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Charter Boat Captain

Here are some pretty pictures: Snorkeling the coral reefs in Florida. Fishing for halibut off the coast of Alaska. Watching whales cavort in the water as they migrate to warmer climes.

Most people don't have their own boats to enjoy these activities. And that spells opportunity for people who want to provide boat tours and trips for vacationers.

If you head down to your nearest dock, you'll find a range of charter boat offerings. While some are big, corporate operators, many are self-employed people who simply love the water.

The Life of a Charter Boat Captain

You start with a boat. They can be pretty expensive. "My boat cost $80,000," says Wayne Andrew of Andrew Sport Fishing. "I had a little sailboat at the time, so I could sell that to come up with a down payment. The rest I got through a bank loan."

Chris Schofield of Spirit Power Catamaran, which runs tours off the Florida Keys, was luckier. "I got my first boat from a bankruptcy sale in Cleveland for under $10,000!"

Once you have a boat, you start building up a clientele. Schofield, who had raced catamarans, approached a local resort in Florida and asked if he could offer rides to their guests.

"I started walking around the pool and handing out cards. I'd take employees of the resort out for free so they'd recommend the tour to guests. Word of mouth is the best advertising in this business."

Captain Ron Downing, of Gusto Halibut Charters in Alaska, found his customers by working for another company first. "I ran a boat for another charter company for 10 years. It wasn't until about a year before I decided to buy my own boat that I realized I should be keeping a guest book to keep track of customers." By knowing the names of people who had gone out with him, he could contact them next season.

Repeat business is important. Charter boat owners have to make sure every customer has the time of their life for the few hours they're onboard. If they do, they'll come back the next year and recommend the boat to friends.

"You can't have a bad day," says Schofield. "People are on their vacation and want to have a good time. If you're just not in a good mood that day, the people you're taking out have been robbed."

Making sure everyone has a fabulous time isn't always easy. "You hear the same questions over and over again -- every day -- and you have to act like you've never heard it before," says Schofield.

The nature of your business also depends on what kind of tours you provide -- sightseeing, fishing, snorkeling, whale watching -- and where you do them. In Florida, the balmy weather allows Schofield to run tours year-round. In Alaska, the season is only a few months long, so operators have to make all their money in one season.

"Our season is from May through September," says Downing. "But in the winter there's still quite a lot to do. I update my web page, put out a newsletter to my customers, and update my database."

Getting Licensed and Certified

It's important to make sure you have all your proper licenses and certifications in place. Regulations vary from place to place. Some may require a simple business license and insurance, while others will have specific rules for charter boat operators.

There's a good reason for regulation in this field.

"You're taking out people and they're putting their life in your hands," says Schofield. Because of wind, water, and weather, boats can be dangerous in even the best of hands, so the government licenses and certifies captains.

There are all kinds and grades of licenses, but the two most common are for boats that hold six or less people ("six-pack" licenses) and those for boats that hold more than six. For six-pack licenses, only the captain has to be certified. For larger boats, the boat itself has to be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to make sure it's seaworthy.

Getting a license usually requires captains to complete courses and get practical experience. For example, the Coast Guard requires at least 360 days on the water.

"You can start keeping track [of hours on the water] from age 16 on," says Barbara Fleming, chief of the coast guard's licensing office in Portland, Oregon. Many boats hire deckhands who are in high school and college, so young people can get started on their required hours early. If you do hire on as a hand on someone else's boat, Fleming says to make sure you "get a letter from the vessel owner documenting your time."

Licensing also requires written exams on navigation, using charts, the rules of the road, and basic safety. A current CPR and first-aid card is also necessary, as is a physical exam proving you can handle the rigors of life on the water.

Advice From the Experts

Boat charters are an iffy proposition. Boats are expensive to keep up, even after you buy them. You have to pay for insurance, fuel, upkeep, docking fees, fishing equipment and dry-dock for the off-season.

"I have a 45-foot boat," says Andrew. "It costs about $25,000 a year in expenses."

It's also a very competitive field. "It's tough getting started," says Downing. "There are only so many people who just walk in and they tend to go for the cheapest big cattle boat. If one boat charges $160 a day and another charges $125 a day, they're going to go for the $125 one. They don't know the difference in the quality of the tour."

Due to the uncertainty of the business and the different sizes of boats, earnings vary wildly. "You get all kinds," says Schofield, "from six-passenger boats who just squeak by, to 150-passenger boats that make millions a year. If you work hard and do it well, then the sky's the limit. But the majority gets bored with it and drops out. A lot of people come and go in this business."

So being a charter boat operator isn't just about you and the sea. Often it's you, the sea and a dozen people who don't know the first thing about boats or fishing and want to tell you their life story. And it may be raining.

"But there are payoff days," says Downing. "Days where the water's flat and the weather's great and you really like the people you're taking out. Then it's not like you're working at all. It's like you're on a really great vacation."


U.S. Coast Guard
Links to licensing requirements, exams and accredited schools

Sailing Source
Links to organizations, schools, newsgroups, magazines and books

Entrepreneur: Scuba Dive Charter Boat
A niche market: scuba diving charters!

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