Guided charter boating industry grows

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Kathy Beattie admits that she didn't know much about the boat charter industry when she threw herself into the business 11 years ago, but she knew she loved The Shawmanee.

Beattie and her husband, Don, purchased the 65-foot ketch sailboat in 1996, thinking they might have to sell their house and live on the boat to make it work as a business. It turned out they didn't have to sell the house, but it's been more a passion than a business.

"It's truly an amazing boat, and I thought it would be a crime not to share it," said Beattie. "We're still learning when it comes to running a business, but more importantly we're enjoying ourselves while meeting a lot of neat people."

As the tourism industry continues to grow in Whatcom County, so does the guided charter boat industry. Drew Schmidt, who founded Victoria-San Juan Cruises in 1986, said the growth in the industry closely mirrors general tourism spending figures, which rose 9.5 percent in 2005. Currently, his three cruises handle around 15,000 passengers each summer.

"The trend has been very steady overall growth, but it is also dependent on the weather," Schmidt said. "When the weather is nice, the phones start ringing."

In Whatcom County, the industry appears to be more about making sure there are plenty of options available for tourists, rather than having a competitive, who-can-snare-more-passengers attitude, said Todd Shuster, who is entering his fourth year operating Gato Verde Adventure Sailing in Fairhaven.

"There are a variety of boats in this area that offer different experiences, so there is more of a situation where we hand each other customers," Shuster said.

"If there is a group that wants something that I don't offer, I try to find someone who can. There is also an opportunity for this industry to grow."

This has worked because many of the business owners have developed their own niche, said Ham Hayes, owner of Valhalla Marine Adventures. The boats vary in size, and the guides vary in expertise, with some focusing on providing tourists information about the natural or cultural history of the area, while others focus on education groups.

"In reality, visitors are looking for specific things in a charter trip, and providing information about the other companies benefits the entire industry," Hayes said.

Someone who thinks there is room for growth is Mike Kramer, who founded Bellingham Bay Sailing in March. He had been teaching people how to sail, and decided to start chartering his 34-foot sloop sailboat.

"Ideally I would like to continue teaching, but right now I want to focus on taking small groups out to show the area," Kramer said. "I like the natural aspects of sailing, and there are a lot of people who want to see what's out there."

Making a charter business successful in Bellingham can be difficult because of the relatively short season. While most boats operate between April and October, the best chance for boating in good weather is in July and August.

"July and August is really the sweet spot, and you really have to gear yourself up for that short period," said Hayes. "It makes marketing and networking very important, so visitors know where they can find you." Fueling is also an issue.

Hayes, who started Valhalla two years ago, decided to forego using the motor boat and concentrate on sailboat charters because there was too much cost variability.

"If gas prices go up, you have to pass it on to customers, and they are already being affected by rising fuel costs," Hayes said. "You don't have to worry about that expense with a sailboat."

With the demand for moorage slips high in Bellingham, establishing a charter business on the waterfront can be tough. Kramer, who was able to snare a spot in Fairhaven, said he feels lucky to have it.

"If I hadn't been able to get that slip, I would have had trouble getting started," Kramer said.

Dan Stahl, director of marine services for the Port of Bellingham, said they do have a waiting list for moorage slips in Bellingham. They set aside a percentage of slips for commercial uses, which has remained the same in recent years.

"We set aside space for commercial uses because of the industry's importance to the local economy," Stahl said. "Charter boats tend to make more use for other marine-related businesses than recreational boaters, which means more jobs."

The expectation is that the industry will continue to grow, particularly as Bellingham continues to redevelop the waterfront.

"This is definitely a growth industry for Bellingham. We have a great opportunity for tourists to have unique, enjoyable experiences," Hayes said. "We have one of the most fantastic cruising areas in the world, and it's amazing for visitors who don't see this every day."

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