Roosevelt: Captain Al Continues to Follow His Passion
Captain Al has been in the boating business for 36 years. (Photo by Jerry Johnson)
By Meghan Bower, Drew Olson and Jerry Johnson
The Red Line Project
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011
As deep gray storm clouds creep over Lake Michigan, encroaching on the sunny blue skies, Captain Al Skalecke relaxes on a picnic bench and looks out over his two charter boats in Burnham Harbor, watching as the mother geese encourage their newly born goslings to test out the water.
“See, they want the little guy to go in the water, but he’s scared,” said Lynn Skalecke, Al’s wife, of the baby geese.
Al began his charter boat business in 1975 when he and Lynn bought a boat at $20,000 after deciding that driving to and from Wisconsin to fish every weekend was too much of a hassle.
“When I first started, I just liked fishing,” Al said. “The agreement was that I would fish in an area that had a nice disco and a nice hotel for my wife. In order to justify [purchasing the first boat], I turned it into a business.”
Al’s first big break in the charter boat business occurred after he took a Dutch businessman on a boat trip without advanced notice. The customer was grateful for the outstanding service and spread the word about Al, who now operates four boats.
“They came over and asked if I would [take them out] and how long it would take,” Al said. “I said it would take me an hour to get my gear together and then I would take them out. And he asked me, ‘Well, if I help you how long will it take?’ I said half an hour, so we put the thing together, went out, caught 30 to 40 fish.”
He had 90 charters from that group alone his first year, which gave him the confidence to invest more of his own money into the business and work toward making it his full-time job.
“One kind deed worked out great for me and business took off for a while,” Al said.
According to Al, he is the only company on Lake Michigan that can take more than six people out at a time. With a maximum of 18 passengers, Al charters both fishing trips and party cruises, in addition to an architectural river tour of the city.
It was a chartered bachelor party that was most memorable for Julian Appignani, who is in his fourth year working with Al.
“We were out with a bachelor party one time,” Appigani said. “There were two strippers giving a show and Al was down below fixing the toilet and cursing up a storm. It was crazy.”
Most of Al’s business used to come from corporate fishing trips, like the 11-person trip he chartered May 21 for NTS Services Corporation.
“We do a lot of fishing back home, but most of the guys haven’t been on something like this,” said Dan Johnson, owner of the Pekin, Ill.,-based company.
Al doesn’t face too much competition from other companies on the lake, though he does feel some pressure from boat owners who charter trips as a way to earn additional income outside of their regular jobs. According to Al, a lot of these trips come at much lower prices and are difficult to compete with.
One of the biggest challenges facing Al now is the economic downturn in the country, as many corporations cut their entertainment spending, including corporate fishing trips.
“I only ran two trips so far [this year] and the boats are sitting like this…It’s sad,” Al said. “This is time lost. You can’t make up what you lost.”
Now, Al’s business is largely driven by party cruises.
“Today you’ll find the younger people in your age group, they don’t have homes, making good money, went to school and their incomes are pretty high. And also, no babies, no commitment, so they’re looking to go out and meet girls. So they get groups together, go out on boats and they have them [girls] trapped…and they’re out there pitching their deals, having a nice time.”
Al estimates that his business is down about 20 percent from 2008. Though he has experienced ups and downs in the past, this recession has affected his business the most. Al’s profit has also been hurt by gas prices, using 70 gallons on average of diesel fuel per trip.
“They say gas prices will go down, but it probably won’t until after the summer,” Al said with a smile.
But the bad economy isn’t the only challenge Al faces, as the changing advertising landscape presents its own issues.
“Things change,” Al said. “Years ago it was print newspaper and word of mouth. Today it’s more Internet, so it’s a whole different ball game.”
He occasionally runs a small ad in the Sun-Times, but said the cost is becoming too high. After doing just one television ad, Al said it is unlikely that he’ll ever purchase another one due to the fact that he saw zero increase in business, yet still had to provide a free charter trip in addition to paying the fee.
Lynn, a former Leo Burnett employee, is in charge of advertising and coordinated the creation of their website. And while many companies are jumping on the social media bandwagon, Lynn doesn’t believe doing so would benefit their business.
“It’s just a lot of people talking to each other,” Lynn said, adding that their newly designed website has been the most productive in terms of sales.
Despite the difficulty in turning a profit, Al still loves his job, particularly being his own boss, and continues to see the positives.
“When six or 18 people come on board, they all come with a smile. They’re coming out for a good time, there’s no negatives,” Al said. “And when you come back, if they are unsatisfied with how many fish they caught, that’s another thing, but you know what, it’s goodbye and you got another group coming out in the afternoon with the same attitude…so you’re dealing with somebody that has something in common with what you like to do. In my case, it’s fishing.”
Map: Follow the route of Captain Al's charters.
View Captain Al Skalecke's Charter Boats in a larger map