By Capt. Jim Callas
Forgive me Father for what I’m about to write. Many people that acquire the honor of driving a boat for a living start out with their dad, or uncle, or their friends dad or uncle and begin by simply messing about in boats as they say. They may be fishing, or water skiing or in some places engaging in some form of trade or commerce to help out with the family’s bottom line. For me, it started out with my dad, and the Nancy J. The Nancy J was a small wooden boat that dad bought for the express purpose of chasing salmon around the Pacific Northwest. He kept it in our carport of our family home, and I would sit in it for hours pretending I was out at sea conquering hordes of invaders or catching monster fish. Next it was a seven-foot plywood pram that I would row all day long in Puget Sound, if the folks would let met.
Naturally, all of us start out as rookies and many of us even start working for free—sport work if you will. For most folks it doesn’t take long to figure out that swabbing the decks, sanding, painting wiping down the engine(s) and generally making yourself useful can be, and often is, a paid position. Working your ass off for several years as a lowly deckhand until which time you realize that the next natural progressive step is to go after your boss’ job and sit behind the helm.
Part of the fun toward receiving your captain’s license is navigating your way through the bureaucracy that is no other than the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a quasi-military organization steeped in a longstanding and proud maritime history that began as a way to preserve this country’s assets. The Coast Guard or Coasties as they’re commonly referred to in our business, began their rich tradition of saving people and protecting business interests way back on August 4, 1790. The Coast Guard requires that you go through certain hoops and drills to get your boat driving license.
One requirement is documenting a certain amount of sea time i.e., time on the water as an active crew member. For my 100 ton near coastal license, I was required to document 730 days of sea-time within a five-year period. After that, you’ll be taking some tests. Ironically, driving a boat isn’t one of them. You will be tested on what the Coast Guard calls the International and Inland Rules of the Road. This requires you pass with 100 percent. After you pass that you move along to more fun tests regarding navigation, safety, seamanship, hearing, vision, blood pressure and yes, even your own piss. All in all, a comprehensive approach. Any time people are taken out for money, or any other type of compensation, there must be a licensed captain on board to be legal.
Most of us don’t own the boats we drive. Automatically, and for some strange reason that I don’t understand, most folks assume that we boat drivers own the boat. We rarely do. They seem surprised to learn that I’m just a poor boat whore working for whatever scraps are reluctantly tossed in my general direction. The actual boat owner is often very demanding and why shouldn’t they be?
They’ve invested a lot of money to maximize their floating assets and quickly realize that after the initial purchase, they now have tons of expenses which include, but are certainly not limited to, moorage fees, fuel, insurance, marketing, maintenance, and repairs. Now that I’m thinking about it, that’s probably why boat bums like us rarely actually take the plunge and launch our own charter boat businesses. Further, the actual boat owner knows that the boat driver by nature is usually a “Good Time Charlie” (Yes, I have heard an owner refer to a boat a driver by this name.) Old school lingo indicating a good time Charlie is a boat worker who doesn’t do any extracurricular sport work for free.
When you get on our boat, one must realize that we’re doing this for money and we would most definitely enjoy a tip. We work our tails off behind the scenes to ensure your trip is a pleasant one and you know, a little something for the extra effort is appreciated. Every time we take someone out for a good time, they are strangers to us but usually after a couple hours we’re friends. Not close friends mind you—somewhere fuzzy between acquaintances and friends. Generally, folks are in a good mood and eager to get out on the water and have some fun, but other times the energy or vibe just isn’t that great and we don’t mesh very well.
Some of us have even taken wealthy celebrities out for a good time and lo! They stiff us! I once took a very famous rock star and his ridiculous family out fishing for the day in Hawaii. We literally burned through way more fuel than I should have and tried everything we could think of just so we could get a fish on the end of his line. Absolutely nothing worked and despite trying so hard, our efforts were in vain. So, at the end of the day, sunburned and exhausted, Mr. Rock Star grumbled a soft little thanks and off they go never to be seen again. As the old saying goes, “Thanks doesn’t put fuel in the tank.”
Sometimes things get scary and weird. Thunderstorms pop up, seasickness is a thing, motors die and parts of the boat may catch on fire. All manner of shit requires your attention. In Hawaii, and this one is quite rare, I took the boat out of the harbor one day as usual and after about 20 minutes running out to sea, a thunderstorm popped up right in front of us. Turning the boat to the west, another storm developed, again right in front of us. Turning the boat now to the east, you guessed it another storm was flexing her dangerous muscles. Now only one compass point remaining, I direct the tub to the south and a new storm boxed us in. I wound up circling in a one mile holding pattern for about 30 minutes before Mother Nature blew the storms out and let us carry on our merry way. That boat had a giant tuna tower made from aluminum and was just the ticket for a lightning rod!
