Living the dream isn’t easy. When Capt. Dave Tilley makes his way to the Wild Rover III in the Carolina Beach Marina, he’s not sure what his day at work will bring. Never the same job twice, it could mean spending time rebuilding a fighting chair or engine. Ideally, it’d be running six to 18 passengers on up to three separate outdoor fishing excursions up to 150 miles offshore.
Or it could mean simply doing nothing at all.
“Weather is 90 percent of the battle. I canceled 30-plus trips last year due to weather; a normal trip for us brings in about $1,000,” Tilley said, adding, “You take 30-grand out of what you make in a year and tell me how that makes you feel.”
Tilley and his 18 fellow charter boat captains operating out of the Carolina Beach Fishing Center deal constantly with the day-to-day uncertainty of whether or not they will be able to make a living. For these and other local entrepreneurs running outdoor businesses, balancing risks and rewards is part of the package of pursuing their dream jobs.
Research shows that there’s consumer demand. According to Economics Program Manager Adam Stemle, preliminary data from an N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries survey shows for-hire fishing guests spent $78 million in 2017.
Stemle said weather is indeed one of the challenges facing boat captains, but there are others.
“The majority of their health coverage and insurance came from spouses’ employment,” he said.
This is true for Tilley.
“My healthcare comes from my wife, who has a job at the hospital,” he said.
Tilley said most fishing charter boat captains in the Cape Fear region have spouses with “normal lives” that help balance out the unpredictable nature of their career pursuits.
Spousal support helped Rocky Godwin make his dream of opening a surf shop possible. He was an insurance agent, wearing a suit and tie every day. A competitive surfer, the idea of a career at the beach kept gnawing at him. His wife, Lisa, told him he needed to get it out of his system.
In 2011, he opened 50 South Surf Shop on Topsail Island, living the dream by taking some time for surfing before walking from the beach to work to shower and change into his new business suit of shorts and flip-flops.
“It’s a lifestyle career more so than one that is going to make you wealthy. If I was doing this for the money I would never do it,” said Godwin.
Peak season for Godwin brings with it less time for surfing and longer hours dealing with about 100 customers each day who want to buy surf apparel and accessories, surfboards, paddleboards and skateboards as well as rent equipment. The constant hustle amounts to packing a year’s worth of business into three months.
“I kinda relate it to being a farmer. You take care of the soil, get your fields ready, plant your seeds in the spring. Then you do all your harvesting during one season, and recoup the benefit. It’s a string of long, hard 14-hour days, but that’s when you make your money,” Godwin explained.
Across the street from 50 South Surf Shop, Ecological Marine Adventures is one of a growing number of non-traditional beach businesses joining the ranks of outdoor entrepreneurs. Owner Taylor Maready and his instructors teach classes full of 10-15 students ages 5 and older about the ocean, inspiring them to want to learn how to protect it through hands-on programs. Home-school groups and afterschool classes keep business booming all year long, but spring break and summer camps take things to a whole new level. The snakes, lizards, and of course fish in Maready’s classrooms are part of the package, but being steps from the beach brings natural opportunities for learning.
“People keep coming to the beach and we’re busy doing a lot of different things. For me personally, this is a dream job. I get to be at the ocean every single day, toes in the sand, teaching my passion to future generations,” Maready said.
Sun and smiles
Passion fuels many of the region’s coastal entrepreneurs. For Paul Gregory, it’s scuba diving. He’d been coming to Wilmington to dive before he moved here, a journey that led him to purchase Aquatic Safaris in 2012. He and his partner Mike Winfield, a UNCW marine biology graduate, take up to 25 people a day out on scuba adventures during peak season, starting their day at 6 a.m. and ending sometime after 6 p.m. Their shop at the foot of the Wrightsville Beach bridge is packed with flippers, rubber suits and air tanks for sale, providing revenue year-round for this long-time business that’s been operating 30 years this April.
Still, for these passionate dive enthusiasts, their dream jobs come with an asterisk.
“It could be a picture-perfect day for beachgoers, but if the wind is blowing and it’s rough offshore, we may not be able to go diving,” Gregory said, adding that lousy weekend weather has made it tough on business the past couple years.
With the risk of canceled dive trips, long hours and physical demands of the job, why do it?
“It’s cool to see people come out of the water with smiles on their faces,” Winfield said. “Seeing people, especially kids, breathing underwater or seeing marine life for the first time and getting excited, that keeps us motivated.”