you don't always have that luxury. On my own party fishing boat, I didn't allow hard liqueur, and I kept the beer restricted to three bottles per person. Bit other boats I worked on had a different, more lax policy, and it caused some problems. I had to tie one passenger to a bunk. Another time I had to knock a guy out with a bluefish billy. Both of these guys gave me no choice because they became dangerous to my other passengers and the safety of the boat. You're probably thinking these incidents were in the 50% no fun column but actually I have to admit a certain satisfaction in taking out a passenger who's been warned repeatedly.

So, are you a people person? Do you even like people? And here I mean people as in "The Public," 'cause that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish, so to speak.

If you can't answer yes to the question above, you will not be happy as a charter boat captain. In fact, you will probably develop a bad case of marine curmudgeon syndrome and spend the rest of your life whining and bitching about everything you do.

But let's say you are a people person. If this is the case, the next question you have to ask yourself is: Do I want to make a living doing this? If the answer to this question is no, then all you're really trying to do is finance a hobby. The IRS takes a dim view of this type of business, and you should, too, because if you don't make a profit three out of five years (or whatever the formula is now), the IRS is going to crawl up your behind with a Rototiller. Well, maybe not a Rototiller, but when they finish with you, you're going to wish it was a Rototiller.

The thing is, if you don't have an interest in making a living with this kind of work, why bother? Get your captain's license, take out your friends, ask for donations to help pay expenses. No expectations. No worries. No extra expenses, like charter insurance, Coast Guard Certification, etc.

There's no law prohibiting you from asking people for donations if in fact you are a fully licensed USCG Captain. And nobody says you have to make a profit, either.


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