By Gary Caputi
Being a private boat captain is considered by many to be one of the more glamorous and adventurous jobs you could ever have. Imagine being at the helm of a multi-million dollar
sportfishing yacht that travels to amazing places to catch billfish. Not only is someone else footing the bill, you’re getting paid to do it! Even being a deckhand aboard such a boat is something young men daydream about. There is, however, a lot more to “the life” than meets the eye. InTheBite spent time discussing the ins and outs of “the life” with three experienced captains. We covered a lot of ground.
Capt. Rich Barrett
Rich is the son of Pete Barrett— a noted fisherman, outdoor writer, editor and captain. We caught up with him at his home in Florida as he took a few days off between fishing trips. Rich runs the 73-foot Bayliss Shark Byte for owner Peter Cherasia. At the time of our conversation Rich was on a four-day turnaround to see his family, pick up some spare parts and get back on a plane to return to the Dominican Republic.
“The last week was some pretty hot fishing,” Barrett says, describing the DR. “In four days we went 14 for 28 on whites, 5 for 6 on blues and 2 for 4 on sails with a double slam. Enough to keep the boss smiling because he is hardcore fishing all the way.”
Rich spent much of his formative years around Point Pleasant, New Jersey fishing and getting to know many famous fishermen. This experience served him well when he decided to try his hand at being a mate. Thanks in part to his connections Barrett’s first traveling gig was top shelf— fishing the cockpit under the late, great Capt. Rich DeFeo on the Tyson’s Pride in 1991-92.
“Rich DeFeo was great to work under,” Rich said. “I learned so much in the two years I spent on the Tyson’s Pride— talking with him, watching what he did, how he handled himself, the boat, the owner and guests. If you’re thinking about becoming a captain one day, you’ll start as a mate and you better use that time to learn as much as possible about the captain’s duties.
We had a great relationship with him and Don (Tyson). I always worked really hard, always tried to do more than was expected of me and my initial experience went a long way toward reinforcing my desire to run my own boat.”
Stepping up to the helm came pretty quickly. Thankfully, Rich is a fast learner and a born fisherman. His first job came a few years later running the Grander, a beautifully restored 1978, 48-foot Whiticar for Mel Immergut. That relationship lasted 15 years and three boats.
“I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve worked for only three owners in 30 years,” Barrett said. “They have all been great and I’ve had wonderful relationships with each. Good relationships are the result of hard work, dedication and a desire to do everything the job requires and more.”
According to Rich, it’s critical to learn what your owner’s needs are. These needs will differ from one person to the next. Owners are frequently preoccupied with business so when they are on board some are looking to unwind. Others will maintain constant contact with their businesses, still others want good food and relaxation and fishing is just a bonus.
“My current owner, Pete, is all about having fun fishing and enjoying the boat with family and friends,” Rich said. “Our team works hard to live up to those expectations. He’s the best if you really love to fish.”
“It’s the captain’s responsibility to learn the personality of the owner and to anticipate his needs,” he continued. “But there is so much more to it. You’re in charge of the boat. You have to know every system, every little maintenance item and schedule—how to fix it. If you can’t, you’d better have the number of someone who can on speed dial! If I can’t answer a question, I better know someone who can. Electronics, air handlers, electrical system, engines and gen sets— you better understand them and have a good relationship with the people you need to maintain or fix them because something is going to break or malfunction and the owner doesn’t want to know about it when he wants to go fishing.”
Barrett’s breakdown of his experience continues, “There are 23 actuators on the Bayliss and every once in a while one goes and I have to have backups and know how to fix them. I was at the yard in Wanchese throughout the construction of this boat and I know every wire run, every bit of plumbing, you name it. That makes taking care of things easier and it also helps me keep up with what spares I need to have on board. When the boat is in the yard, I want to be there! I know the problems, I know what needs to be done to fix them and I want it to be done exactly like I want it to be done. There’s so much involved in being prepared for any eventuality and it is all the responsibility of the captain!”
Barrett’s perspective turns out to be pretty common advice for someone considering the path to being a captain. “Everyone starts at the bottom, as a deckhand. Try to get on board with good captains and learn as much as you can wherever you go. A deckhand’s job is more than just working the cockpit. You respond to whatever the captain, owner and guests aboard want without question. If you’re really good you anticipate those wants. When you’re fishing, the job—at the end of the day—isn’t over until everything is done.”
Capt. Paul Dalik
When we caught up with Paul he was at Garden State Marina in New Jersey taking care of sanding the covering boards of the Pipe Dreamer, the vessel he ran for owner Chip Caruso. Truth be told it was deckhand Brian Long who looked to be doing most of the sanding (there is a certain hierarchy that goes with the job). Paul holds a degree in marine biology and has been a full-time professional boat captain for more than 20 years. He grew up in New Jersey and spent a lot of his early years fishing with his father and aboard local boats.
Paul’s first gig as a mate was aboard Tommy Schermer’s Dr. Hook. Between his early days as a mate and his tenure running boats for Chip Caruseo, Dalik worked for a number of owners in a variety of capacities. On owner relationships, Dalik was pretty clear. “They are never perfect, but that’s to be expected,” he said. “As a captain you are frequently in an intimate setting with the owner. Generally, the owner is very well off and has high expectations for what he expects from the person he has entrusted with the care and operation of a very expensive piece of property that he has purchased to enjoy during his downtime from work. There are times when you’ll be friends, others when you will clearly understand this is an employer/employee relationship.”
