Boat People

A look at a few of the folks who work in the city’s extensive – though underappreciated – marine industry.

By: 

Erik Petersen

Published date: 

Oct. 31, 2014

1_KARINA.jpgKarina Roholte Befeld 
Elite Crew International

“That was my focus back then – let’s do something nobody else is doing.” 
– Karina Roholte Befeld

Karina Roholte Befeld recalls the job interview that got her into yachting.

Well, perhaps “interview” isn’t quite the right word. As she tells it, a yacht captain saw her – a native of Denmark – and a friend walking along a dock.

“Hey, you look so pretty,” he said. “Would you like to work on a yacht?”

As the founder and senior crew agent at Elite Crew International, Befeld uses interviewing methods that are a bit more thorough.

 The Fort Lauderdale company, which also has an office in Barcelona, opened in 1998. “We cater to more than 1,800 yachts,” Befeld says. “And these are all yachts over 120 feet. They are all over the world and most of them come through Fort Lauderdale once or twice a year.”

To work on those yachts, the company has on its books more than 60,000 crew. But it’s no anonymous business.

“In the 16 years I’ve been here I see deckhands I placed [who are] now captains,” she says. “We are close to our captains because we have guided their careers. For me, it is such a joy.”

It’s also a practical advantage. The better you know somebody, the better you can be at placing them on the right yacht and in the right situation.

Befeld started the business with her husband, who had been a megayacht captain. “We often missed an agency that would be more professional,” she says. “We missed that attention to detail.”

When Befeld got into the business, three agencies were operating in Fort Lauderdale. “They catered to smaller boats,” she says. “There was plenty of room for us to come in and do our thing.” 

Befeld recognized a trend toward bigger boats, and she started recruiting farther afield.

  “Our focus was bringing in a broad spectrum from around the world,” she says. “That was my focus back then – let’s do something nobody else is doing.”

Today, she hires mainly from New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the U.S. As yachts have gotten bigger, crews have required more diverse skills; now boats carry nurses, fitness trainers, manicurists, carpenters, bodyguards. When you’re creating a crew for a 400-foot yacht, you’re not finding young people who just want to work at sea.

Crewing has become a career, not something you do for a year as an adventure. Befeld only hires crew members with college degrees. And she has advice for young people who think of doing it for a season: “Go backpacking in Europe.”

 

 

2_DeanDuToit.jpgDean Dutoit 

National Marine Suppliers

“We’ve expanded into a company that deals with everything from A to Z.” 

– Dean Dutoit
 

Not long ago, working as a yacht provisioner meant stocking a fairly straightforward supply of goods and offering a reasonable number of services.

Not anymore. Yachts are bigger, and yacht owners and captains want everything under one roof with a minimum of fuss.

That’s where Dean Dutoit and National Marine Suppliers come in. The business, which Dutoit founded a quarter century ago, began by offering engineering services to yacht owners. Today, National Marine’s engineering department is huge. But they can also sort out – and this is just a bit of the list – a yacht’s galley appliances, silver flatware, anchors, diving gear, crew uniforms and what the website calls “superyacht toys.” (This last category includes such must-haves as GoPro cameras, the Jet-Lev R200 Water Jetpack and giant inflatables in case you want a blow-up slide or floating trampoline off the back of your yacht.)

“We’ve expanded into a company that deals with everything from A to Z,” Dutoit says.

That’s necessary because of the way yachts themselves have expanded. “It used to be an 80-foot or a 100-foot yacht was a superyacht,” he says. Now, those can be downright quaint. And on a yacht four times that size, you’ve got lots of room for necessities and toys. 

And when yacht owners and captains ask for one-stop shopping, they mean more than gear. They want services. National Marine handles things like international documentation and travel plans. They also keep track of yachts around the world; if one of theirs has a problem en route to the Mediterranean or somewhere in the South Pacific, they’ve got people who know how to get them the gear they need.

It’s a business model that’s been evolving for 25 years, and one with a foundation in Dutoit’s early years on yachts. He started as a deckhand and worked his way up to engineer. By 26, he was captain of a 150-footer.

If he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t be able to do this.

“The logistics have become much more difficult,” he says. “The yachts are a floating entity. Getting provisions to these vessels that are floating worldwide is probably the biggest challenge. Anybody can buy something and get it handed to them in a box. But buying something and shipping it is the challenge. We have to be able to follow a yacht from when it leaves Fort Lauderdale, around the world.”

