Starting My Boat Detailing Business

It all started with some pink kitchen sponges and an old sea captain…

spongesWhen I was 19 years old, I decided to start my own business. After having graduated from high school two years earlier, I had mulled over the idea of going to college, but finally decided against it.  I wanted to jump right into my future, skip the learning process and go straight to the hands on experience. Living in Seattle, Washington, surrounded by boats, I decided to start a boat cleaning business.  After six months of researching my market and competitors, I realized that there was a definite need in the Seattle area for a “yacht detailer”.

I started organizing my business, applied for the business license, and designed flyers, business cards, and a brochure.  I called my company Deckhand Detailing.  Everything was ready – now all I had to do was advertise. Advertise?  I hated talking to strangers and was scared to death of trying to sell my business to people who knew more about boats than I did, which could have been anyone’s Aunt Reba, for I didn’t know one thing about boats yet – except that they could get very dirty, and that I might possibly be able to clean them.  I figured I would just learn all I needed to know as I went along!

So, there I sat, in my living room, brochures and flyers in hand.  I knew exactly where to go and who to talk to, but I felt intimidated by my target market, knowing that their knowledge of boats would greatly exceed mine, making me look the fool.  I feared rejection, and I had no confidence in myself as a salesperson.  If only someone out there would give me a chance, I would be able to use that experience and learn the techniques of professional boat cleaning for all of my customers to follow.  I realized that no opportunities would be coming my way if I stayed in my little apartment sitting on my couch all day – even if I were holding my brochures.

An hour later, now sitting on my sister’s couch, I had just finished telling her of my great idea, showing her my classy brochures, and sharing with her my fear of talking to strangers.  My sister, a very outgoing, confident person in almost any situation, pulled me up off her couch, walked me to her car, and drove me down to the docks herself.  She said she would be right there if I needed her or started feeling ill.  She put five brochures in my clammy, shaking hands, and sent me on my way.

Lake Union was the best place for me to start soliciting my new business because of the many boat brokerages, marinas, and surrounding boatyards.  I decided to target boat brokerages at first because they had the greatest, immediate need for my boat cleaning services.  I would simply go in, tell them about my business, give them my brochure, and then wait for their call when they had work for me.  Simple!

I walked down to one of the main docks and headed over to the first brokerage.  I entered the office and there was a man and a woman sitting at their desks.  I introduced myself, gave them my prepared but unpracticed speech, then handed them a brochure.  They were thrilled with my services and told me they would call me within the next couple of weeks with some work!  I left their office, smiling from ear to ear.  Their interest in my business and acceptance of me gave me all the confidence I needed to visit the next four brokers.

Only 45 minutes later, I was leaving the office of broker number four.  I laughed at myself for being afraid of selling my business and being so afraid of talking to people in the industry.  These people were nice.  They weren’t out to trick me or scare me, and no one was asking me any technical questions about how oxidation is created or how many times I had varnished teak.


Artist: Victor Lafica (

Beaming with confidence, I entered the office of broker number five.  There was an old man with a long, gray beard, wearing an old, weathered, navy-colored sea captains cap.  He was sitting at a desk with papers scattered all over.  I approached him smiling, as he slowly looked up at me.

“What do you want?” he said gruffly. His harsh nature caught me off guard at first, but I quickly composed myself.  He probably thought I was trying to sell him something.  It then hit me that I was.  I cleared my throat and started my prepared, and now very well practiced speech.  After a moment, I realized that I was talking to the top of his cap as he was busy shuffling through the papers on his desk.  I decided to offer him my brochure, then leave as quickly as I could.  Hopefully my sister had the car running.

I stood there holding my brochure out to him.  He just looked me up and down.  I finally laid the brochure on his desk, and he asked me something very profound. “You know,”  he said, “you are a girl.  Do you think you can do this sort of work.?” Good observation on his part, I thought.  I chuckled, waiting for the punch line, for him to crack a smile on his weathered face, but nothing.  It was just me and silence.

“Well,” I sheepishly answered, “of course I can do the work.  Why don’t you give me some work and I’ll prove myself.” I don’t think there is a glass big enough to hold the amount of water it would have taken to wash my foot down with that loaded reply.

dirty sailboat“O.K., then.” he responded.  “There’s a 29′ sailboat at the end of my dock.  It hasn’t been out in over two years and I need someone to completely wash and wax the fiberglass, clean the interior, and strip and varnish all the exterior wood.  Go take a look at it and come back with an estimate.”

“Uh…, but sir.”  I stumbled.  “If you’ll actually read my brochure, you’ll see that I specifically do not do brightwork.” This didn’t really seem to matter to him.  He sat there, staring back at me with a blank look on that old, weathered face of his that probably held many a story.

