When Ryan Cooke was 7, a class trip on a boat made such a positive impression that he aimed for a job on the water as soon as he could. By 12 he was working on the docks in Freeport, filling bait buckets. By 16 he had worked his way up to first deckhand, and at 18 he earned his captain's license. He ran ferries to Fire Island, and at 21 bought his first party boat, but he found the business too seasonal and sold the boat three years later. He opted instead to teach during the year and captain during his time off.
Cooke was working for Party Boat Central in Freeport when superstorm Sandy struck in October 2012; the company's two boats sustained more than $500,000 in damages. "The only reason we stayed in business was through the tenacity of the crew and the ownership and myself," Cooke remembers. In April, the Rizzo family sold the business to Cooke. He offers year-round cruises, parties and fishing charters. In many ways, he says, the business functions as a "floating catering hall." And, true to his first experience, Cooke, who still teaches special-needs children full time in the Bronx, also gives educational tours at cost to introduce the next generation of children to boating. On Sunday he'll host a $5 "not-so-scary" haunted boat ride as part of Freeport's fall festival.
Tell me about your boats.
The Miss Freeport V is white with teal accents, 72 feet long and can hold 30 to 150 guests; the Freeport Princess is a cream-colored 106-foot yacht that can hold 60 to 140 people.
What are the challenges in your first year of business?
I never walk into a situation and make extreme changes right away. I consider this first year a year of correction, [studying] different systems that are in place, looking at the staffing and making lots of notes. I journal all the time. First you have to put the fires out on a regular basis, but the changes should be done over time.
What are the special considerations for a floating catering hall?
It takes a full-time engineer to make sure these engines and the boats are up to snuff, a full-time executive manager to run the office and to make sure the inventory's there. It's not like I can run down the block to pick up a box of plates if I'm running low. I have a full-time maître' d'/party planner who works with clients from the time they book the trip until they get off the boat.
You do weddings?
We do a lot of weddings -- on a three-level yacht, which is a unique experience and something that guests generally are wowed about.
How do you keep customers from getting seasick?
For the most part, we're in the bay, so it's all inland route. As a captain, I'm planning the route. Every single trip is different. I'm there an hour before time looking at the sea conditions. If a ton of boats are out, I'm going to take a different route so we're not getting a lot of wake and waves from other boats passing us. We put a lot of effort into planning the route based on a) making sure that the customers get a lot of good scenery, and b) that you get the calmest water.
How do you find the fish for your charters?
I call it LCN -- "local common knowledge." It's knowing this is where we've been fishing the last 10 years and the conditions warrant the likelihood we'll do well over here. We also use a depth sounder to identify fish that are on the bottom.
Why do you think it's important for children to learn boating?
We live on Long Island, and it's something that's been a part of our history and culture for such a long time. It's part of the resources we have. We don't have to necessarily leave to go on vacation. The vacation's right here: Jones Beach, Fire Island, further out at Montauk Point, and right here out of Freeport. You can get on a party boat, go fishing for four or eight hours, be on water, catch your dinner, and it's a nice day.