Helping you float your boat
by Heleigh Bostwick
Steven Charlebois started Sea Dog Boating Solutions as a way to combine his love of sailing with his engineering experience. His Jericho company helps new and established sailors find specialized products and custom solutions to boating problems.
An engineer by education and training, Steven Charlebois considers himself a problem solver and has been issued five patents in process and methodology from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He always wanted to start his own business.
“I’m a passionate boater, so I asked myself what I could do that involved boating,” says Charlebois. “Being a boater myself, I know that certain aspects of boating can be stressful. If I’m having a problem, I’ll research it and figure out a solution. Usually it’s a new product that I try out.”
Realizing there might be others in the same situation, he launched Sea Dog Boating Solutions LLC in December 2007. The Sea Dog reference in the name came to him one day while researching other words for “boater” or “sailor” to use in his business name. “I used to have a yellow Lab named Spencer who, like all Labs, loved the water,” he says. “When I came across the words “sea dog” meaning an experienced, or “salty” sailor, I knew right away that would be the name of my business and that the logo would be the image of a yellow Lab.” He commissioned a young artist to design the logo based on photographs of Spencer.
Despite growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario near Rochester, N.Y., Charlebois didn’t develop his passion for boating until he and his wife, Meg, moved to Vermont in 1994. They had met 10 years earlier when, fresh out of college with an engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, he was hired by a company in the computer industry, and she was hired a week later.
Once in Vermont, they embraced water sports. “We started out wind surfing and did that for a number of years. Then we joined the International Sailing School for six or seven years while the kids were still young. We finally bought our own boat, a 1986 O’Day 31-foot sloop, in 2005.”
Charlebois, who works out of his home in Jericho, says there are two aspects to Sea Dog Boating Solutions. “The consulting side is where I help folks with a particular boating issue,” he says. “The retail side is where I sell boating products through my website that enhance the boating experience.”
Boating issues might include everything from buying a new boat to rigging sails, finding someone to make repairs, or getting a mooring or dock slip at a marina. “Consider me a helpful resource,” says Charlebois. “I’ve dealt with a lot of the local places through my own experiences and can give boaters the inside scoop, which saves them time and money.”
Annie Small and her husband, George Richards, of Safeguard Business Systems in Essex Junction, have used Charlebois’ services for a number of boating issues. “We met Steve back when we were sailing novices, about six or seven years ago,” says Small. “He helped us rebuild a sailboat and even rigged our sails and came out with us on the initial voyage.”
“One time we were taking the boat out on a test run and he was there and noticed that some of our shrouds had broken. He helped us lower the mast, make the repairs, and get it back up again. He’s been really helpful and absolutely great to work with.”
Sue Lackey, owner of Perfect Image Fashions in Essex Junction and herself an avid boater, echoes that sentiment. She met Charlebois through Business Network International (BNI) and they have done several trade shows together (Lackey sells alpaca sweaters made for boaters). “He’s honorable, loves to help people, listens well, and follows through,” she says. “He has a real passion for boating and a passion for introducing new people to boating so they’re comfortable doing it the first time.”
Although boating is a luxury, business has picked up despite the economic downturn over the past five years, says Charlebois. “I grossed a third more in revenue on the retail side in 2012 as compared to 2011,” he says, adding that most of what he sells is outside of Vermont. “Because I sell through my website I have a lot of international clients, especially from Canada, Europe, and Australia — which is nice because when it’s winter here it’s summer there. I really enjoy emailing and talking to people all over the world.”
On the retail front, Charlebois began selling new products that have limited distribution. “You can’t just go to the local marina and buy them,” he says. He sources his products by subscribing to boating magazines and reading reviews on new products. “I also attend boat shows in Boston and here in Vermont and other trade shows where there are boating products,” he says. More often than not, however, he finds his products because he’s having a particular problem of his own that he’s researching a solution for.
“All the products I sell I use on my own boat. When I do see something new, I contact the distributor and test it out. I won’t sell something I haven’t tested, and it has to be high quality and solve a problem. It has to be a product I truly believe in and use myself.”
Charlebois doesn’t keep a lot of inventory on hand unless it seems like it will be a good seller — communication systems headsets for instance. “A communication systems headset is a perfect example of the type of product that makes a particular boating task easier,” he says, explaining that when mooring a good-sized boat, 25 or 30 feet long, it may be difficult to hear what another person at the other end of the boat is saying, especially if it’s windy or waves are crashing against the boat.
Active members of the Malletts Bay Boat Club, Charlebois, Meg (also an engineer), and daughters Chantel, a freshman at Charlebois’ alma mater, RIT, and Bridgette, a sophomore in high school, try to take their boat out every weekend. They’ll drop anchor and spend the night, explore different parts of the lake, or head to Burlington, a four-hour trip in a sailboat. “You can’t be in a hurry on a sailboat,” says Charlebois, laughing. “Sailing is the journey. It’s a different mind-set than a powerboat.”
Last year the family chartered a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands over the April school break. “We rented the boat, brought our supplies, and went island hopping,” he says. “I was The Captain for a week. It was warm and beautiful and it was a great experience.”
In the winter, the whole family skis. Charlebois used to play hockey, too, but due to a herniated disk, stopped and took up tap dancing as his new sport. “It’s really good exercise,” he says of the weekly class he participates in with another dad and several other adults.
As for the future, the 51-year-old Charlebois would like to continue growing the consulting side of the business, and five to 10 years down the road, design some of his own products. “It would be exciting and fun to grow to the point where I could add employees,” he says, adding that he’d love to sail his business right into retirement. •