CAPE MAY — When Jeff Stewart captains daily boat tours on the Spirit of Cape May, he considers the weather, the waves and the wind. But one thing he can't account for: the whales.
“There’s a 68 percent chance you’ll see a whale,” he said last week as he prepared for an afternoon trip on the 110-foot-long whale-watching vessel.
Odds are more likely passengers will see a pod of dolphins — he puts that chance at 99 percent — so people rarely walk off without having glimpsed any marine mammals.
The gamble of not knowing what to expect is one familiar to entrepreneurs trying to stay in business, including the Stewart family, who began operating Cape May Whale Watcher in 1993.
High gas prices and a foundering economy led business to drop by 20 percent from 2008 to 2009. But with two boats expected to be at full capacity this summer — including the Spirit of Cape May — the Stewarts expect business to improve for 2010.
“We’re already up 10 percent or more over last,” said Stewart’s father, also named Jeff.
Buying the Spirit of Cape May, the family’s second boat, was itself a high-priced gamble three years ago. But it was necessary for the business to grow, said Stewart, 28, of the Erma section of Lower Township.
He would not say exactly how much the boat cost, but said the family spent more than $1 million to buy and refurbish it — still a relative bargain compared with the $6 million it can cost to buy a brand-new boat.
The Spirit of Cape May was custom built in 1986 in Louisiana, and had been used in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The aluminum boat had three diesel engines and was in need of a complete overhaul.
“She was in pretty bad shape,” Stewart said. “Railings were all busted, ceilings were busted, wiring was bad. We had to sandblast her.”
Eventually, the diesel engines were replaced with 700 horsepower engines. The bathrooms were remodeled, new carpeting was put in and new dining tables were installed. One of the few things that were kept were the original seat covers, Stewart said.
While the family’s original boat, called the Cape May Whale Watcher, holds close to 300 people, the Spirit of Cape May accommodates 400.
“My mother told my father to buy this boat,” Stewart said. “It worked out for us.”
The elder Jeff Stewart began going on excursion trips in the 1970s, when he was 18. After purchasing the Cape May Whale Watcher, the entire family got involved with the business: His wife, Mary, and his children, Jeff and Bridget. Today, they operate about three tours per day, navigating around the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
While July and August remain the peaks months, keeping the business going is a year-round job.
“The business has gotten so big, we’re not off (in the winter),” Stewart said. “We can’t rest. There’s maintenance to do, and then we’re booking groups for next season.”
The business handles about 50,000 customers per year, although last year was down slightly, Stewart added.
For a trip to be profitable, there needs to be at least 30 passengers booked. But to go out on any trip, there needs to be at least 20.
“It’s not that we’re making a profit (with 20 passengers), but we’re losing less,” Stewart said.
Memorial Day weekend this year was especially strong: They had about 350 people on a trip.
Neighboring the Spirit of Cape May at the Miss Chris Marina is the Osprey, which offers a boating tour for bird watchers.
Capt. Bob Lubberman said the summers continue to be important for the business, which is adding a fourth tour next month to accommodate passengers.
“This month, we haven’t been seeing the same numbers because the kids are not out of school yet,” Lubberman said. “But it seems like it’s going to be OK.”
Stewart is more optimistic for this summer, when the Cape May Whale Watcher, which has been docked this year for a major upgrade, will join its sister ship.
The family is adding a snack bar, building new bathrooms that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a new seating area, and heating and cooling system. The exact cost was not immediately available last week.
One thing that isn’t changing with the business are the “good will” policies, Stewart said. That includes giving customers a free pass for another ride if they fail to see any marine mammals.
“It’s a special job,” Stewart said of the tours. “I enjoy it, and I want people to enjoy it, too.”
Cape May Whale Watcher
Location: Schellenger’s Landing, Cape May
Owner: Stewart family
Revenue: Wouldn’t disclose
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