Michael and I had one goal: to create a business we could sell that would take us closer to our dream, instead of surviving week-to-week working for someone else. What’s our dream? To live aboard our own yacht, chartering to guests for six months of the year and exploring this planet for the rest of the time. Yeah, yeah. Sounds like wishy-washy fantasy. Except we mean it.
Of course, creating a business would be no problem, because we had no savings at all. Yup. Nada. But when you gotta sail, you gotta sail. So, we looked at a bunch of yachts that would be suitable for day tours here in the Whitsundays, getting close enough to one to apply for a bank loan. Waiting’s not my strong point and after three weeks it was awful to hear the bank guy come back with ‘Sorry, banks don’t lend for commercial vessels.’ Don’t even get me started on why he didn’t say that in the first place but instead told us to up the value of our application!
The search continued – more like an addiction, really. For your sake, I’ll keep it short because if I do the whole narrative you’re just going to get sick of traipsing around the docks with us in the hot sun, looking at the state of winches and sticking your head in engine rooms. In June 2015 we settled on a Volvo 60 ocean racer, ‘Merit’ after the owner agreed to vendor finance. That meeting took around three minutes.
We were in business … with a whole two weeks’ wages as a backup.
Seven months of intense immersion in the marine tourism industry taught us the ropes, not of sailing, but of how local travel agents work, the six different taxes payable for each run, how to organise catering that actually tastes good and how to train crew who say ‘Yes, I can sail’ and then don’t think to close a hatch when hosting the decks! (By the way, we’ve learned to hire slowly and fire quickly, although we have had the pleasure of working with a bunch of fabulous deckhands!).
By May 2016, we’d bought ‘Spirit’, another Volvo 60, and gained a concession to operate our business on Hamilton Island. The events staff at Hamilton Island were ecstatic at the idea of being able to offer corporate groups match racing events on two Volvo ocean 60s, and we were excited about the opportunities.
Who says banks don’t lend for boats? Somehow the bank said yes. I honestly lay on the floor and laughed, because that just doesn’t happen in our region. Actually, the lovely lady organizing the loan was doing a happy dance down in our nearest capital city, too, because she’d found a loan product that could be bent to fit and it was her first time.
Even that application process was a learning curve. When the lovely lady at the bank said ‘hey, your proposal looks good, now we’re ready for your interim financials’ I had to Google what interim financials were and then make some. My bookkeeper mother was impressed. And, it seems, so was the bank.
The biggest rush – besides the opportunity to sail two amazing yachts – is seeing guest’s faces light up once we get going. In fact, some of them light up before we’ve even hoisted a sail. There’s something that’s good for your head and your heart, being out in an incredibly beautiful environment on a high-performance vessel, playing with the wind and testing your limits. Giving people an opportunity to experience something different is cool. Especially the guests who are scared of boats and tell us they can’t wait to come back!
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s been really, really hard.
We’ve been so damn tired nearly every day since June 2015. In fact, beyond tired. There is constant maintenance to do. The provisions to buy and prepare. The vessels to clean. The advertising to hustle on an already-worn-out-shoestring. The blog posts to write. The social media posts to post. The distribution outlets to negotiate. The uniforms and towels to wash. The agents to schmooze. (Can you believe I met a travel agent here in the Whitsundays who doesn’t like boats? That’s just weird.) The sails to change. The accounts to juggle. Doing the admin after 10 hours in the sun and the wind and the hour-long ferry ride home gets tricky. Or after standing in the rain and cold wind and always starting before sunrise. But it’s been worth every second of it.
I want to encourage you that when you get told ‘no, that can’t happen,’ to swat that unhelpful waffle out of your line of sight and go out and find a way to create it anyway. Whatever your ‘it’ is. Find a workaround or under or over or something. When you think you don’t have the tools or any other resource to create ‘it’, find a way to get what you need to do what it is you need to do. Learn to tell your story in a way that gets people moving to help you. Be kind. Be polite. Be determined. On board the yachts I’ve learned that there are jobs I should not be able to do with my level of strength, such as bounce a headsail up in a decent wind. However, with the right technique, I can not only get the job done but make the guys on the board think I must be Amazon Woman.
The key is to find a technique that works to achieve what it is you need to do. We had to bring ‘Spirit’ back into a commercial survey which involved repairs and paperwork and just-in-time-before-new-regulations-took-over planning. I had done nothing like it before and had nobody to teach me.
And then, when you are so tired you think you hate ‘it’, go for a walk. Or have a sleep. Or just spit out all the things you hate to a sympathetic close friend and then get back and keep at it.
I listened to Elon Musk recently; he spoke about people’s perception of him as probably just talking to the media all day. Yet he spends most of his time in product development, doing the engineering – doing his ‘it’. He noted that starting and growing a business – and maintaining that business for the long term – is not glamorous. Instead, his role is to solve problems: engineering, administrative, planning, funding, staff, branding …
Most people don’t learn to solve problems for the long term. They’re great at starting something!
If you can go the distance, and if you can learn to look after yourself at the same time, you’ll have developed the two things necessary to succeed: you will be resourceful and you will be resilient.
Those two traits will get you through more than you can imagine. Which is good, because the challenges will be more than you can imagine.
But then you get to go sailing.
Jo McKee worked with her partner, Michael, to create Grand Prix Yachting at Hamilton Island, Queensland, Australia. The business is being sold and their newest venture is McKee Creative, which helps others who are keen to grow their business or work on their ‘big idea’. Their dog, Hugo, is happy to have them at home more often.