When it comes to boat projects, yard time, maintenance and the like, the relationship is one of business. The owner expects you to be his agent with the yard and anyone who works on the boat. When you’re together on the boat the relationship can be very casual; friends sharing dinner, fishing and hosting guests. Tournament fishing can be stressful and is definitely employer/employee. Fun fishing with the owner’s family, friends and business guests usually is a friendly atmosphere and low key.
“When it comes to pairing an owner with a captain, the decision isn’t solely about the skill of the captain. Compatibility figures heavily into the equation,” Dalik suggested. “And then
there’s money. If you want to get rich this isn’t the job that will fulfill your destiny. You do it because you love it. Love the boat, love the travel and fishing and have the kind of relationship with the owner that allows you to keep loving it.”
“Tournament time is the most stressful between owner and captain,” he continued. “Only a couple of boats are going to win and place, pay their expenses and make some money. Everyone pays in and it’s the owner’s money on the line— so you better be working for someone who trusts you, your abilities and experience. Someone who understands you are doing everything down to the minutest details to put the team in a position to win.”
According to Dalik, one of the most important parts of the job is being the liaison between the owner and the contractors and services associated with the sportfishing experience. “Your relationship with those people is as important as your relationship with the owner because you have to be able to call on them and know that they will be there to answer your call whenever you need them.”
Paul was unequivocal about the learning curve that leads to the captain’s helm. “All the best captains started as mates,” he said. “That’s where you learn all the things that go along with working the cockpit. It is also your opportunity to look into the responsibilities that come with being a captain.”
So how do you break into the life? Paul said you have to work your way into a deckhand job by whatever means possible. If you don’t have connections you spend time on the docks; offer to help wash boats when they come in. See if you can get on board for trips as a backup mate for free, but don’t be persistent to the point of becoming a PIA. You have to let your passion show and when you get the opportunity always do more than is expected because you’re not the only one who wants the job.
Capt. Randall Yates
Randy is the captain of the Barry Weshnak‘s 55-foot Viking, Miss Annie. The boat is based out of Sailfish Marina on Singer Island, Florida for much of the year. Randy’s love affair with fishing began in childhood. He worked as a deckhand on headboats during summers off from high school and got his captain’s license in 1995. His first full time job as a mate was aboard a Boca Raton charter boat called the Ironwood that also fished the BBC.
“That job helped me get my foot in the door with the right people and job opportunities came as a result,” Yates said. He spent two years there before he hooked up with a private boat that fished the BBC and followed the circuit to St. Thomas. During that time he got hurt, a blue marlin pulled him over the transom and his leg got clipped by a prop. After a stint stateside for recovery, he was hired as a mate by Capt. Scott Stele on the Topless. He would eventually run the boat, starting a captain career that four years ago brought him to helm of the Miss Annie. “The Miss Annie is a different kind of job,” Randy told us.
“The boat has a mixed schedule of tournaments, owner and guest trips and then I charter it in between. The charters help pay for the boat’s expenses, but what I like about it is it keeps us on the water chasing fish. That puts us in a good place at tournament time.”
This statement is backed by Miss Annie’s enviable record of winning and placing in major billfish tournaments throughout the circuit.
According to Randy, there is a huge learning curve if you want to go from the cockpit to the helm. “A lot of mates just want to fish, but a captain has a lot more responsibility. Handling money, scheduling, maintenance, managerial work, caring for the owner and guests, tournament prep and on down the line. A mate should use his time aboard the boat to study all of that and learn the captain’s duties if he wants to move up.”
“Whether it’s considered the mate’s job or not, he should learn the boat—help with oil changes, changing out pumps, filters, whatever needs to be done,” Yate’s suggested. “I actually wish I had paid even more attention to that stuff when I was a mate. There is so much more to being the captain than catching fish.”
On the subject of owner/captain relationships, “There’s a lid for every pot, but it’s a relationship that has to be built on trust. You’re handling a huge amount of money for the owner. You are entrusted with the well-being and safety of his family and friends and so much more. You have to have a working relationship and that starts with good communication,” the veteran captain explains.
“The owner tells you what he expects, what the program is going to be and you have to be honest with them about what you expect and need. If the owner is going to keep the boat out of the country for months on end and you have a family, it has to be discussed up front. What I like about working for Barry Weshnak is that he’s a first class guy. He’s very laid back, but he lets you know what he expects and works with me to make it all happen smoothly. We work up the boat schedule for the year well in advance so I know where we’re going to be and for how long. The chartering is just a bonus because I love sharing the experience with people, maybe putting them on their first billfish. It’s the best of both worlds,” Yates concludes.
When it comes to seeing photos of grander blue marlin and million-dollar tournament checks, everybody wants to be a captain. The life can be a good one, but it certainly requires time, dedication and commitment. There is perhaps no better way to gauge whether or not you want to become a captain than by speaking with those who fill the captain’s seat.
A lot of mates just want to fish, but a captain has a lot more responsibility. Handling money, scheduling, maintenance, managerial work, caring for the owner and guests, tournament prep and on down the line. A mate should use his time aboard the boat to study all of that and learn the captain’s duties if he wants to move up.
A Mate’s Path to the Helm
• Work hard.
• Be open-minded.
• Do more than expected.
• Observe your captain’s every move.
• Make learning every boat you are on a priority.
• Try to think ahead- all the time.
• Be helpful to others around the dock.
• Ask for phone numbers of sub-contractors—you’ll need them one day.
• ABL: Always be learning.
• Be professional and honest.
• Take care of your personal hygiene.
• Don’t abuse alcohol.
• Choose your friends wisely.