 

 

 

3_Bob_Popiel.jpgRobert Popiel 

P&R Canvas

“There’s not a whole lot of craftsmen in this world. But everybody uses computers.”

– Robert Popiel

 

Take a quick glance around P&R Canvas’ Marina Mile headquarters and you could mistake it for a textile business from another era.

Workers hunch over sewing machines with bolts of fabric. Plans and tools are spread out over long tables.

But in the middle sits a machine that has changed everything.

When P&R first approached a company that makes computerized garment cutting machines, about doing something for boat canvases and other marine textiles, they were unsure – garment cutting machines are typically designed for bulk production, not the bespoke covers P&R provides. But the company was willing to give it a go.

That was a few years ago, and operations manager Robert Popiel says it was a game-changer. 

“For your average three-holed enclosure, you’ll have two or three days of work,” he says. “This does it in about a minute.”

It also means that, in a world where there aren’t as many high-end textile workers as there used to be, but there are plenty of boat owners who want a well-made cover rather than an ill-fitting bag, P&R can continue turning out high-caliber work.

“There’s not a whole lot of craftsmen in this world,” Popiel says. “But everybody uses computers.”

Still, somebody has to draw up the plans and feed them into the computer. Daniel Colón, who came to P&R right out of college nearly a decade ago, says there’s still plenty of skill involved.

“We still need the people that have the mindset of how to design,” he says.

“Everything’s CAD-designed,” he adds. “From start to finish, everything’s precision. We’re able to control our quality better because of the way it’s done.”

Popiel needs skilled workers, but when the company brings new people in, much of the training can be done here.

“Basically,” he says, “we just like to have people who are good with their hands.”

 

 

 

4_David Irwin.JPGDavid Irwin 

Lawyer

“I’m a free agent, and I’m open to taking on cases.” 

– David Irwin
 

David Irwin grew up with boats – and the paperwork that swirls around them. 

“I’m from Fort Lauderdale, and I grew up around our local marine industry,” he says. “My dad is a well-known yacht broker, semi-retired, ran Charles P. Irwin Yacht Brokerage for over 30 years.” 

Irwin remembers going to Bimini during boyhood summers on various boats – a 31-foot Bertram, a 43-foot Andy Mortensen, a classic Trumpy – that his dad was looking to move.

“Basically, [they were] different boats that my dad would find, get a really good deal [on]. My mom would redecorate them and he would sell them on again.”

After college, Irwin worked around the country with Alamo car rental. “I didn’t go to law school until I was about 30,” he says. “When I decided to get out of sales and get into law, I wanted to maintain the contacts I had built up by being here in Fort Lauderdale.” 

He finds that other lawyers want to send maritime issues to maritime lawyers.

“They’re a little bit afraid of it,” he says. “There are a lot of attorneys in Broward County who don’t understand the amount of maritime law that goes on here. I’m one of the very few in the room that does it.”

He also wants to educate people on how important it is. Marine, he says, is bigger than citrus in Florida. The state promotes the heck out of oranges, but not boats. “People’s knowledge of it is lacking because of that,” he says. 

Irwin’s firm is small, but it deals with every part of the marine industry. That means transactional law and all aspects of civil litigation, commercial disputes and personal injury. He even does personal injury on cruise ships.

“I’m a free agent, and I’m open to taking on cases,” he says.

That said, he finds that people don’t always realize what sort of maritime law gets practiced in Fort Lauderdale. All maritime law, he says, often gets associated with “bluewater” maritime law – the law of cargo and cargo ships.

“That’s not really what we practice around here,” he says. Here it’s more “recreational” law. “Only ‘recreational’ here in Fort Lauderdale can mean a $24 million yacht, and regularly does mean a two or three million dollar yacht.”

It’s a big, rich industry, and much of it involves regular Florida contract law. “It’s not just ‘in the middle of the ocean, this thing happened’,” Irwin says.

 

 

5_Kristy from Ward's.jpgKristina Hebert 

Ward’s Marine Electric

“There is really nothing you can’t have done to your boat here.” 

– Kristina Hebert

 

The specifics of marine electrics might be baffling to the layperson, but the importance is something anyone can understand. Basically, when you’re dealing with lots of electricity near lots of water, you want to make sure it’s done right.

As chief operating officer of Ward’s Marine Electric, Kristina Hebert oversees a company that’s been doing it right for 64 years.

But Hebert doesn’t take a narrow view of the industry. She’s also president of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF), the trade organization that promotes, and advocates for, all aspects of marine business in the region. It’s a business that’s changed over the years – changes that are evident in Marine Electric.

