There’s an old joke in the Key West charter biz that goes something like this:
“How do you retire as a millionaire in Key West?”
“Become a billionaire and buy a charter fishing boat here.”
I’ve never hit either of those lofty financial levels and, at my current pace, definitely won’t anytime in the future, but approximately 10 years ago – March 23, 2005 - I did decide to buy a charter boat here. Depending on your perspective, it was either the smartest or dumbest thing I ever did (or maybe both, if that’s possible.) Actually, again depending on your perspective, it may only be the second smartest or dumbest thing I ever did. The first may actually be walking away from what most would consider a successful legal career after 29 years. I first attempted to do that about 15 years earlier, when I gave notice to my firm in D.C., intending to move to South Florida, only to have a client arrange for me to get a great unsolicited legal job offer in Southern California. I figured “What the hell,” decided to try SoCal, and wound up staying there 14 years. Eventually, however, the legal treadmill and traffic congestion got to me again and I just felt the desire to live somewhere even warmer and sunnier and at a slower pace. My family had relocated from NJ to Naples so South Florida just felt like the place to be. I was single, had no kids and no real responsibilities outside of my job so, in 2002, at the age of 53, I made the break. My dad had passed, but my mom was still alive and I didn’t want to regret not spending enough time with her in Naples before she, too, was gone, so my first move was there. When she passed at the end of 2003, I decided that Naples wasn’t for me either – too “fancy.” While I was there, however, I had picked up my USCG Captain’s License. I’d owned boats for about 20 years and fished regularly while I was in SoCal, so that qualified me to take the test. Again, I figured “what the hell,” with no immediate intention to do anything serious with it. After a while, however, I started to ponder what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live, and the charter fishing idea just blossomed from there. Over the course of about a year, I looked at various types of charter boats in various locations, including Hawaii, before deciding that the Keys was the place for me. Even then, however, I wanted to find that right boat in the right location. I then got about as lucky as can be by finding the old wooden-hulled “Fatal Attraction” for sale in slip 2 at the A&B Marina in Key West. It was love at first sight, more for the slip than the old boat, and I sensed immediately that I had found the right spot for me. So I formed a one-man corporation and, on March 23, 2005, became a Key West charter boat operator. I guess I wondered then if I wasn’t as nuts as some people thought I was.
Since that day, the last ten years have been the most fun and most fulfilling of my life. I get to do something that I love almost daily; I get to meet and often become friends with some of the nicest and most interesting people in the world on a constant basis; and, most amazingly, people are paying us to do it. But, really, any money is almost a side benefit. The older I get, the more I realize that it’s the experiences, the people and the memories that really count. Speaking of memories – we had the humbling privilege a few years ago of catching a man from Arkansas dying of cancer his “bucket list” sailfish – after we voluntarily extended the trip an hour at no additional cost. The smile on his face and those of his family, as well as the beautiful “thank you” note his daughter sent me after he passed, will stay with me forever. Money can’t buy that feeling. Similarly, we’ve had the privilege of taking a young boy from Mississippi also stricken with cancer on a “Make A Wish” trip and caught him the barracuda that he wanted. The cooperation and contributions we got from neighbors and friends as well as the smile we got from him are other memories that will warm me every time they cross my mind. Even better, he was subsequently cured, is doing just great and I still get a card from his family every Christmas! A perfect trifecta! No paycheck ever made me feel better. I can also laugh again and again at the memory of winning the 2013 Dolphin Masters Tournament with a rag-tag crew of local bar/restaurant servers who were seemingly more intent on setting a tournament record for beer consumption than catching the biggest fish. The look on faces of the “more serious” anglers in the audience as my tipsy crew hoisted their winning catch - including a 40 pound+ dolphin - on the weigh-in platform is an image that will remain frozen in my brain forever. As I said then: “Who’da thunk it?
Another great memory involves last year’s VFW Fishing Tournament. We weren’t scheduled for it but, 2 days before, a mom and dad with two young daughters who fish with us regularly let us take an 11 year old boy and his dad out on their trip. The boy had always loved our boat and really wanted to go. Lo and behold, we hooked him up to a 42 pound mahi that he fought for two hours by himself before his dad helped him land it. The smile on his face afterward made the whole trip for everybody. Then, to add icing to the cake, that same family used the money they saved by splitting the charter to enter the VFW Tournament with us. The younger daughter then won the juvenile division with a 26 pound dolphin while her mom got the prize for catching the largest dolphin – also a 20+ pounder - caught by any adult female. A classic case of nice things happening to nice people.
We’ve caught blue marlin on the first line in the water on one trip and the last line in the water on another, both for people who specifically requested one. The former was for a bachelor party group and the guest of honor had always wanted a marlin. It took 2+ hours to land it and his buddies were pouring beer down his throat and down their own the entire time. For the last 5 hours of the trip after the fish was released, the guys all kept coming up to me constantly saying “You’re f***ing god, dude! You’re f***ing god!” It felt good to be king! The latter marlin was about 8 years ago for a 40-something businessman who had never caught one. He had been told by another captain in our marina that he would have no chance of catching one that day and that he was going to have to pay an additional surcharge over the normal rate to even try. He now has a second home here, we are still close friends, and we still laugh constantly to this day about the look on that other captain’s face when we came in flying that marlin flag! Again, a priceless memory!
On more sentimental notes, we’ve had people get engaged on the boat, exchange wedding vows and spread loved one’s ashes. The engagement was great theater! Our mate tied a fake engagement ring to a line without the woman seeing, then pretended to have a missed bite on another line, asking the woman to help him by reeling in the line with the ring on it. When she saw the ring come out of the water, she looked puzzled, only to turn to her right to see her guy kneeling on one knee with the real ring in his hand. Proposals and memories don’t get cooler than that!
We’ve had some great funny moments, too! One of the best was the time we ran a trip for a John Candy look-alike with a heavy Russian-type of accent. He had three friends who were all dressed like characters out of an old SNL “Wild and Crazy Guys” skit and who started throwing down shots and beers almost immediately. Turns out that John Candy was really the then-most-recent prime minister of the country of Latvia! Afterwards, he bought some of our shirts to take back with him. How many charter boat operators can say that a former foreign head of state is walking around somewhere wearing one of his boat’s T-shirts? (By the way, we also have a C.O.O. of an NFL team who proudly wears one of our shirts, too!) Another funny memory is the time we had an attractive “all-girl” fishing team charter us for the annual World Sailfish Tournament several years ago. They were all novices (at least at fishing!) and we didn’t catch any sailfish the first day. As we were coming home, the ladies saw several boats returning with multiple sailfish flags. I guess they felt sorry for me so that, by the time we hit the dock, we were flying six bikini bra tops from the riggers in place of flags, while the ladies remained discretely covered up by T-shirts. Though I may not have caught a fish, I honestly believe that I was the most envied captain in the tournament that day anyway! Still brings a big smile to my face when I think about it!
All of the above are moments in time that I wouldn’t trade for anything! The same can be said for all of the great friendships I’ve developed with customers and locals here. They have made my life way better than I would have ever predicted back in March, 2005, and confirm over and over again that I made right move then. To all those people who helped make those years so great, may the next ten be even better for all of us!
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