Vol 37 | Winter Issue | Jan 1, 2012
Article by Capt. Mark Sampson
So Sonny, you’ve got yourself a boat, figured out how to catch a fish or two, and now you think you might just go ahead and get yourself a license and become a full-fledged charter boat captain. Are you sure that you’ve got what it takes? Do you really know what you might be getting yourself into? Do you even know what you need to do to get all the licenses and permits you’ll need before you can open your doors for business? Hopefully, the following will be a useful guide for anyone contemplating a career in the charter boat industry.
Captain’s License - It goes without saying that anyone who wishes to be a charter fishing boat captain needs to have a license from the U.S. Coast Guard that will allow them to carry passengers for hire. Some folks, however, might not be aware of all that’s involved in getting that license. As apparent by the number of licensed captains running around the docks these days, getting a license doesn’t require the IQ of Einstein or half a century of experience working on the water. But then again, the qualification, testing, and documentation requirements for applicants are rigorous enough to weed out some who maybe shouldn’t be in the industry in the first place and lend a certain level of credence to anyone who is.
Captain’s licenses, which the Coast Guard now refers to as “Merchant Mariners Credentials”, are assigned in a number of different grades with the first (entry level) being an “Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels” (OUPV). This is commonly known as a “6-pack” license because it limits the holder to taking no more than six passengers at a time. The next grade above an OUPV license is a “Master’s” license, which allows a captain to carry more than six passengers on vessels that have been inspected and approved by the Coast Guard to carry the extra load. A master’s license is sometimes referred to as a “tonnage license” because it specifies the maximum gross tons of a vessel the licensee is permitted to operate. Local captains commonly hold fifty, or one hundred gross-ton licenses.
Sea Time - One qualification for a captain’s license is that of days at sea which are listed as “sea-service”. To qualify for an OUPV license, mariners must document at least 360-days of sea service, or for a Master’s license they must show 720-days. Sea service can go back in time as far as necessary but 90-days of it must have occurred in the last three years.
Licenses are also divided between Near Coastal (inside and outside the inlet) and Inland (inside the inlet only). To qualify for a Near Coastal license an applicant must have served at least 90 of their days outside the inlet.
Physical - Prospective captains must see a doctor for a physical exam, the results of which must then be reviewed and approved by the Coast Guard. In recent years the Coast Guard has tightened the physical requirements for both new and renewing applicants creating problems for some who have anything but a total clean bill of health.
Drug Testing - Applicants must take and pass a drug test if they wish to get a captain’s license. The results of this test must be submitted to the Coast Guard in the application package on the appropriate CG form. Applicants who are currently enrolled in an approved random drug testing program and who have not failed or refused to take a drug test, may, in lieu of taking another test, supply a written statement from the drug testing company that they are members in good standing.
CPR/First Aid - The Coast Guard requires that all applicants for a captain’s license attend and pass an approved CPR and First Aid course such as those offered by the American Red Cross.
TWIC Card - All licensed captains must have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, also know as a “TWIC card” and anyone applying for a captain’s license must have at least applied for one. Currently the fee for this identification card is $132.50 and they are good for five years. Applicants must apply in person to a TWIC Enrollment Center, the closest of which to Ocean City is in Salisbury. More information is available at TWICinformation.com.
Testing - Besides qualifying for a Coast Guard license, every prospective captain must pass a written examination. The test is not easy; it’s long, requires a relatively high score to pass and covers rules of the road, safety, boat handling, navigation and plotting. Much of the test involves many questions on information and situations the average recreational boater might never encounter in their boating career - but ones that the Coast Guard thinks a licensed captain should know. Even skippers with a lot of time on the water will usually find it necessary to crack the books and study hard to pass. Some people never do.
For many, one of most challenging sections of the test is “rules of the road” which involves questions on the actions between two vessels, lights, sound signals and day shapes. With 30 questions and a required passing score of 90% or better, someone can only miss three questions and still pass that part of the test.
