The tran­si­tion from cock­pit to helm comes with tremen­dous re­spon­si­bil­ity


The tran­si­tion from cock­pit to helm comes with tremen­dous re­spon­si­bil­ity

By Capt. Jen Copeland

Most of us dream about run­ning our own boat one day. It’s in a fish­er­man’s DNA, and there isn’t a deck­hand alive who hasn’t at least once thought they could do a bet­ter job than the skip­per on the bridge. But mak­ing the tran­si­tion to the helm isn’t for the faint of heart.

With the ti­tle of cap­tain comes a whole new set of chal­lenges, and most of those are never seen or shared with the crew. Go­ing from a neck-down, mostly phys­i­cal po­si­tion as a deck­hand to a neck-up job that re­quires ex­pend­ing men­tal en­ergy isn’t easy. In­stead of tak­ing di­rec­tion, you are giv­ing it. Not only are cap­tains re­spon­si­ble for a very ex­pen­sive boat and all its main­te­nance and re­pairs — pre­ven­tive, emer­gency and oth­er­wise — they are also re­spon­si­ble for the lives of ev­ery­one on board. And un­less you are a fish whis­perer, go ahead and pile fish-find­ing on the skip­per’s plate as well.

The cap­tain is essen­tially an as­set man­ager. They must possess the metic­u­lous or­ga­ni­za­tion skills re­quired to run a flaw­less pro­gram, and not only from a pa­per­work, li­cens­ing and doc­u­men­ta­tion stand­point. Cap­tains are usu­ally ex­pected to han­dle the travel ar­range­ments, cruis­ing per­mits, food, drinks, bait and any other pur­chase that goes along with keep­ing the pro­gram run­ning, whether it is char­ter, cor­po­rate or pri­vate. It can be­come over­whelm­ing.


When I started fish­ing in the Florida Keys 16 years ago, I didn’t re­ally have a plan. I had my li­cense and knew I wanted to run a sport-fish­ing boat for a liv­ing, but wasn’t sure how to get there. I tried to get a job in Palm Beach, but at the time, fe­male fish­heads were al­most un­heard of, and I got shot down plenty of times. So, with the help of some good con­tacts, a few more hid­den tears and a move to a smaller, more tightknit com­mu­nity, I started out where many others also be­gin their ca­reers: on the char­ter docks.

Mak­ing a plan is an im­por­tant step. How ex­actly are you go­ing to get there? The sport-fish­ing busi­ness is like ev­ery other: You start at the en­try level, and move up. This can mean wash­ing the boat or help­ing the crew with bait rig­ging and main­te­nance. By show­ing you are ea­ger and hun­gry to learn, drive can eas­ily over­power lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, but you must dig in, work hard and never, ever com­plain.


In al­most ev­ery job in­ter­view, we are asked, “Where do you want to be in five years, or in 10?” The rea­son: Po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers want to see if you are a goal-ori­ented in­di­vid­ual. With­out hav­ing a time­line for ad­vance­ment, at least in your own head, you show a lack of drive and in­ter­est in ad­vance­ment. And no cap­tain wants to spend their valu­able time and en­ergy on some­one who has no in­ter­est in ab­sorb­ing their knowl­edge.

From a cap­tain’s per­spec­tive, we want to be sure the deck­hands we hire know enough to do what is ex­pected with lit­tle to no su­per­vi­sion. Any­one can be taught how to fish — it’s not brain surgery — but it is very time con­sum­ing when you are faced with train­ing yet another new­bie. I have trained a few char­ter-turned-pri­vate deck­hands over the years, and I can say it’s daunt­ing when you in­vest sig­nif­i­cant time with some­one who then moves on and you’re faced with start­ing from scratch once again.

For cap­tains with many years at the helm of the same op­er­a­tion, there is al­ways the thought of re­tire­ment. This is a hard job: It’s chal­leng­ing on the mind, and phys­i­cally de­mand­ing on the body. Sea­soned cap­tains are con­stantly siz­ing up their deck­hands: Is he a good can­di­date for my re­place­ment? And while we are pas­sion­ate and posses­sive about our boats, most long­time cap­tains feel it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity to bring up, train and then con­fi­dently sug­gest


their deck­hand as a re­place­ment when the time comes to re­tire or move on to another po­si­tion.


Com­ing to the fish­ing busi­ness with a cap­tain’s li­cense in hand does not au­to­mat­i­cally ad­vance you to the bridge. Run­ning a sport-fish­ing boat re­quires a whole new set of skills, and you al­ways learn best when start­ing at the bot­tom.

When­ever you are able, ride along with another team on the bridge. As hard as it might be to stay out of the cock­pit and away from the ac­tion, fo­cus in­stead on why you started fish­ing in the first place. I some­times have this dilemma my­self. I know that rid­ing along with a dif­fer­ent boat al­ways ad­vances my own knowl­edge be­cause I truly be­lieve you should learn some­thing new ev­ery sin­gle time you

go out. Sim­ple ob­ser­va­tion is one of the best ways to gain knowl­edge.

Watch­ing the way dif­fer­ent cap­tains drive on fish, sit on an edge or work a seamount can dras­ti­cally im­prove your own skills. By work­ing for dif­fer­ent peo­ple, you take the best of each of them and cre­ate your own unique style along the way. While many fish­ing tech­niques and skills are handed down through gen­er­a­tions of crews, there will al­ways be one or two things you do dif­fer­ently from your pre­de­ces­sors, and chances are that you learned this strat­egy through some­one out­side your cir­cle. When­ever pos­si­ble, step out of your com­fort zone.


