Sue Gearan runs a yacht chartering company and plans domestic and international yacht charters and travel for clients. She travels for work and pleasure and runs two businesses. Learn how Sue created an amazing life and career around her passion for sailing.
So how did this sailing life start for you?
My folks have had a sailboat since I was about 17. I did some sailing with my college in Massachusetts, and my roommate interned with a yacht chartering company. She suggested I might like to work for them. So I went over and introduced myself, and soon I was selling corporate charters out of Boston. I also sold Caribbean vacations. This was in the 90s, when companies were spending lots of money on things like this.
I went to boat shows to inspect boats and meet the crews. On one of those trips I met my boyfriend. He was looking into getting us jobs on a sailboat. So I took a local cooking class and ended up moving onto a boat later that year. I spent 14 years doing that. I worked on catamarans in the British Virgin Islands, things like that.
I worked for a prominent CEO, cooking on his private yacht. He was a great employer, such a kind guy. (I cooked for Martha Stewart on that boat. It was daunting to say the least; luckily, it was just hors d’oeuvres!)
After doing that for several years, I was tired of being in the service industry, and I was getting older. So I teamed up with my original employer (Carol Kent) at her chartering company, and now I put together yacht vacation charters in New England and the Caribbean.
I also work independently as a global yacht concierge. It started because I was doing a lot of favors for people — writing resumes, consulting, travel planning. I like helping people, but I decided to charge for the favors I’d been doing for people for a long time.
I wear a bunch of different hats. I help out boat owners, captains of yachts, CEOs of startups thinking of getting into sailing. I also do day chartering. It keeps me well rounded in the business. I have a good grasp on the industry; I’m somewhat an expert in yachting.
What kind of travel do you do? What are some of your favorite places?
I’ve traveled around quite a lot for work and otherwise. On my most recent trip I was in Antigua, St. Thomas, Tortola, and Fort Lauderdale. I went to meet the crew and see the boats. I’m probably going to Croatia this spring; their yacht week is a big event in the summer. And in between I sneak in my own trips. For example, after Christmas, I’m going to Ireland with my dad. (He recently became a dual citizen and he’s been able to connect with distant cousins thanks to ancestry.com and Facebook and other random connections. It’s pretty cool.)
I love to travel by myself. I’ve gone all over. I didn’t do the college backpacking thing, so I got started a bit late, once I hit my late 30s, as my friends started to get married and have kids.I want to travel as much as I can while I’m still young. For my 40th birthday, I went to India and Nepal by myself. I trekked in Annapurna. It was so great because you don’t have to negotiate with anybody about what you do from day to day, where you go. I thought, “Oh my gosh! Why did I not do this before?” I love it, love it, love it.
I’d love to go on the Trans-Siberian railway, from Russia to China through Mongolia. Turkey was high on my list, but now the sailing event is probably canceled there for now. Egypt, Jordan, Bali and Tahiti are all on my list of places I’d love to go.
I recently went on a 10-day trip to the Galapagos, on a 140-foot yacht with a bunch of other travel brokers. It was all expenses paid (except for tips), including hotels in Ecuador, really luxurious accommodations, all the meals. It was an opportunity to familiarize myself with what a charter client would experience so I can sell it. Now I can talk about each island, the food, everything. It makes a big difference to have first-hand experience because people are spending a lot of money on a trip like this. I can answer their questions honestly because I’ve done the trip myself.
I spent about a month on a boat in Cuba several years ago. It was one of the best places I’ve ever been. Fortunately, because there are lots of restrictions there around who can do what in the ocean, many of the ecosystems around Cuba are extremely well-preserved. You can’t just come in with a private company with dive gear.
The Caribbean reefs on the other hand are ruined. It’s shocking. In the British Virgin Islands, I could not believe the state of the ocean and the reefs. The reef itself it is not as prominent; I think a lot of it has died off. And there’s not as much sea life as I remember from when I first started spending time there. It used to be like diving into an aquarium, but it really has taken a beating.
It’s really sad. It’s awful what humans do to things. I mean, people come in and don’t know what they’re doing. They drop anchor on the reef and things like that. In my industry the boats and crews are adamant about preserving the oceans, but not everybody is so well-informed or well-intentioned. It also doesn’t help that cruise ships have been coming to places that are so fragile.
The Galapagos is doing it the right way. It’s very restricted compared to the Caribbean islands. There are times of the day when you can go each place; they only allow two boats at a time. We had a naturalist with us the whole time. We had to wash our shoes so we didn’t transport things from one island to another. So the sea there is very alive versus some of the other places that I’ve been that are more overrun with human life.
Luckily the Galapagos is not easy to get to, which is probably its saving grace. Even high-end clients who pay a lot and who are used to doing what they want understand that in the Galapagos the rules are not going to bend for them. So the people who really want to go there are into the environment and the science. Hopefully it will stay that way.
Do you consider yourself rooted in a place, or are you more of a nomad?
I love being near and on the water. It’s funny how acclimatized I’ve become to it. Now being on land feels strange to me. I fell in love with sailing so now I’ll always be close to the water and sail as much as I can.
Rhode Island is my home base. Newport is the hot spot for the yachting industry, and I just love the culture here. I’ve lived in Florida and in Boston, but I love four seasons and I’m not a big city person. I’m originally from Massachusetts, so to me New England has such charm; it’s always been the place I want to come back to.
My boyfriend just bought a sailboat and plans to sail around the world. My business is really mobile; I can talk to clients a variety of ways. So I potentially could do the trip. At the very least I can fly in a bunch of times and stay for a month at a time.
I don’t think I would uproot myself again, but I have a simple life, a small apartment, a used car. I probably won’t buy a lot of stuff ever again. Living on a boat makes you simplify; you see that you don’t need a lot of function. I’m trying now to not just acquire stuff that I don’t need.
What’s the best way for women who haven’t sailed to get into sailing?
You can do it a bunch of different ways. You can participate in a learn to sail program, locally and vacation-wise, including a sailing program for women. You can put a group together and charter a boat.
I can put a family on a nice little catamaran for just about the same rate as a trip to Disney. It’s a bonding experience. They can only get on the internet sometimes. They’re not constantly on their phone. Half of our boats have skippers who are certified to train someone to be a sailor; others have cooking courses. So for one week, you do everything together. Because in a family everybody can get so frazzled and disconnected from each other, I think people are longing for that.
Because there are no decisions to be made; everything is decided for you. And it’s not like an a cruise ship where you’re herded from place to place with a hundred other people. People arrive stressed out — especially when they come in from places in the northeast like NY. On any trip, yachting or otherwise, it usually takes 3 days for people to unwind. Yachting fast-forwards it a bit because you’re barefoot all the time; you’re never in a car or stuck in traffic. You’re unplugged and your outdoors. It’s really eye-opening. Especially with sailing, where there’s no engine, it’s so peaceful. After a week, the stress has drained from their faces and they look like different people.
I’ve never had someone come back from one of these trips disappointed.