Another section many find difficult is “plotting” which requires folks to physically plot-out courses, routes and locations on a paper chart. For hundreds of years, such tasks were commonplace on vessels of all sizes, but in these days with GPS’ on every boat, plotting has become something a lot of mariners never learn - that is, unless they need to pass a captain’s exam!
Anyone who qualifies can go to the Coast Guard’s Regional Exam Center in Baltimore and sit for the exam, but these days a lot of prospective captains choose instead to take a course through an approved Captain’s School that teaches them the material they need to know and also administers the test. Those who enroll in such schools must still learn all the same material and take the same tests as those who go on their own to the Coast Guard Exam Center, but many feel that professional training helps them to more easily learn and (most importantly) “retain” what they’ve been taught long after the testing period. Much more information about captains licenses and accredited schools is available on the US Coast Guard website.
Got your license – now what?
So now that you’ve got your captains license you’re all set and ready to launch into the charter fishing business. Right? Well – not so fast. If you’re going to fish there are other state and federal licenses you’ll need to acquire before you can legally start putting hooks in the water and hauling in a paycheck.
Maryland Guides License - Anyone who wishes to run a charter fishing or guide service in Maryland waters, which includes all the inland waters and out in the ocean to three miles offshore, must have a Commercial Tidal Fish License which can either be a “Resident Fishing Guides License (FGR), a Non-Resident Fishing Guides License (FGN), or an Unlimited Tidal Fish License (TFL). The state makes only a limited amount of these licenses available and there is a long waiting list to get one. It’s not permitted for someone who has one of these licenses to sell it to someone else, but the state allows it to happen (hence the reason for the long waiting list) so those wishing to circumvent the waiting list can usually find someone who is going out of the business and willing to sell/transfer the license to them. The prices for a license can be many thousands of dollars. Fortunately most local captains fish only in federal waters (beyond three miles of the beach) so they do not need a Maryland guides license. These licenses are issued by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland Fishing License - In 2011 Maryland started requiring anglers to purchase a Chesapeake Bay and Coastal Sportfishing License to fish in Maryland coastal waters. Charter boat operators can purchase a license to cover up to six of their passengers for $240, or pay $290 for a license if they plan to carry more than six. These licenses must be purchased in person at a Maryland DNR Service Center such as the one in Salisbury (410-713-3840).
Vessel Operator Card - An “Operators Permit” is needed by anyone operating a federally permitted fishing vessel. This permit is issued by NMFS through either their Northeast Regional Office (978-281-9370 nero.noaa.gov) or their Southeast Regional Office (727-824-5326 sero.nmfs.noaa.gov). Applicants for this license will receive a laminated picture ID card that they must carry with them whenever they are fishing.
Multi Species Permit – This permit will allow charter and headboat operators to fish for a multitude of species including seabass, tautog, bluefish, flounder, squid, butterfish and so on. It can be obtained through the NMFS Northeast Regional office (978-281-9370 nero.noaa.gov).
HMS Charter/Headboat Permit - Most offshore anglers are quite familiar with The “Highly Migratory Species” (HMS) permit. It was previously known as a “tuna permit” but a few years ago the National Marine Fisheries Service changed it to also cover sharks and billfish. It’s important that anyone carrying passengers for hire makes sure that they get the “HMS Charter/Headboat” permit AND NOT the “HMS Angling” permit which is intended for private recreational fishermen. This is a very quick and easy permit to get online (nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms).
Dolphin Wahoo Permit - In addition to the HMS permit, all charter and headboat operators must also have a special permit to fish for, or land, dolphin and wahoo. Listed as the “Atlantic Charter/ Headboat for Dolphin/Wahoo” (or CDW) this permit is obtained through the NMFS Southeast Regional Office (727-824-5326 sero.nmfs.noaa.gov). Private fishermen who do not charter their boats do not need this permit.
