Making a few extra dollars with your boat and your license doesn’t have to involve an elaborate plan, heavy advertising, expensive permits or gear. Many people enjoy a few hours on a boat where they can relax and enjoy some time with family and friends. Fort many years, I worked on a tour boat in the Washington DC area where we entertained clients and associates with a late afternoon cruise on the Potomac past interesting points along the river. Cocktails and hors d’ouvers were served, making the occasion special for the guests.
After several years doing fishing charters here in Florida, I wanted to branch out and see if there was a market for sunset cruises in this area. On a recent trip to Key West, I noticed a large number of boats leaving the dock around the 5-6 pm time frame loaded with people and wondered where they were all going. A quick walk down to Mallory Square answered that question: The boats were all sitting in the NW channel waiting for the sunset. In our area (Gulf beaches of St. Pete), we have one or two sailboats that do sunset cruises, but nothing like the traffic on the Potomac or Key West. So, I have been working on developing that market.
Setting up your boat to do sunset cruises requires a little preparation. Put your fishing tackle away—those hooks could hurt an unsuspecting guest. Be sure you have enough seating for the number of passengers you can comfortably accommodate. You should have boat-safe beverage containers available for guest use. Have a medium-sized cooler with ice positioned for easy access. Allow plenty of table-top surfaces for drinks or plates of food. Provide extra trash and recyclable containers that are convenient to galley and seating areas. On the tour boat in DC, we provided food and beverages which was easy to control. Here in Florida, the atmosphere is more casual—I ask guests to bring whatever they want to eat and drink (this approach assumes adults will be responsible drinkers; I have not had a problem with over-consumption). And make sure your running lights are in working order. Also, try to plan a cruise route that keeps you in relatively calm waters, most conducive to socializing, eating and drinking.
An important element of a sunset cruise is the crew. Since the captain needs to focus on running the boat, another set of eyes, ears and hands is a must. Crew duties include handling lines and fenders at dockside, setting up food for serving, mixing drinks, cleaning up and generally protecting the boat and the guests from harm. Another important element (and one required by the USCG for a passenger-carrying vessel) is to properly brief your guests on the location of life jackets, fire extinguishers and other safety gear; cover emergency procedures like man overboard; and to make sure they can swim and do not have any underlying medical issues that could be a serious problem.
Now you will need some customers. Since I live and boat in a high tourist area, people are always looking for a novel way to enjoy the area and a sunset cruise is an ideal suggestion. Local advertising and a rack card for the hotels will get you started. I price the sunset cruise to be a lost leader just to get people out on the boat and make a few dollars. I go slow (5-7 knots) which is most comfortable for guest socializing and saves on fuel. The cruise usually leaves the dock about an hour or so before sunset, depending on how long the ride is to open water and an unobstructed view of the sun (if you can get that in your area). I will be underway for a bit longer than an hour and then casually swing around and retrace my route, planning to arrive back at the origination point after being underway for about 2-2.5 hours. The sunset usually occurs on the way back in. Try to position the boat so the guests in the cockpit have the best view of the sunset.
After many years on the tour boat in DC, I had a good feel for this type of business but had not really done it as a commercial enterprise here in Florida. I think once it gets going, it will be a nice add-on bit of business for me. And you don’t need to cut bait!