Small Business
Getting started: Skippers
August 13, 2001: 8:48 a.m. ET

Life at sea can be treacherous and profitable for yacht delivery captains
By Staff Writer Hope Hamashige
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Getting it home may not be the first thing most people consider when they start shopping around for boats. That is, until they realize that the sprawling yawl or luxurious cruiser they want comes from a shipyard that's 4,000 nautical miles from their home dock.

Many people start out mulling the idea of sailing their new vessel or powering it home themselves. Most will eventually end up calling someone like Captain John Rains, a skipper who may well have clocked as many as a million nautical miles on the high seas sailing other people's boats.

In theory, the yacht delivery business seems filled with romance. To those on the outside, it's part Ernest Hemingway, part Aristotle Onassis. But those in the business say their lives are no elegant regatta.

For yacht deliverymen there is no plush yacht club and few lazy days taking in the sun and the sea breeze. What they get instead are long, hot days, gale force winds, monster currents, particular customs officials, and broken engine parts.

In spite of the grueling work, most also say it's a great way to make a living ... if you can pull it off.

Gotta pay your dues

Getting a yacht delivery business off the ground is no easy feat. It takes little in the way of cash because all you really need is a phone and, possibly, some money for ads.

More importantly, however, they need a reputation. Few people who buy expensive boats want to entrust them to amateurs for safe delivery so the more trips you have on your resume the more business you are going to get.

Most spent their lives around boats, and the most successful are people like
Rains who can claim a specialty. Rains is the guy to go to if you need to take a boat through the Panama Canal. He knows the brutal winds that stir up along the western coast of Costa Rica. Equally important, he knows how to cut through the red tape at the ports in Mexico.

After many years of sailing and powering in and out of Latin American and Caribbean ports between the East and West coasts of the United States, Rains began publishing boating guides, which helped solidify his reputation as the expert in the area.

Captain Mike Maurice said he would not be business, 10 years after he launched his yacht delivery service near Portland, Ore., if it weren't for his expertise in navigating the river mouths along the Oregon and Washington coast.

"This area scares people half to death even people who are fairly experienced," he said.

Maurice earned his stripes running charter boats along the Columbia River. He built up a reputation as someone who could navigate the treacherous sand bars at the mouths of the rivers which can run a boat aground. He got occasional boat delivery jobs work while still running charter boats.

Rains, too, started out as a part-timer. He was working as a crew member for a delivery captain who threw work to Rains that he couldn't take on. The early days were far from glamorous. Rains got the trips that nobody else wanted to take. He got a lot of work returning racing boats from Mexican ports like Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta to California.

"It was brutal," he said. The prevailing winds in that part of the Pacific scream out of the northwest, which makes sailing south a true joy. Yacht club members from places like Newport Beach and Marina del Rey fly their spinnakers and haul down the cost several times a year in regattas to Mexico.

The trip home is a completely different story it's wet and slow. Those same winds can stall anyone trying to go north and the waves create a constant spray. "There are a lot of times when you just have to anchor up and wait," said Rains. Whether he knew it or not, he was, however, learning a lot about Mexico which would come to help his career.

Danger as well as profit

The early days for Maurice also meant having to take on a lot of less-than-seaworthy vessels. The best captains have to not only navigate well, but also better know how to fix engines and other malfunctioning equipment or have someone along who does. Sailing boats that are in sub-par condition can put the lives of the captain and his crew at risk in danger currents and foul weather.

Mechanical problems are a real hitch. Maurice agreed to transport a 120-footer in the Caribbean and when he got there found the ship in pitiful shape. The entire battery system was shot. The steering was malfunctioning. The engine was overheating.

"It took me three weeks to get her to a state where we could even take her around the harbor," he said. The captain and his crew is responsible for getting that boat to its destination, so they often have to take care of repairs along the way.

Delays of days or sometimes weeks can ensue depending on where a boat breaks down. Parts are not always available and delivery of parts is not always reliable. When he has engine problems in Mexico and Central America, its sometimes less costly and less time consuming to fly to Florida to buy parts rather than trying to have them sent to him.

For their expertise, however, captains can make good money. They can charge up to about $1,000 a day. Out of that money, they also have to pay a couple of crew members. Rains said he always has at least two other experienced sailors on board.

Beyond that, however, there is little expense involved. The boat owners have to cover the costs of gasoline and other expenses the crew and captain incur along the route. Maurice said he still takes out the occasional ad in a yachting magazine, as do many other delivery captains. Few, if any, have an office.

"All you really need is a phone," said Rains, "and a good reputation." graphic


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Captain John E. Rains Yacht & Ship Delivery

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