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Low-priced fuel is the lure; service secures the catch

The waters in the waning weeks of summer were brimming with boats. Warm, dry weather in the Northeast and elsewhere brought out boaters by the score.
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The waters in the waning weeks of summer were brimming with boats. Warm, dry weather in the Northeast and elsewhere brought out boaters by the score. The fact that Labor Day weekend gasoline prices were as low as they’ve been in 11 years didn’t hurt, either.

Rapid changes in the price of fuel — up or down — can affect usage. And the steep drop in prices this year removed the cost-per-gallon hurdle and made it that much easier to get out on the water.

“There’s no question it’s significant,” says NMMA president Thom Dammrich. “It certainly affects people’s state of mind. And I think people are feeling pretty positive.”

The more folks on the water the merrier, given that growth hinges on exposing more people to the excitement of our wet-footed lifestyle. That’s how the boating dream is formed.

“It’s critical to our future,” says Dammrich. “The more you use your boat, the more people you take out.” Not only that, but the more time someone spends on the water, the more likely they also are to remain in the fold. Dammrich says surveys suggest that there are a minimum number of days — probably somewhere in the mid-teens — that boaters have to use their boats each year to feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth from ownership.

At the moment, Dammrich is concerned about the impact on growth caused by high levels of student debt and stagnating middle-class wages. He’s also keeping an eye on the typical pattern of growth cycles in the recreational marine market, which typically last 5 to 6 years — about where we are right now.

The difference is that this recovery has been significantly muted, compared with previous ones, and still has more upside potential tied to improvements in housing and other factors. “I think we still have a couple of more years to go,” says Dammrich. “The economy is not hitting on all cylinders yet.”

* * *

When I boarded the 75-foot head boat Black Hawk out of Niantic, Conn., this summer to write a story on the uniquely American form of fishing, I didn’t expect to have a discussion with the captain about how changing business models were affecting his little corner of the industry.

“The charter business is off tremendously,” says Capt. Greg Dubrule, 65, who spoke of a host of challenges that the party and charter boat industry have faced since the recession. “The business today has to change.”

The hardest part of the party-boat business is not catching fish, the veteran captain says. “I’ve always said the fishing part of it is easy,” says Dubrule, who has logged 47 years on southern New England waters. “The hard part is putting people on the boat.”

How do you do that? Customer service, attention to details, hard work and going the extra mile to make sure everyone has a good experience, according to Dubrule. Sound advice no matter what part of the industry you’re in. “The personalization is what makes us different,” says Dubrule.

The captain sets the tone on the Black Hawk, which on this day has about 65 paying customers fishing shoulder to shoulder. The action is lively, and the deckhands move quickly around the busy boat, netting fish, clearing lines, answering questions, sorting out snafus. “I have the best mates in the business,” says Dubrule, adding that he aims for a 10-to-1 ratio of anglers to mates.

The atmosphere is fun, kid-friendly and buttoned up in the shippy manner that you want to see on a boat carrying this many people. The pilothouse is open to anyone who has a question for the captain or just wants to look around.

“You have to be a showman,” says Dubrule, who promotes his business by speaking at sporting shows in the offseason. “The days of not talking to the customers are gone. You have a much more intelligent fisherman today, more informed.”

Fred Bednarcyzk and his two children, 6 and 8, duck into the wheelhouse on the way to the fishing grounds to say hello to the captain.

“The mates are amazing,” says Bednarcyzk, a Connecticut paramedic. “They treat the kids great. Everyone is treated as family. My kids talk about it all winter long until spring.”

On this day, the Black Hawk is running about 24 miles to Montauk, N.Y., where the bottom fishing has been good. It’s a longer trip than the captain has had to make in previous years, but Dubrule steams to where the fishing is best.

“We really do have a good operation,” he says. “We’re family-run. We put our best foot forward all the time. It shows in what we catch and how much we catch.”

Michael Morgan, a regular on the boat, says the crew goes out of its way to make sure everyone has a good time.

“The customer-service experience is superior,” says Morgan, who is from Stamford, Conn., and fishes perhaps 40 times a season on the Black Hawk. “They made an effort, even with people who can’t fish. There’s no coincidence that this boat is consistently full. They care of their customers.”

And that is a formula for success, no matter what your business: Take care of your customers.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.

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