“Alrighty, then.”  I said.  “I’ll be right back.”

As I walked out to the boat, I actually caught myself looking for an escape route that led straight to my sister’s get-away car.  Why couldn’t he have been as welcoming as the last four brokers?  Why did he have to be so mean?  My confidence was quickly fading.  I wanted to run from that dock, throw all of the research I had collected over the last six months and carefully designed brochures in the garbage can, and never look back.  I was letting one small obstacle kill my dream.  I knew better than to run from a challenge, though.  I knew that I had to face this fear head on.

When I arrived at the boat, my mouth hung open.  The fiberglass that I’m sure had once been white was now covered in a layer of slimy green mildew and brown algae.  The varnish on the woodwork was blistered and flaked off when I ran my fingers over it.  The waterline was black, and the interior of the boat smelled like a fish had died inside.  But why this surprised me, I don’t know.  Did I think that I was only going to clean clean boats?

I realized at this point that I was in way over my head.  I didn’t know where to start, much less what products to use.  I didn’t know how to varnish wood.  I also hadn’t set prices yet, so figuring an estimate for him was like calculating how long it would take to circle the earth on a camel.  I had no idea, and this became brutally obvious when I returned to his office five minutes later and blurted out, “One-hundred dollars!”  I stood there for a moment and he finally looked up at me.

“One-hundred dollars?” he repeated.

“Uh…yeah.” I so confidently responded. And then came the prize winning question.

“Do you know anything about boats, young lady?” I knew that if I had an answer for this one, I had a future in used car sales.  To turn and run at this point would have only made me a true failure in my mind.  As soon as the urge passed, I realized that I actually had to answer this question.  What was the closest thing that resembled a boat that I had ever cleaned? I quickly thought to myself.  My car, the bathtub, the kitchen counter?

“Yes.” I responded.  “I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve just never seen a boat that dirty before.”

Remember, I thought to myself. I only clean clean boats. The easy kind.

“One-hundred dollars, right?” he asked.

“Yes.”  I said.

“We’ll call you.” he said, and went back to shuffling through the papers on his desk.  My brochure was nowhere to be seen.

“Thank you, sir.” I said, and quickly left the office.

On the way home, I unloaded my fear and frustration onto my sister.  I told her I didn’t want to have my own business anymore and that giving up wouldn’t bother me one bit.  We both knew that was not true, and she quickly reminded me of how nice the first four brokers were.  That didn’t seem to help me much at this point.  I had let that old, stubborn sea captain break my spirit and get the best of me.  And I didn’t even know his name.

Later that day, I analyzed my situation.  I convinced myself that the grizzly old sea captain would probably never call me.  I’m sure he saw right through me, knew that I knew nothing of cleaning boats, and had probably thrown my brochure away while I was out looking over the boat.

A week went by and none of the brokers had called me.  On the positive side, it gave me some time to learn more about boats. I stripped and varnished every piece of wood in my apartment just to get some practice. I’m sure I had the best looking cutting board in the neighborhood. My car had never been so clean and shiny. But, at the same time, it worried me. It meant I might have to actually go out and advertise again. What if one out of every five brokers was like that man?

One afternoon however, my silent phone finally rang. “Deckhand Detailing” I cheerfully answered. “How can I help you?”

“You’re hired.” the voice on the other end gruffly answered. It was the old sea captain.

“All right.” I said. “Which of my services would you like used on this boat?” What a brave question to ask, I thought, since I figured that my brochure was probably being used to keep the shorter leg of his chair level with the rest of the legs.

“I want you to wash and wax the whole boat, clean the interior, and strip and varnish the rails. Got that?”

“Yes.” I answered as I scribbled his instructions down on my notepad. I’d look the technical words up later.

“Let’s talk about your estimate. It’s too low and I know you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. This is your first boat job isn’t it?”

I had two choices at this point. Three, if I considered hanging up a choice. I could either lie again, although he would probably see right through me, making me look like a lying fool.  Or, I could tell the truth, making me look like an honest fool. Lying fool, honest fool.  Which fool did I want to play today?

“Well,”  I sheepishly volunteered, “yes.”

“I figured.” he responded. “I’ll tell you what.  Instead of paying you $100, I’m going to pay you $400 on one condition.  If I don’t like your work, I won’t pay you one cent and I never want to see you on my dock again.  If I do like the work, I’ll pay you the $400 and give you four more jobs.  What’s it going to be?”

“I’ll take it!”  I blurted out.

“Good.  Be down here tomorrow morning, early.” He hung up.

