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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