Catatonic Sailing

Robert Bredeck is a charter boat captain in the Caribbean, where he leads week-long cruises on a 44-foot sailboat, Catatonic. He’s a long way from where he grew up in Michigan, but his story shows that anyone can pick up sailing and make a career out of it, whether you were born near the coast or whether you come from a big city, or some place far from the sea.

Ahoy! This nautical greeting stems from the Dutch word for hello (“hoi”) and was popularized by English sailors who often shouted “hoy” to passing ships. I’m a charter captain working out of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. With the help of a first mate—who also serves as the chef—I take up to six guests out on Catatonic for a full week of sailing, snorkeling, and scuba diving throughout the US and British Virgin Islands.

On a typical day, I’m up at 7am to make coffee for the guests and plan the day’s activities. We might go snorkeling or tubing behind the dinghy before setting sail for the next island. Another round of water sports after lunch brings us to sunset, where we all slow down and spend the evening at anchor. I usually help the chef serve dinner, much like a bartender or food server in a restaurant. There is lots of conversation, and often a game or a movie to help entertain. By the time the guests head to bed, it is usually close to midnight—time to prep the coffee for the morning and hit my bunk, too!

During the charter, I am constantly maintaining the engineering systems on the boat that keep everything running and comfortable—engines, generator, batteries, water pumps, and electrical breakers. In addition to operating the boat, it is my job to plan the itinerary, ready the gear for the day, pilot the boat under sail and engines, and navigate from island to island.

To some, it sounds like my job is one big vacation. To others, it sounds like a lot of work. I guess, in a way, it is both.

How did I learn to do all this? While I didn’t grow up near the ocean, I did grow up sailing on lakes in Michigan. I started sailing with my father when I was about eight years old. I found it hard to concentrate on all the steps to get the boat ready, and then there was all the work involved putting the boat away when you got back—I just wanted to GO SAILING!!! I was more interested in the frogs and turtles underneath the sail shack than helping my dad rig the sails. I’m still that way today. I just want to GO, but, because it is my job and not my vacation, it falls on me to take care of all the preparation for the week, which can be extensive.

Like a lot of professional sailors, I learned gradually, sailing and working in boats until I had enough sea time—720 days working as a mate—to sit for my USCG captain’s license exams. Though not a requirement, a college degree in any subject is helpful in this business, especially because your customers are often highly educated people who want someone not just skilled to drive the boat, but knowledgeable and well rounded. I have a graduate degree in English and used to manage a little bookstore, so I can talk with my guests on just about any subject. In such a small space, the captain and his crew are not separated from the guests, so getting along and making interesting conversation are all part of the job too.

Robert Yacht Capt In Bilge

It’s not all piña coladas and pretty sunsets when you are the captain. In addition to sailing the boat, the captain has to maintain and fix all systems onboard. Here, Robert is squeezed into the tight space in the bilge to work on the engine.

Living through cold Michigan winters makes you dream of the tropics, and for me it remained only a dream for many years. Finally, I took a chance at age 38 and bought a plane ticket to St. Thomas, a popular sailing and vacation destination. You have to pay your dues and work in some less-than-glamorous jobs as you gain experience, but with patience, persistence, hard work, and making friends and contacts along the way, a charter captain is a job even a landlubber can learn to do in time. If a job like mine—sailing in the warm tropic winds across crystal-clear blue waters—is your dream, just know that with diligence, hard work, patience—lots of patience—there’s a good chance that some day I might be saying, “Ahoy, Captain” across the waves to you!

Did You Know?

Ship Worm Clam

Damage to wood by the shipworm clam was often extensive enough to sink a ship!

As a tiny larva floating in the ocean, the clam lands on the hull or piling of a ship and immediately begins to grind into the surface of the wood with its shells.

How did Christopher Columbus and other mariners protect their ships from the shipworm?

Learn more at Ship “Worm” Clam