Island charter boat captains say they have hit rough water this summer when it comes to business, which is off for some and way off for others.
Although there is rarely consensus among charter captains, who are known for being mavericks, all can agree on one thing this summer: the cost of doing business, especially the price of fuel, has cut deeply into their ability to make a living. The fish are there and the weather in the last two months has been good, except for fog. But for many captains the numbers of new customers is down - way down.
"Business is good but there are a lot less people walking around," said Capt. Willy Hatch, a 33-year old charter captain in Edgartown who has been in business for eight years. Mr. Hatch operates a 31-foot JC out of the Edgartown harbor called Machaca. "Business is good with the repeat customers," Mr. Hatch said. "Eighty to eighty five per cent of my customers are repeat." But he said new customers have been few and far between this summer. Mr. Hatch works from May to November.
"There aren't the customers," agreed Capt. Ross Roberts of Edgartown. Mr. Roberts, 54, has worked Edgartown waters for 20 years. He works on a 30-foot Blackwatch called Big Eye and spends his winters fishing in Costa Rica. He said he is considering whether to give up the business in Edgartown. "There aren't a lot of people anymore. People are watching their money more. The Island has changed," he said.
Captain Roberts charges $550 for half a day with a maximum of six people. A full day costs $1,000. "We had to increase the rates because of fuel prices. Everybody understands about the price of fuel. To fill my boat it costs $750 with the current prices. I went yesterday morning [last Tuesday] to Wasque. The fish are there. The weather was perfect. My next scheduled trip is Friday. It is really slow," he said.
"It was the worst May and June that I have ever seen in 20 years. It was cold in May and June and it didn't start picking up until July," said Capt. William (Buddy) Vanderhoop of Aquinnah, who operates the Tomahawk II out of Menemsha. "The fishing has been phenomenal, there are a lot of big bass. There are tuna right off Gay Head, within a mile of land," he said.
But he also said his business is off.
"There is no chance for me to catch up. I can't replace the people that are already gone," he said, adding: "The price of fuel is ridiculous. Already it is $3.08 at Menemsha Texaco for regular gas."
Mr. Vanderhoop said with the high fuel prices, many charter captains are choosing to stay closer to home.
For Capt. Dick Vincent, who operates the Flashy Lady out of Menemsha, and Capt. Scott McDowell, who operates Slapshot II out of Menemsha, the summer has been okay, even great.
"I am right where I should be," Mr. Vincent said.
"This is the best summer I have had in the last six or seven years," Mr. McDowell said. "I am talking about the whole season. I had a monster June and a monster July."
Mr. McDowell charges $450 a trip, already up $25 for fuel. "The overhead is the killer. By next year I am thinking it will cost another dollar a gallon for fuel. Everything is going up. I think it will blow us out of the business. It is already a lifestyle not a living. If I can pay last winter's bills with this summer's profits than it is worth it. If I can't it is time to get serious about making money again," he said.
Mr. Vincent said he will raise his rate next year to $500 for half a day. "I am just biting the bullet. I hate to raise my rate, but I will have to go up," he said.
The Internet is helpful in getting the word out; most charter boat captains have their own web sites, which is in part their answer to the rising cost of advertising.
Charter fishermen can also offset the cost of their overhead by selling their catch; but the price paid for fresh fish has dropped.
"We are getting $1.00 to $1.50 a pound for striped bass," Mr. Hatch said. "Five years ago we got over $2 a pound. Back then fuel was 80 cents, and a dozen eels cost 80 cents. You could go fishing for striped bass four days a week. Today a dozen eels are $15 and we are limited to 30 striped bass a trip and we can only commercially catch striped bass three days a week," he added.
For Capt. Tom Langman, 67, who operates the Phoenix II, the charter business is still viable. "If I do two charters a week, that is fine," he said, adding: "But I don't do it intensely. I do esoteric chartering. I go flyfishing or with light tackle. I don't use live bait. My business is word of mouth."
Mr. Vincent said the fog has been a compounding negative factor for charter captains this summer, and he recounted two close calls with separate fast powerboats in one day on Monday.
"The first time I was coming around Gay Head in the fog. Visibility was less than 50 yards. I was going really slow, picking my way through the targets on the radar," he said. A high powered boat passed him.
"If that fella had stayed on his course for two more seconds, he would have been right into me. He was cruising," Mr. Vincent said. "It shook me up. I had to stop until my hands stopped shaking. That was the closest I have ever been when I thought I was going to get hit."
Mr. Vincent said the second close call came three hours later, five miles away. "I saw another one coming right for me. I was trolling. And so I turned to get away. He came out of the fog. He came right down my rail and was 50 feet away.
"I tell you these people don't have radar. They have computer driven charter plotters. They think they know where they are. But they don't know who is around them," he said.