Just last night, one of my passengers paid me one of the best compliments I could imagine. We were out on a four-hour sailing tour on a busy evening when he said, “One of the things that I like about you is that you stay calm.” It’s always, and I mean always a good thing to stay calm or at least portray that to our guests so they have nice warm and fuzzy feelings that the guy or gal behind the wheel isn’t going to park them into the ICU for a couple weeks.
There are two different types of charter boats—private charters where it is just you and your immediate family and/or friends and then there are shared boats where you are literally sharing the cost of the boat with complete strangers. Private is the way to FYI. I once had six people on board; four men and a married couple. The one and only woman on board was telling me that her husband was in the oil business, and they had been living in Saudi Arabia for the last couple years. Apparently, she felt so totally suppressed living there that the next thing I know, she is totally naked and prancing around the boat in the hot Hawaiian sun. Her husband had some type of respiratory problem and kept on hawking up huge loads of phlegm and spitting them into the wind from the flying bridge. As luck would have it, one of the green and nasty loads hit a dude on the shoulder and in a perfect New Jersey accent he bursts out with, “What the f*ck is this here? What the f*ck!” It was absolutely a hysterical moment and could not have been stranger.
Whether they think about it or not, people paying money to get on a boat are trusting that the driver is going to bring them back to the dock healthy and ready to take on the buffet line at their hotel. Most of us are very concerned with the safety of our passengers and often take refresher courses and additional training to make sure our careers don’t end because of something stupid we did wrong. Some excursions are literally designed specifically for thrills and excitement—take jet boats for example. Jetboats are fast and can spin, stall, slam down hard on the water and in the process get everybody soaking wet.
I know just one of these jet boat operators who has been sued several times due to severe back injuries as a result of his flat bottom jet boat slamming down hard and literally crushing vertebrae. Additionally, I know that there are many safety concerns wrapped around the parasailing business model due to a number of things including unfavorable weather conditions, broken harnesses, winches/tow boat failures just but to name a few. Think of it, you’re up 1,500 feet in the air with your new wife or husband, enjoying the most romantic time of your life when all of sudden, one of your harnesses breaks and you get to witness your honey, sweetie, schmoopie bear plunging into the ocean without a parachute!
In my career, I have spent the vast majority of time chasing large, pelagic game fish. I’ve taken people out fishing from around the world and disappointed most of them. Ironically, some would even hire me to disappoint them year after year. The fishing business is a competitive one and all the different boats in the fleet are constantly jostling for bragging rights to be top dog. If you’re good at it, word gets out and at times it can be somewhat lucrative. I heard a fellow captain once sum it up like this, “You know fisherman, one day they have thousands, the next day they’re broke.”
With sportfishing, you have the captain and crew doing the actual fishing, and then you have the anglers who are no more than reel winders. Most anglers have very little experience with big game fishing and a fishing lesson is provided on the way out to the fishing grounds. We show some of the key points on what it’s like to fight and land a really big fish. Naturally, all those valuable lessons are instantly forgotten when the novice angler is hooked up thus requiring repeat instructions most often in the form of screaming at the angler, waving of arms and gnashing of teeth.
Lots of times the driver has deckhands onboard. A deckhand is an assistant who makes the boat driver look good or bad depending on that person’s experience. Naturally, this can be quite challenging at times for various reasons. If you can find a good crew member, it’s best to hang onto that person just as tightly as you possibly can. I once had a deckhand who was an absolute turd on a shingle, but he helped us catch so many quality fish that I began wondering if he was possessed by the almighty Fish Gods themselves. Whenever he was around and running his filthy mouth, I had to literally bite my tongue to preserve our fishing mojo. If I didn’t keep quiet, I was absolutely convinced without question that the Fish Gods would be angry and that our run of amazing luck would be broken, destroy our little kernel of dignity, and our gravitas would be completely ruined.
I had one deckhand call me out onto the dock and want to fight me for some odd reason. I was not particularly thrilled about it but reluctantly stood up for myself and stepped off the boat and onto the dock. I guess he quickly realized that fighting me would be a catastrophic move to his epic deckhand career and he backed down. To this day I still don’t know what I had said to him to bring out such anger. I had a young lady who didn’t bathe regularly and got seasick nearly every single day. She would throw up over the side, continue working and then show up for work bright and early the very next day. That’s a tough deckhand. My hats off to you Deanna, wherever you may be.
Hopefully this will shine a little insight into what goes into driving a boat professionally. Making the boat do what you want it to do rather than having it do what it wants to do when everyone is watching is rewarding. It’s certainly not for everyone, the hours can be long, the sun can burn, you have to have decent mechanical aptitude and you’ll probably never get rich doing it but staring out to sea as the sun is sinking and your boat isn’t can be one of the greatest things in this world.