George Hogrefe, of Lanoka Harbor, was out fishing one day 12 years ago when he observed people fishing off one side of a party boat and a group throwing ashes off the other side.
“I thought: ‘Nah, that’s not the way,’” Hogrefe said.
So Hogrefe started Sea Burial, a business that links families that want an at-sea burial with boat captains in Cape May, Barnegat Light and Point Pleasant. Hogrefe gets the federal permits that are required; they are allowed only in federal waters more than three miles offshore.
With fewer people interested in fishing, South Jersey’s charter boat captains are reinventing their industry: Some offer sunset and party cruises, others have turned their boats into water taxis, while others cater to pet lovers and even the grieving.
“When I bought my first boat in 1987, there were 26 party boats in Cape May County. Now there are 12 or 13,” said Bob Rush, who takes people out on party cruises (he has a liquor license), dolphin watching and for burials at sea to supplement fishing trips on the 70-foot Sea Isle City-based Starfish.
Other captains are taking people out on their anniversaries, bar-hopping at waterfront restaurants and escorting bachelor parties. They are giving ghost tours, helping couples make an entrance at their weddings and taking dogs out on the ocean.
“There are plenty of people who come to Cape May who may not have an interest in fishing but love the water. A charter boat runs on your schedule and does what you want to do,” South Jersey Marina owner Rick Weber said.
South Jersey Marina
South Jersey Marina helps match boats with visitors’ requests.
The Lower Township marina hosted a pre-Memorial Day “charter fleet reception,” and concierges from Cape May hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and other businesses in the tourism industry attended.
If a guest wants a boat, concierges call the marina’s charter agent, Charlie Langan, and he will find the right boat for the request. All the boats at the marina are independently owned and operated, ranging from a Cape May Harbor water taxi with a 9.9-horsepower engine to several 70-foot party boats.
“I call Charlie, and he tells me what’s available. He tells me what’s the best boat for a sunset cruise or a family looking for dolphins,” said Amanda Romolini, concierge at the Congress Hall hotel in Cape May.
Guests of Linda and Robert Steenrod, who own the pet-friendly bed-and-breakfast Bill Mae Cottage on Washington Street in Cape May, have particular requests.
“They just want to take their dog for a boat ride. They don’t even want to fish. The captains love it. No bait and very little fuel consumption,” said South Jersey Marina’s Mark Allen.
Capt. Clint Clement has had some strange charters on his 36-foot boat Common Sense. He took one group to Ocean City, Md., for lunch.
“The oddest was taking some newlyweds from the dock half a mile away to the Corinthian Yacht Club,” Clement said.
Weber, the marina owner, said some newlyweds want to arrive at their wedding reception by boat, a photogenic entrance. Boats have also been hired for rehearsal dinners and engagement parties, he said.
A growing part of Captain Mike Brocco’s charter boat business is memorial services at sea in which the cremated remains are thrown overboard.
“In the last three years, it’s been picking up more and more. Two years ago I did four, and last year I had 11. With the economy, people are not buying plots at the cemetery. We take them to places where they vacationed and had fun memories with their family,” Brocco said.
A funeral on land with a burial plot can cost thousands. For $450 for a party of eight, and $20 for each additional person, they can charter the Cape Queen at South Jersey Marina for a two-hour service at sea.
“The captains just have to drive the boat. I do everything else. I had one three weeks ago with 80 people on the Spirit of Cape May that included dinner, a bagpiper and a World War II plane that flew over and did a victory roll. I’ll do anything as long as it’s legal,” Hogrefe said.
If the family wants somebody playing taps, or the ashes set adrift in a three-foot replica of a Viking boat and then lit on fire, Hogrefe will supply it.
Captain Ed Yates, who runs his boat Hunter out of Barnegat Light, has received business from Hogrefe and said it’s a great supplement to a business that relies these days on Amish, Mennonite and Quaker anglers who still fish for food.
He said 25 percent to 28 percent of his business is from these groups and said one Barnegat Light boat gets 85 percent of its fares from them. They target bluefish since the regulations are more liberal. They mostly smoke the fish for later use.
“I think the economy has finally caught up with the fishing community. I don’t see a lot of boats out there. This is my 30th year taking the Amish out. They’re keeping a couple of us going in June with bluefishing.
“They’re the last of the meat hires, as we call them,” Yates said.
Rush said the regulations have just about ended a key fishing clientele that used to use party boats not just for fun but to feed their families.
“They’re dying off. They can’t come down and fill their coolers and put fish in the freezer anymore. If you don’t split off and do other things, you’re not going to survive,” Rush said.
The family’s second boat, Lonestar, has been converted to an electronic advertising billboard that sails daily between Atlantic City and Cape May Point. The 55-foot boat carries a 200-square-foot electronic sign.
Water taxis and ghosts
Doug Ortlip and Dan O’Neil both run charter boats, but this year they are also running a 25-foot water taxi named Fancy around Cape May Harbor. They envision expanding The Tiny Cruise Line to at least six taxis.
“Hurry up. They’re passing us,” Ortlip shouted to O’Neil as a mother duck and her ducklings started to pass the boat during a trip Tuesday morning.
Fancy isn’t fast, with its 9.9-horsepower engine that burns only a couple gallons of gas a day, but some tourists want a slow boat ride in a calm harbor.
“They have kids, and they don’t want to get seasick,” Ortlip said.
Some adult customers want to drink and eat dinner at waterfront places such as the Lobster House and the Harborview without worrying about driving home. A bachelorette party recently went to every bar on the harbor. They also drove a wedding party all the way up to Urie’s in Wildwood.
Ortlip and O’Neil aren’t ready to give up their charter boat jobs just yet, but are excited about taking a chance with something different. Ortlip’s girlfriend, Lexi Quinn, and O’Neil’s girlfriend, Holly Cappelli, are both involved in the business.
“The charter business is down. It’s bad. And this is a lot more fun than fishing,” Ortlip said.
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