That afternoon, I went out and rented a pressure washer that weighed more than me, bought three hoses, ten sponges, two buckets, an ungodly amount of soap, and some varnishing supplies. I then went to the library and checked out every book I could find on boat cleaning and maintenance, of which there was only two. As I was to learn the next day, reading a book on how to clean a boat and then actually doing it is like reading a book on how to fly an airplane and wondering why the ground is getting closer and closer but the plane isn’t slowing down. But the book said….

I woke up early the next morning and gathered my supplies together.  I realized I needed one more major item.  Some help.  I hired my sister and we were on our way.

The stubborn old sea captain, Herb, as it said on his business card, was in the same position at his desk as I had left him in a week earlier. “Good, you brought some help.  You’ll need it.”  he said, the beautiful conversationalist he was.  “Go ahead and get to work.”

tangled-hosesMy sister and I unloaded all of our gear, neatly lined it up along the dock, and started working.  Nine hours later, there was not one piece of dry clothing on us.  There were more suds in the lake than had ever touched the boat, and you could track our immediate vicinity by all of the pink kitchen sponges floating around us.  I had almost varnished two of my fingers together, and was gradually getting high off the turpentine trying to get them unstuck.

We finally finished, our gear no longer neatly lining the dock, but some of it now floating somewhere near the other end of the lake. It was getting dark, and all of the other brokers along with the few customers we hadn’t frightened away or accidentally soaked with one of our three hoses now tangled as one, had gone home for the day.  Herb was still in his office, had been there all day, not once coming out to check on us.  My curiosity was rising, but my fear of rejection was conquering me.  The boat looked clean to me.  It was no longer green, the varnish was smooth and shiny if you didn’t notice the nose print I made when I hit the rail from slipping on the soap, and the dead fish smell was no longer in the boat because we were now wearing it.

I told my sister to pack up the equipment and supplies we hadn’t sunk while I went in and faced Herb’s wrath.

“We’ve finished.  Would you like to take a look at it?” Without a word, he rose from his chair and headed down to the boat.  He scrutinized every inch of it for roughly ten minutes while I stood on the dock, sweating, shaking, nervous, smelly.  Why was I so afraid of rejection?  This was only my first boat job and I could always get better and try again.  Besides, if he didn’t like our work, I never had to see him again.  I remember him stating that very clearly before we started the job.

Herb was finished looking over the boat.  His blank expression only made it harder for me to take. “Come into my office.”  he said.

The walk from the dock to the office seemed longer this time and as small as I was feeling, I would have much rather been sailing off to paradise on one of my floating pink kitchen sponges. I followed him in and as he sat down at his desk, something I will never forget happened.  A smile spread across his weathered face, and as his bushy brows lifted, his eyes became bright.

“I am very impressed with your work.”  he said happily.  “That is the cleanest boat I’ve ever had on my dock.  I’ve never seen a detailer do a better job than you have done today.”

I was so elated, I wanted to jump into his lap and call him grandpa.  I quickly collected myself, keeping my emotional roller coaster feelings to myself, and said a simple “thank you”. Herb not only paid me the $400 for that job, but gave me so much business over the next four years, I hardly had to advertise anymore.  His dock and referrals became almost 70% of my work.

Underneath that stubborn, cold exterior was a man who was warm and caring.  He was a great businessman as I came to learn, testing everyone first to make them prove themselves.  He chased off any other unsuspecting boat detailer who stopped at his dock with their brochures.  He would always yell at them that he had the only detailer he needed.  That always brought a big smile to my face as I stopped cleaning for a moment to watch him chase them off his dock, my pink sponges quietly floating away from me.  Whenever it started raining, he would make me come inside and sip a cup of tea with him while he told me stories of his past.

Over the next four years, Herb taught me everything I needed to know about boat cleaning and maintenance. After only one year, I was able to add to my brochures that I now offered brightwork services, and after enough turpentine highs, I also learned to wear a face mask.

Had I quit when I first wanted to, had I run away from this challenge, I would have never had such an amazing opportunity to fulfill my dream of starting my own business, to prove to myself that I could succeed, no matter what obstacle came my way. I learned that by judging a book by its cover, by not believing in yourself, you are destined for failure.  I also learned that even if Herb had not been happy with our cleaning job and sent us away, I would not have been a failure.  I still would have succeeded, for you only fail if you never try in the first place.  Do not be afraid of people.  Everyone has a heart and a soul on the inside, and if you are patient and honest, these things will be shown to you.

In thinking back to the day I visited those five brokers, it’s a good thing Herb liked our work.  The other four brokers that I visited before Herb, who were so thrilled with my business, never called me.

Copyrighted material. All rights reserved. Natalie Sears.