Growing up on a golf course in Jacksonville, Fla., would have been idyllic if I had any interest in golf, but it was the vast ponds, not the rolling greens, that lured me in. I could peer down and see largemouth bass swimming below, and after reeling in my first catch, I was hooked.
I have clear and vivid memories of being glued to the TV, watching the Bassmaster Classic, while visions of bass fishing fame danced through my head. Maybe some day I could be the youngest angler to qualify on the circuit.
At 11, my exuberance was palpable and my grandfather jumped on board. I soon became the proud owner of a small used jonboat with a 3-hp Evinrude. I fished every chance I had, and a short time later I had stepped up to a Tri Hull Dixie with an 85-hp Evinrude, then in high school a Hydrostream with a 175-hp Mercury.
Some years later I was the proud owner of a Pearson sailboat and then a Shamrock. I used to enter Kingfish tournaments, where I had the good fortune to be sponsored by Bellsouth Mobility.
And now the rest of the story. Each boat and motor had to be completely rebuilt; they were DIY specials from bow to stern. Fortunately my grandfather had a garage full of tools, and I learned by trial and error how to rebuild outboards. In the process, I found my passion.
The local marine junkyard became my regular hunting ground. My first job in high school was as a new-boat rigger, installing motors and gauges. Then I got a job in an outboard shop; later I became manager of the sterndrive department. By my early 20s, I was a service manager and well on my way to being a jack of all marine trades.
As in other small businesses, you have to do it all and learn all of the trades. It is a victory when things go well and a learning experience when they don’t work out. I spent a lot of late nights in the early days on my own time, determined that I would figure “it” out before morning came and the owner arrived.
I paid my dues learning engine repair, painting, fiberglass, hauling, buffing — whatever had to be done — and I also learned how to fix my mistakes when things didn’t go as planned. Hands-on experience is invaluable, but there also was a lot of formal training along the way, including certifications from OMC, Mercury, MerCruiser and boat manufacturers, and an ABBRA service manager certificate. The learning process never ends. In my 40s now, I continue to hone my skills, including Dometic A/C training and ABYC certifications. There are so many potential areas of interest and careers in the marine industry; it is an exciting, fun and growing field.
I also had the opportunity to manage a state-of-the-art high and dry with overhead lifts, run a brokerage department, even go out on repos for a bank and then handle the sales. As time moved on, I became manager of the service departments for four locations and then spent several years as a manager in the megayacht arena.
My current position as the manager of River Forest Yachting Centers’ LaBelle, Fla., location is the culmination of my experience. Working in a rural location with limited resources for employees with marine training, combined with storing and servicing high-end boats from 20 feet to 90 feet, has meant that I utilize all of my past learning experiences and now mentor the next generation of marine professionals.
The marine industry is multifaceted and ripe for young enthusiasts to acquire both formal and on-the-job training in a field that is growing, expanding and embracing the future.
John Helfrich is the manager of River Forest Yachting Centers’ LaBelle, Fla., facility. The LaBelle and Stuart, Fla., locations provide state-of-the-art climate and non-climate-controlled inside storage, land storage with tie-downs, and full repair and maintenance services for boats as large as 90 feet.