“We used to be in a service call business,” Hebert says. Which is to say, they’d get a call, somebody would go to the boatyard and do the work, and that would be it.

Not anymore.

“We are now more heavily involved in large projects,” she says. They’ll work with a single yacht for more than a year sometimes. LED lights, lighting control systems, dimming, the newest audio-visual equipment, control via iPad – today’s yacht owners want the same sort of details at sea that they get at home.

“Those are big projects,” Hebert says. “That’s not something where you go out and change a few fixtures with a designer.”

When Hebert talks about her own business she moves swiftly into MIASF territory, describing an industry that reaches across the Fort Lauderdale economy. She is, she explains, a subcontractor who works locally and internationally. In the process, she runs a major business that uses banks, accountants, IT, even the folks down at Office Depot who keep Ward’s in pens and stationery. That’s not to mention the myriad marine specialist businesses that feed off each other, communicate every day and send business each other’s way.

“Fort Lauderdale specifically, and South Florida as a region, is known as a place where you can get the most services,” she says. “It’s the greatest concentration of services across the globe. There is really nothing you can’t have done to your boat here.”

It didn’t look quite the same 64 years ago.

“My grandfather was doing generator work in the green bean fields in the Everglades,” Hebert says. “He decided to apply that to boating because that was near and dear to his heart. He was also a pilot, so he could fly to the Bahamas.”

She doesn’t have to look far to find other businesses that have similarly deep roots. Across the street sits Frank and Jimmie’s Propellers. Jimmie Harrison Jr., whose father co-founded the business in 1947, sits on the MIASF board of directors. Driving down 17th Street or Marina Mile, Hebert finds others she has known for years – and whose parents and grandparents knew hers.

That familiarity helps when times get busy – and times often get busy. It used to be you could tell when it was the season.

“Now what we’re seeing is, the season is 12 months,” she says.

Different kinds of boats come in at different times, while more boat owners now choose to stay year-round. To meet those needs, a business like Ward’s can’t be out on a little island by itself.

“It’s every small business working together,” Hebert says.

 

 

6_Shelly Dicondina.JPGShelley DiCondina

Yacht Interiors by Shelley

“It’s our job to create their vision.”

– Shelley DiCondina

 

In this time of DIY design TV shows and design magazines to suit every taste, plenty of people fancy themselves amateur interior designers. But even if you’ve had some success with your house, it doesn’t mean you can decorate your boat.

“We’re experts at space planning – I won’t be shy about that,” says Shelley DiCondina, founder of Yacht Interiors by Shelley. “We utilize every inch. Our owners don’t want to give up anything that they have at home. They expect to see a 48- to 60-inch TV in most of the staterooms. They expect a big dining room.”

Which is fine until you consider how the main salon room is usually just 30-by-16. So you have conversations about functionality. 

How many bedrooms, she’ll ask, does this boat really need? “Should it be four or five? They say ‘Well, I got three kids and my three kids all have husbands or wives.’ That comes into play right at the beginning.”

That said, DiCondina is not in the business of saying “no.”

“It’s our job to create their vision,” she says. “Sometimes they need a little counseling and a little persuasion one way or another, but it’s their vision.”

Over the years, those visions have gotten grander. People want more comfortable outdoor spaces for entertaining. They want indoor spaces that reflect what they have at home.

“Everything’s a little more loungy,” DiCondina says. “A little more soft.”

She began working in yacht interior design in 1986 and founded Yacht Interiors by Shelley six years later. Landside design was never an interest. 

“I went into interior design with the vision of doing yachts,” the British Columbia native says. “I’ve always lived on the water.”

It doesn’t hurt that her husband, Michael, is also in the business – he’s president and chief operating officer of Hargrave Custom Yachts in Fort Lauderdale.

For DiCondina, it all points towards the sea. “We’re not an interior design firm that does boats on the side – all we do is yachts,” she says. “So there’s no learning curve. There’s nothing that’s a surprise for us.”

 

 

7_Michael Knecht.JPGMichael Knecht

Cape Ann Marine Towing and Salvage

“It’s not enough to know what’s in front of me. I know what’s underneath me too.”

– Michael Knecht
 

The 26-foot diesel Dusky, with a 3-to-1 transmission and larger-than-average prop, is one of the least glamorous boats in Fort Lauderdale. But it’s one of the most important. 