In the early years of a deck­hand’s ca­reer, the main goal is to ac­tu­ally get on a boat. And un­less you grew up in the busi­ness, this part is up to you. We put our­selves in a po­si­tion to be seen, and then in a po­si­tion to ac­tu­ally get paid to fish. It is very hum­bling to stand at the dock throw­ing the lines to the deck­hand in the cock­pit and wish­ing you were him, go­ing fish­ing for the day. This is of­ten our first les­son in hu­mil­ity.

Your ea­ger­ness to wash a boat for free, sim­ply hop­ing for an in­vi­ta­tion, only shows your com­mit­ment to the game. Rarely does a new mate get a job be­cause he has no ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially when the suc­cess of a char­ter could de­pend en­tirely on one gaff shot. Most of us started out wash­ing boats, rid­ing for free and spend­ing count­less hours ty­ing a Bi­mini twist over and over un­til we can do it in our sleep. If you thought that was hard work, you haven’t seen any­thing yet.

At this point, you are switch­ing fo­cus from the chores of the cock­pit to the cap­tain’s du­ties. With­out be­ing prompted, vol­un­teer to do things the cap­tain nor­mally does, such as an en­gine room check, for ex­am­ple. If you re­port a de­tailed ac­count of your find­ings to the cap­tain, he will be more likely to an­swer any ques­tions you might have be­cause he sees you have an in­ter­est in learn­ing.

In­stead of nap­ping on the ride home, ask if you can drive the boat in. In this pseu­doskip­per sce­nario, you will get a feel for what it is like to be truly re­spon­si­ble for the boat. Not only are you ob­serv­ing at another level the im­por­tance of ac­cu­rate nav­i­ga­tion, you are also pre­sented with an op­por­tu­nity to learn the boat,

giv­ing you a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of your ves­sel’s per­for­mance and quirks.

Show­ing you are re­spon­si­ble on a daily ba­sis will al­low your cap­tain to open up to you, share in­for­ma­tion and ul­ti­mately al­low you some wheel time — ei­ther to drive on fish or dock the boat. Be­ing a pro­fes­sional fish­er­man is about lov­ing all as­pects of the job. Want­ing to learn with­out the ex­pec­ta­tion of pay­ment is a sig­nal to others that you gen­uinely want to suc­ceed, and that you are in­ter­ested in con­tin­u­ing your ed­u­ca­tion on the wa­ter. Find a cap­tain who is will­ing to take you with him and let you watch. To be­come a cap­tain, you must be able to take all your ed­u­ca­tion and ap­ply it with­out doubt.


Ex­pe­ri­ence is re­quired to un­der­stand the job’s real scope, and just hav­ing a cap­tain’s li­cense in no way means you have the know-how to run a boat. It does mean you know, or should know, the rudi­men­tary ba­sics: the rules of the road, pa­per-chart nav­i­ga­tion and gen­eral deck knowl­edge.

In­sur­ance com­pa­nies of­ten give boat own­ers who em­ploy li­censed cap­tains pre­mium dis­counts, so chances are, if you are to be con­sid­ered for a driv­ing job, you’ll need to ob­tain your ticket. And it’s manda­tory for char­ter op­er­a­tions.

If you want to move up, you must show an in­ter­est. Be in­ter­ested in what your cap­tain is

do­ing on the bridge. Have the ini­tia­tive to learn. You might be Su­per­mate on your own, but with­out the guid­ance of a good cap­tain, you’re left to fig­ure it out on your own. Don’t be greedy, and don’t think you can’t learn be­cause you aren’t get­ting paid. Some of my best learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are those that re­sulted in no pay.

Be care­ful what you wish for. It might seem like the best job in the world, un­til it’s yours. Just be­cause you are now the com­man­der doesn’t mean you have the right to stop learn­ing. Tech­nol­ogy and prac­tices change very rapidly in this busi­ness, and fail­ure to keep up with the times will soon have you off your 70-foot cus­tom boat and back in line at the char­ter dock. Hard work will al­ways pay off, no mat­ter the in­dus­try, so the more you can learn, the bet­ter off you will be.

Some peo­ple are meant to be cap­tains, and some are bet­ter off as deck­hands. Pro­fes­sional skip­pers wear a lot of hats, and fish­ing is the easy part. From man­ag­ing the crew and the main­te­nance sched­ule to over­see­ing the boat’s bud­get and travel sched­ule, re­spon­si­bil­ity is a very im­por­tant com­po­nent in this process. With­out the abil­ity to per­form these tasks, you will soon find your­self in over your head and back at the square end of the boat.


Capt. Jen Copeland is a 20-year marinein­dus­try pro­fes­sional who en­joys telling a good story, es­pe­cially about big-game fish­ing. She cur­rently runs the Vik­ing 50

Three C’s in North Key Largo, Florida.


Most cap­tains will ad­mit that fish­ing is ac­tu­ally the eas­i­est part of the job. Pro­fes­sional skip­pers are en­trusted not only with the lives of the pas­sen­gers but also with the main­te­nance and safety of what can be a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar as­set.

Most deck­hands be­gin their ca­reers wash­ing boats, with the hope of an in­vi­ta­tion to go fish­ing the next day. Along the way, they learn crit­i­cal skills, such as help­ing with en­gine main­te­nance and man­ag­ing the tackle and cock­pit gear (above). Hard work...

The best cap­tains and deck­hands are also good teach­ers. The abil­ity to show others how to per­form dif­fi­cult tasks un­der in­tense pres­sure (like quickly pitch-bait­ing a blue mar­lin on a teaser 20 feet from the tran­som) re­quires prac­tice and a spe­cial...

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