Not even the Great Recession could stop Capt. Greg Mercurio from plying his trade in coastal waters
Many of us love boats and dropping a hook in the water, but not many have taken the leap to combine that love into making a living as a full-time captain, running your own boat for profit 12 months a year. It's not an easy road - especially in the recession years - but one of those making it go is Capt. Greg Mercurio, owner and operator of the 85-foot party boat Yankee Captains.
Greg is 44 years old. He was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Cape May, N.J. His love of fishing was evident early on. He strapped rod holders to his bike and pedaled to a nearby seawall for bait. He then used those to catch weakfish from the many jetties around that town at the south end of New Jersey.
Higher education called Mercurio to a degree in computer engineering, certainly a coming field, but his love of the water and fishing overcame all else. He got his captain's license in 1984 and, after college, he applied for and was accepted as a mate aboard the famed mother ship/chase boat, the Madam and the Hooker. Aboard that boat Greg caught or helped others catch fish on oceans around the world.
After his voyaging days aboard Madam and the Hooker, Greg came back to the United States and headed to Key West, drawn there as many anglers were by stories of great catches. From the nation's southernmost city, he went on a trip on Yankee Captains and began talking with Alan Hill, son of Capt. Jerry Hill, who was then the owner.
Alan and Greg struck up a friendship and Alan, no doubt seeing potential, offered Greg a job running the boat as backup captain, not only in Key West, but also in their home port of Gloucester, Mass., from late May through November. The year was 1989 and Greg has not looked back on his decision.
For the next eight years, Greg learned about running and repairing a boat that size - the ins and outs of finding and catching snapper and grouper off the Dry Tortugas grounds 70 miles from Key West, and catching cod and other ground fish out on Cashes Ledge, 80 miles off Gloucester.
In time, his training on Madam and the Hooker came in handy. The boat added fishing for tuna on the edge of the Continental Shelf during the fall before heading south once more with the boat running 12 months a year.
In 1997, by now a veteran skipper, Greg bought the boat and business from Capt. Jerry Hill. Today, he owns it outright. Unlike some vessel owners Greg chooses not to turn over day-to-day operations to someone else. He does all of the trips himself.
If there is a funny noise coming from the engine room, he is on top of the problem in short order. If the fishing on one of his prized spots isn't up to standard, he has the anchor coming up, heading to other grounds - always fighting the clock to put fish in the coolers of his patrons.
In 1993, Greg took time from the ever-consuming job of running a party boat to marry his longtime girlfriend, Sheri. Today they have a bright, fine daughter, Alexandra, 13, who goes to school in Key West, then heads north in the summer to spend time at the family home on the beach in Plymouth, Mass.
By all standards Greg has done well for himself - owning two homes, a boat and a business. And his daughter's college fund has been stockpiled through the years. This success has come - like most worthwhile things in this life - only with very hard work.
Last summer, I saw a sample of what it can be like to run a party boat business. On a Sunday evening in July, Greg returned to his dock at Rose's Marine in Gloucester and dropped off customers after a two-day fishing trip in the Gulf of Maine.
Once everyone was cleared and the boat was cleaned a bit, he and his crew left after 11 p.m. to steam all night to New Bedford, arriving at first light to pick up a group going to look for shipwrecks south of Nantucket. We left about 9 a.m. that Monday and returned to the Sea Fuels Dock by 2 p.m. Thursday, finding four wrecks, but not the one we were looking for.
Once those people were on their way home, Greg steamed back up to Gloucester, arriving in time to load more customers to leave at 10 p.m. for another two-day cod-and-haddock trip to Cashes Ledge. To be sure, this was a somewhat extreme case of putting trips together, but that's what Greg needed to do to stay solvent during the Great Recession as other boating businesses fell into bankruptcy.
Today, Greg runs the boat from Safe Harbor in Key West from November to mid-May, leaving there to steam up the East Coast, sometimes in marginal weather, arriving in Gloucester to start fishing for cod and other groundfish by the end of the month.
Each September, he leaves Gloucester, heading to New Bedford for two months to fish for tuna and other pelagic species on the edge of the Continental Shelf. In late October, he tips his hat to the coming winter and steams off to Key West, arriving in 70-plus degrees while the Northeast is getting its first taste of frost.
Almost all of his trips are multiday excursions that give clients plenty of fishing time and adds to their ability to bring home memories for the scrapbook and, in many cases, plenty of seafood dinners.
A life on the water
I once asked Greg whether he had any regrets about spending so many hours running the boat - looking out the wheelhouse window. For the most part, the answer was no, although he would like to spend more time with his family. In the next breath, though, he said that if the boat isn't moving - isn't fishing - it isn't making any money.
One of the many things I've admired about Greg is his ability to adapt to changing times. When the fishing on some of his tried-and-true spots off Gloucester went flat, he moved further up into the Gulf Of Maine, fishing off the Maine coast. There he has found fertile fishing grounds. During the 2010 season, his boat landed 22 halibut to 90 pounds, a prized sportfish not caught readily in any other area of New England.
When the real estate boom in Key West in the mid-to-late 2000s threatened the working waterfront, Greg had the foresight to buy a 120-foot section of dock and 120 feet of adjoining bay bottom in nearby Safe Harbor, ensuring that his fishing business would continue.
Running a party boat isn't easy. On many hot days I've gone over to the boat in Key West to find him sweating down in the engine room, fixing a problem, saying he'll see me topside in a bit to have lunch at the nearby Hogfish Bar & Grill, a great spot for locals and tourists alike.
But despite all of the weather and changing business conditions Greg has faced, the Yankee Captains is a vessel on the go, thanks to its man-in-motion skipper.
Greg Mercurio doesn't stay in one place too long. He always has his eye on tomorrow.
Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for most of his life. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine's New England edition and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.
This article originally appeared in the Home Waters Sections of the March 2011 issue.