Those massive, sleek, million-dollar babies heading upriver for repairs and upgrades?  None of them are going anywhere without captains like Michael Knecht and their expert knowledge. Yacht captains can get their vessels from here to Tahiti, but they don’t know the New River like Knecht does.

“You get to know certain palm trees or certain boats sitting on a lift,” he says. “You get past a certain palm tree and you know you’ve got to start your turn.” 

Knecht knows those details. Then he does the math on the yacht he’s towing. It’s not just the length, it’s the weight. And it’s what the vessel’s made of: fiberglass, steel. 

“It’s not enough to know what’s in front of me,” Knecht says. “I know what’s underneath me too.”

When he was a boy, Missouri dirt was under him. Knecht grew up on a farm outside St. Joseph, not far from the precise spot that’s the contiguous United States’ farthest point from any ocean. From high school he joined the army and was sent to a remote Pacific island.

 On Johnson Atoll, he began to learn the various skills of seamanship – when he wasn’t guarding the chemical weapons that were stored there. After the army, he worked several jobs in the marine and tourism industries. For a time he captained tourist submarines in Hawaii. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1999, looking for work on yachts. He found a job on a tug. He reckoned it would be temporary.

Knecht is happily married. His second child was born this summer, and in the cooler winter months the family dog is a fixture on the tug.

That yachting job never did come, but these days he’s not complaining. He sees his wife and kids every day and sleeps in his own bed every night.

And in this city, he’s got skills that are in demand.

 

 

8_Roy Merritt.jpgRoy Merritt

Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works

“I feel like I’ve got a hobby shop and I get people to pay me for it.” 

– Roy Merritt

 

Roy Merritt has on occasion explained boat ownership to people who buy Merritt boats.

“We tell people you may think you own the boat, but we own it forever,” Merritt says. “You’re just leasing it.”

Now before any Merritt boat owner starts nervously flipping through the paperwork, understand that if you part with upwards of $9 million for a 72- or 86-foot Merritt, it’s yours to keep. The third-generation boat-builder is talking more about the idea of the boat. About the fact that only one or two new Merritts get built each year, each bearing the family name that’s meant quality in boats since his grandfather, also named Roy, first opened for business in 1948.

If they lowered standards, they could easily build more, Merritt says. He shakes his head. “We like it the way we’re doing it.”

Merritt’s Boat and Engine Works headquarters sits at the end of NE 16th Avenue, a more humble, Pompano Beach answer to Marina Mile. Repairs make up a big part of the work on this little peninsula, as do marine brokerage and insurance. But, Merritt says, boat-building remains their best and most consistent source of income.

“The repair work can be feast or famine,” he says.

“A long time ago, we’d build a boat to take up the slack periods. Then we started to build more. The more you build, the more built-in customers you have.”

That said, if you own a Merritt, you’re in an exclusive club. In the last two decades, they’ve built fewer than 50. And what kind of boat owners are in that club?

“There’s all kinds of buyers,” Merritt says. “There’s the guy who wants to watch the boat from the beginning and the guy who wants it now.”

Merritt is happy to build for a client, or to build a boat, then put it up for sale. He has an idea now for a boat – and he knows that when it’s done, it will sell.

For Merritt, that part of the job – starting with an idea for a new boat and seeing it through to sale – never gets old.    

 “The building is the fun part. I feel like I’ve got a hobby shop and I get people to pay me for it.”

 

9_sean-moran.jpgSean Moran 

  Moran Yacht & Ship

  “We call it ‘the great game’ because it really is. Yachting is just exciting.”

   – Sean Moran

 

When the folks at Moran Yacht & Ship set out to build a new yacht, they do plenty of listening.

 “It’s not about what we want, it’s about what the client wants, and we work fiercely to achieve that,” Sean Moran says.

It helps that what the client wants is usually quite cool.

Take one big, current project: a solar-powered sailboat. Moran reckons it will draw all kinds of attention in the industry – but beyond that, it’s simply an interesting challenge.

“They’re fun projects and they’re really exciting,” he says. “They really get your wheels spinning.”

Yachting is in Moran’s blood. His father, Robert Moran, founded the business in 1988 after working as a captain for many years. In addition to new builds, Moran Yacht & Ship is also active in charter, sales and yacht management.

“My dad was a captain, my mom was a [galley] chef,” he says. “All my uncles were captains. There’s a picture of me on the deck on my first birthday.”

He grew up in the business. “Before I even went to college, I used to do a lot of day working,” he says. “There was a lot of being 12 years old and helping out in the shipyards, doing short cruises.”