Random Drug Testing Program - All active captains and their crew members (mates) then need to be enrolled in a Coast Guard approved random drug-testing program. Besides the paperwork and an annual fee, enrollment in such a program requires a trip to an approved medical facility to leave a “sample” for urine-analysis of illegal drugs. Afterwards, captains and mates are subject to being called up at any time for random drug testing. In addition, any vessel that is more than 2 hours from a collection site that’s capable of doing alcohol or drug tests is required to have an alcohol test device on board to administer to persons involved in an accident. Two approved and popular random drug program companies include: The Charterboat Consortium (nacocharters.org) and The Maritime Consortium (drugfreevessel.org).
Federal Documentation - Rather than having their boats registered with the state, those who own vessels of 5-gross tons or more and wish to carry passengers for hire must also ensure that that their boats are “federally documented”. Instead of the common state registration numbers and decal up on the bow, such vessels will display the boat’s name on both sides of the bow, and the vessel’s name and homeport on the stern.
Documenting a vessel is not as easy as filling out a couple of forms and dropping them off at the Coast Guard office, complying with this requirement can be a long and involved process that requires a lot of paperwork.
Marina Requirements – Often particular marinas will have specific requirements that charter captains or boats must meet if they wish to operate from their facility. These requirements may have to do with pricing structure, insurance coverage, upkeep of the boat, qualifications of the captain, co-op advertising fees, or whatever the marina deems necessary to properly manage their particular charter fleet.
Local Business Licenses – Depending upon where a vessel is tied up, towns or counties will sometimes require that charter operations have some sort of business license. When I use to operate down in the Keys it was more hassle to get a county “trash” certificate than it was to get a charter boat fishing license, but both were needed to do business there. Though local governments seldom provide charter operations the same benefits they might to an average land-based business, they’ll often find a way to tax them the same.
Charter Insurance – It goes without saying that good liability and hull insurance is critical in the charter business. You can be the safest captain in the world but “anything” can happen out there and even if you do nothing wrong, you can still end up in court and the right insurance can be a lifesaver. Insurance is different between pleasure and charter boats and a lot of insurance companies will not cover vessels carrying passengers for hire. It’s a good idea to get hooked up with an agent who specializes in writing policies for charter boats and other commercial marine businesses.
OK, so now that you’ve got all the legal stuff taken care of, it’s finally time to go fishing – or maybe not. I haven’t yet touched on one of the most important aspects of the business and that would be “customers”! Customers are a pretty important part of any business and if anyone thinks all they need to do to draw paying clients to their transom is a pretty boat and a couple of tournament wins, they need to wake up and smell the diesel fumes! If you haven’t noticed, Delmarva has a gazillion charter boats, most of which are in pretty nice shape and are run by folks who are probably just as good as you or I at catching fish. Unfortunately, since there hasn’t exactly been a surplus of charter “clients” in recent years, everyone is competing for what business they can grab from the limited market.
Effective marketing of a charter fishing business is, in a way, no different from most other businesses in that the promotions need to be seen by, and catch the attention of, the target audience (there’s no need to run ads out in the mid-west because few people are going to come from that far away to go fishing), they should cultivate a desire for the product (get folks interested in going fishing), and they should show why one particular product is the one to choose (why they should choose your boat over all the others).
From TV ads to t-shirts, there’s a million and one ways to promote a charter business these days and everyone has to figure out for themselves what works best for their own situation. There are, however, a few things in this business that are a “must-do” for folks who are serious about booking trips. The first is to realize that no matter what marina or dock they operate out of they will probably have to book most, if not all, of their own trips. These days with the internet it’s too easy to get online and in a few minutes find out details about boats operating in the area you wish to go fishing, so not as many folks are inclined to just call a marina and ask to be set up on a boat. Instead they can easily contact the captain themselves and make all the arrangements. Captains who are content to sit around and wait for the dock office to book their boat are going to be doing a lot of sitting around all season.
Websites, have one! – Websites are no longer an option for charter boats anymore - they’re a must! I know there are still a few dinosaurs out there who think that “internet stuff” is unnecessary and all they need to book trips is a telephone answering machine and a pack or two of brochures. But these days people “expect” to find legitimate businesses on the web and can be suspicious of ones that aren’t represented there. Every charter boat should have its own website. It doesn’t have to be huge, loud, interactive, and feature all the latest high tech features, the basic info found on any brochure is adequate. While it can be tough for an average guy who runs his own boat to compete against the advertising budgets of boats owned by fat-cats or big corporations, a good looking website need not be expensive and can help to level the playing field by providing a clean and professional description of the business.
