Get to Know Sailing Guide Capt. Iris Clarke

Capt. Iris Clarke was born into a yachting family. In 1926, her grandfather commissioned a boatyard to build a yacht, the Selina II. Now the largest surviving catboat left in the world, she’s a piece of maritime history. “In 2001 she came on my watch,” says Capt. Clarke. “Everybody knew from the time I was six years old she would come to me — I’m the sailor, it’s in the blood.” Now as captain of Selina II, Clarke offers chartered cruises out of St. Michaels, Maryland, including half- and full-day charters, sunset champagne cruises, romantic dinners and weddings on the water, as well as sailing lessons.
How did you make the transition to becoming a guide?

I asked my father, ‘How much does she cost every year to maintain?’ He had a glint in his eye, and when he (told me) I sucked air — that was a huge number. And I said, ‘Does she come with an endowment?’ He shrieked with laughter. So I did what many people have done before me and … started a charter boat business. As a kid I had cut my teeth in the charter business, I have started a couple of businesses in my life, so I became a guide and charter boat captain.

How long have you been guiding?

I got the boat in 2001 but she needed some work. My first full season (started in) 2003. We operate from end of April to end of October, so it’s a six-month season. Then, once the season is over, the boat goes to a boatyard and we service her. I have the mechanics go over the engine with a fine-tooth comb — it takes a couple of months to get all the work done. She’s high maintenance. I start varnishing stuff in my varnish shed in the winter — it takes about two months — and in the spring it takes a while to get her up and running again. People get this idea that I get six months off every year … it’s almost day for day (maintenance). It’s partially a function of how old she is and partially a function of how picky I am.

Do you have a certain style of guiding?

I have a sense of humour — it works well for me as captain of the ship. I tell stories the whole time and I crack jokes. I could not make a living doing it — I’m not a comic, I’m a storyteller.

What does a typical day look like for you?

We start from St. Michaels — it’s ranked in the top 100 best little towns to visit in the U.S. It’s very small, very quaint — it doesn’t have bells and whistles like Nantucket, but it’s not under the radar. We do a mini harbour tour before we set sail. Once we leave the harbour, we go out in the river and I go with the wind.

Tell us about Selina II.

You’re sailing under 1,000 square feet of canvas. … You’re used to seeing a sailboat with a mast in the middle. Wipe that out of your mind — move the mast forward on the boat and the boom goes the length of the boat, with a squarish sail.

What types of tours do you specialize in?

We offer private charters that are longer than two hours. Sometimes people charter us for four hours; occasionally we have an all-day or sometimes even an overnight, but that’s not my bread and butter. If people are interested we let them steer the boat. We have adult beverages on board. I offer sailing lessons — I don’t position them with ‘you’re going to get off the boat with a certificate.’ It’s hands-on, the theory behind sailing, the experience of being behind the wheel. A lot of people will never get their own sailboat but they want to get on board and feel that. We do a table for two, it’s very romantic, I get that catered by a fancy restaurant in town. We’ve probably had about 500 engagements on the boat. Then we have weddings on board — I did 35 weddings last year and have done 125 so far overall.

What’s the best part of your job?

You know when you touch something you leave a fingerprint? What people don’t realize is when we are around other people we connect with them and leave heartprints. The people that come for a sail with me leave part of themselves with me because they leave a heartprint behind and hopefully I leave them with a heartprint. It is what I give and what I solicit from my guests. I want to share the aspect of life that’s lovely.

What are the benefits of hiring a guide?

Visually, you’re going to see things that you cannot see from land … it’s not a bird’s eye view, it’s a pulled-back view. You get a better sense of the lay of the land and how the pieces fit together. Another aspect is cultural. I am seeped in the culture of sailing and yachting. There are multiple cultures on the water. Because it is my native tongue, that comes out. A lot of folks that come to St. Michaels are land lubbers and just being around me and on my boat imbibes a bit of the yachting culture in them.

How often do you travel?

I travel once a year. Because I sail all the time I go on a non-sailing trip, but invariably I end up on the water — it just happens.

If you like this, you might like: Tips for Better Boating with Children

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  • ROB

    Wow, a woman with a catboat. Two things I am looking for in one package. I have a sense of humor too. My deceased wife was raised in Maine and sailed catboats when she was young. After she passed I started looking for a catboat. I believe that would be one woman she would not mind me getting on. (humor) I found you when looking for a catboat someone told me about named Salina owned by a woman in the NC area. I have to keep looking. I am sure you are married and I am toooooold. I live on a mountain top in N. GA. If I do move to the coast I don’t know where I would end up. If it is near you I would like to meet you and see that beautiful boat. You are attractive but I don’t want to get in trouble with anyone for saying so. Oh I don’t have any luck with woman anyhow. I tried eHarmony. I answered all their questions for them to find someone for me and sent it back. Within minutes I got an email back that they do not have any lonely, desperate woman with poor judgment.

  • Jon Anton

    Dear Iris…

    I was just thinking of old times and, on a whim, entered your name in a Google search……and there you were on my screen looking as beautiful as ever and very much in charge of your dream boat, Salina II

    Such a marvelous and historic yacht …… you obviously love her…

    Suzanne and I often talk about that fantastic ride we shared with you on the Salina II……the best part of life is actually the memories of all the adventures we experienced in the past. I will be 80 years old this year……no fun getting old, but I am lucky to be very healthy and have an endless list of outings on my “bucket list”…

    God bless you……and thanks for the memories…!

    With love…

    Jon Anton

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