After high school, Moran attended the University of Florida. In Gainesville, he decided he wanted to go to sea. After crewing for five years, he started considering other options – something that would allow him to be around the industry he knew without being at sea for much of the year.

 “I was very fortunate that my family had built this platform,” he says.

Moran’s engineering degree means he’s been able to transition into project management on new builds. He works with some of the best shipyards in northern Europe.  In those situations, years on the sea pay off.

“You’re never going to understand a business completely unless you start from the ground up. A lot of those guys haven’t been to sea,” Moran says. “There’s a level of mutual respect. You have to respect the guy across the table from you because they’ve got years of technical experience.”

Moran still gets plenty of time on the water – weekends are spent spearfishing, surfing and pursuing the pleasures of a sea-savvy Fort Lauderdale native. And though he’s not out on the ocean for months at a time anymore, the next interesting challenge is never far away.

“We call it ‘the great game’ because it really is,” he says. “Yachting is just exciting.”

 

 

10_Laura_Tempest.JPGLaura Tempest

DYT  Yacht Transport

“I grew up on the water, I know yachts...”

– Laura Tempest

 

When Laura Tempest joined DYT Yacht Transport in 2007, she already knew plenty about boating and the marine industry. The area sales manager had come from a job selling marine navigation and communication equipment. And as a Jacksonville native, she’d always been around boats.

“I grew up on the water, I know yachts, I can speak intelligently about them, about how they work,” she says.

But transport, she quickly found out, is a whole different ballgame. Particularly at DYT, with its massive, unique float on/float off carriers that can take a good few yachts halfway around the world. (A video at yacht-transport.com illustrates the frankly quite cool method for floating yachts onto the back of a yacht carrier.)  

“DYT is so unique in that we only transport yachts,” Tempest says. “We cater on a big picture specifically to the yachting industry and scale it down smaller to the charter market.” Privately owned yachts they “lovingly refer to as the mom and pops.”

Their schedule hasn’t really changed since 1987, so if somebody used the company a few years back, chances are they can use the same route. These routes – along with a number of other things – are part of the knowledge Tempest has picked up in one of the yachting industry’s more unique corners.

“It’s logistics,” Tempest says. “Fortunately for us where we’re taking people, it’s beautiful logistics. You’re sitting in Palma or Genoa, Australia or New Zealand. We do pretty logistics.”

 

 

 

John Terrell 

 Lauderdale Marine Center

“I decided to come ashore. Bought a house in Fort Lauderdale.”

– John Terrell

 

As John Terrell cruises Lauderdale Marine Center’s more than 50 acres in a golf cart, his phone bleats at regular intervals. For the dockmaster at this sprawling marine-industry metropolis, the work doesn’t let up.

But for Terrell, who spent 20 years as a yacht captain before “coming ashore” to take the Lauderdale Marine job, there’s always a moment to spare for a beautiful boat.

“Look at that,” Terrell says, gazing at a specimen from another era. It’s all polished wood, elegant lines and rivets. A quick call to the recently docked owner reveals the details: The yacht is French, a converted hydrographic research vessel built in 1958. (Today, it looks like it’s been refitted to research the pleasures of the Caribbean.)

Two decades at the helm of yachts teaches you to appreciate a good vessel – and to understand the nuts and bolts of keeping one in good shape. 

Lauderdale Marine Center has a unique business model. The largest center of its kind in the U.S., it provides the space while the work is done by contractors and tenants. It’s a useful arrangement for smaller businesses that would likely not be able to offer waterfront services otherwise. More than 60 businesses are based at the center, with services ranging from deck builders and painters to boat builders and safety trainers. 

The marina also provides facilities for live-aboard owners and has the ability to take the boats in and out of the water.

Terrell grew up in a family of Boeing workers in Seattle’s blue-collar suburbs. But early on he was drawn to boats. He started working on oceanographic research vessels docked on Lake Union and was soon captaining Alaska-bound vessels. That led to yachting and warmer climes.

“I decided to come ashore,” he says. “Bought a house in Fort Lauderdale.”

It is not, he says, an uncommon story among yacht captains and crew. You come to Fort Lauderdale once or twice a year, and then when you decide to trade in the seafaring life for one more settled and family-oriented, the city with the sunshine and beaches stands out.

In a way, Lauderdale Marine Center’s a bit like the wider Fort Lauderdale yachting community. It’s a place that attracts people from the industry, then offers them jobs when they want to put down roots