Phone calls, take em! - Included on every bit of promotional material should be all the contact information needed so that potential customers can reach you the quickest and easiest way. Remember, when someone decides they want to book a fishing trip they can pick your boat or any one of a thousand others. You’ve got to talk to them ASAP after they made that commitment and before they change their mind. There is never a moment that I don’t have my charter (calendar) book with me so that at any time, day or night, if I get a call about a trip I can look at my schedule, see what’s available, and book the trip. During the fishing season I’m seldom able to eat dinner without my home or cell phone ringing, but I never ignore a call because I know it could be the difference between sitting at the dock or getting paid to go fishing one day. Charter captains need to be accessible to their clients 24/7, and even though the calls often come at inconvenient times, the alternative is that they don’t come in at all.
Email, use it! - When email first came out I wasn’t too keen on using it for correspondence with clients. It just seemed to me that I could cover more in a 5-minute phone call than I could in an email that took me 15-minutes to type out, not to mention that I’d then have to wait for a reply. I still prefer phone calls but at least with emails I can respond on my time (not in the middle of dinner) and I can archive the correspondence for future reference. Email also allows clients to correspond with me on their time (they have schedules too) instead of trying to coordinate a call when we are both available to talk. When you want to get a quick reminder out to clients that the fish are biting and you have open dates, using email as an alternative to direct mailings can save time, money and a lot of envelope licking. These days I book about half of my trips via email, and I’d like to thank all the charter boat captains who don’t use email because I’m certain the rest of us are getting the charters that you’re throwing away.
Coastal Fisherman, advertise in it! If you want the fishing community to know you have a legitimate charter operation that’s open for business you absolutely have to be represented in this publication. There is no other fishing publication that even comes close to being read each week cover to cover by so many local fishermen and (most importantly) “wanna-be-fishermen” looking to book a charter boat. Considering the distribution and readership, the Coastal Fisherman is absolutely the best bang for the buck. And I’m not just saying that to keep the mean-old publisher from beating me up!
Obviously, there are a lot of “hoops” to jump through before someone can step into the business of taking people out fishing on a charter boat. It might not be easy to get through them all, but then again, maybe it’s best that it isn’t. Taking passengers out on the water is a huge responsibility that’s not suited for just anyone who can drive a boat and bait a hook.
OK kid, you’ve passed the qualifying process, the testing, the physical, the paperwork shuffle, learned how to do CPR, stop severe bleeding and tie a clove hitch, chart a course from here to Bermuda, and even know what lights a tugboat should display if it’s traveling down the Mississippi River. You have all your fishery permits, which means you probably also have Maryland DNR and at least two NMFS phone numbers memorized and their websites book-marked on your computer, as well as an extra six inches of paperwork piled up on your desk. Your 14-year-old niece set you up with a first class website, you’ve got some brochures and business cards printed, and you even took out a quarter page ad in the “Coastal Fisherman”. Finally, after all that, you’re ready for the excitement, fame and fortune that comes from being a sportfishing charter boat captain!
I hate to end this article on a sobering note, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that probably less than one percent of those who start a full-time charter fishing business actually succeed in making a living for themselves. What most captains eventually come to know is that all the aforementioned hurdles they had to overcome just to start running charters in the first place were actually the “easy” part of the business. The tough part comes after all that, when they realize the incredible time and expense involved in keeping the boat and equipment operating and booking enough charters to not only pay for all the business expenses, but also to finish off the season with enough money in the bank for the captain to pay his creditors, utility bills, put the kids through school and still have a little left over to put food on the table at the end of each day. It’s a great occupation if you can make it work, many try – few succeed.
Captain Mark Sampson is an outdoor writer and captain of the charter boat “Fish Finder”, docked at the Ocean City Fishing Center.