Careers in the Outdoors Part IV: Interview with a Charter Boat Captain

Though most hikers are primarily land-dwellers, those in the know understand that there’s a whole other world to be explored on the water. Today I’ll be talking with a friend who knows the challenges of entrepreneurship as intricately as those posed by the elements. Earlier this year, Mackenzie and her partner, Ian, founded Alpenglow Charters, an adventure cruise company based in Seward, AK. Seward is home to the notorious Mount Marathon, dubbed by Outside “the toughest 5K on the planet,” where Kenzie placed 12th this year. Nestled just south of Anchorage and enclosed by Chugach National Forest, this is an epic place to get your adventure on.

What’s your background and how did you get into this field?

I am the owner and captain of Alpenglow Charters, a small business I started this summer with my partner, Ian. I grew up boating with my family, from commercial fishing when I was growing up in Bristol Bay to living on a sailboat for a yearlong stint in the Caribbean. We’ve always owned a boat–the ocean and boating have always had a strong presence in my life. When I was in high school and college, my family ran a small boat charter business—both my sisters and I deck-handed and prepped for multiday trips in remote areas of south-central Alaska. I always felt immensely proud of us for running a small business and providing quality, unique experiences to our guests.

I grew up in an adventurous, outdoorsy family. We value active lifestyles, wild places, and taking care of our environment. Boating teaches you lessons about the things we value. It allows you to access incredibly beautiful places and teaches you to respect the natural world and the power of weather and elements.

Did you always know you wanted to start a company? Did you ever consider another path?

My ability to start my own business is a direct result of the work and life experience I had growing up around boats and my family’s charter operation. I decided to embark on my own business venture because I love being on the water and sharing that passion with other people. I’ve spent many years deck-handing and guiding—and always found myself thinking about how I would do things if it were my own operation. I enjoy taking risks, and approached starting a business with a “why not?” kind of attitude.

How did you go about setting up a business? Did you have prior knowledge, get help, or take classes? How different is running a business from guiding?

The first step we took toward starting a business was buying a boat, which for us was a half-finished trawler that spent seven years on a horse pasture in Washington state. We then spent a year fixing the boat, putting it in the water, and beginning the journey north to Seward, a nearly 2,000-mile undertaking. While I had prior knowledge of small business ventures because of my family’s history, I also took a small business class offered in Seward by a local Alaskan businessman, Tom Tougas. The class really helped me understand the nuts and bolts of starting and maintaining a business.

Running a business is immensely different from guiding—business ventures take an amazing amount of background work. I learned how to run power tools I didn’t know existed, fiberglassed for days, filled out a lot of paperwork, did a lot of research, and gained a lot of skills that are not related to physically running a boat charter.

What was the most surprising or unexpected thing to you about starting this business?

I think the most surprising thing about starting a business is the amount of perseverance required to pull it off—it took us two years to build our boat up and get our paperwork in order. There is a lot of hard work and multitasking that goes into figuring out financing, licenses, marketing, and basic operations. Even after you’re licensed, mechanically sound, and ready to run a charter, you have to do the work to find your client base. You have to wear many hats.

Is there a typical “career arc” in boating? What might that look like? Do you need specific education or training to advance?

To become a boat captain, you must have 360 days of experience on the water, 90 of which are in the past three years. Thus, to advance a career in boating, you have to put your time in as a crew member. I took a class from Flagship Maritime School, which was really helpful in passing the test required to obtain your captain’s license.

What does a typical day on the boat look like when you have guests? When you don’t have guests?

When we run a charter, my day consists of food prep, checklists to make sure we have everything we need (god forbid we run out of essentials like coffee or TP), cleaning, laundry, checking our engine room, and trying to squeeze in a breath or two. Running the charter is the fun part: we meet interesting people, show them our home, anchor up in a beautiful spot and explore via kayaks, a beach walk, or our dinghy. I am also the cook for our charter, so I spend a fair amount of time in our galley (boat talk for kitchen). When we don’t have guests, I spend a lot of time updating our calendar, food prepping again, filling out paperwork, emailing, and helping Ian with boat repair.

What are essential qualities for a person working as a ship worker? As an entrepreneur?

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For anyone looking to pursue work on boats, a basic understanding of mechanics is important. The challenge of boating is the independence required. When you are out on the water, sometimes hours or even days from the closest port or town, you have to be able to problem solve and fix whatever issue might arise.

As an entrepreneur, I think the ability to multitask, stay organized, be creative, and learn new skills are all paramount. I think a little-recognized fact is also the amount of work required to be a entrepreneur—you can expect to work at least double the hours you would when working for someone else.

What do you think people who are outdoorsy and thinking about getting into the maritime field should know about the job beforehand?

One challenge I find as an outdoorsy person who loves boating is the reality that being on the water is also synonymous with little opportunity for movement. When you are in a remote anchorage, oftentimes you don’t have access or time to go on a run, bike, or even walk. It’s the sacrifice you make to spend time on the water! 

What’s your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of the job is being able to meet all different sorts of people and show them places that are near and dear to my heart. I love sharing Alaska with people, particularly from our boat. Because we run small group sizes (maximum six people), it is easy to form a connection with the people who come out with us.

Least favorite?

My least favorite part of the job is the paperwork. There are always more forms to fill out!

Any parting words?

While there are many challenges associated with entrepreneurship and boating, they are incredibly satisfying, inspiring, and terrifying all at once.

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