Local Entrepreneur Dale Swope took on a challenge in 2019 -- the challenge of starting a new business in which he had no experience and no expertise. And one that, just months later in the middle of the global pandemic, would lead him to question whether to let it go or forge ahead.
But, Swope, an attorney at Swope, Rodante who oversaw the restoration and renovation of the former Florida Brewing Company building in Ybor City, decided to plunge forward into the industry of yacht chartering to start Sunburst Yacht Charters now debarking out of downtown Tampa.
"I love starting new businesses -- especially ones that I think help the community become better than it was before," says Swope. "If the business is one that ‘everybody knows can’t succeed,’ I love it even more."
After six months of research and evaluation, Swope settled on an 83-foot English-built Sunseeker yacht and christened it the Vanguard.
"She is about as big a boat as can operate in Tampa Bay, and she was beautiful and fast, and incredibly luxurious," says Swope.
Vanguard and Harbour Island are a marriage made in Tampa Bay heaven, he exudes.
"Starting a luxury yacht charter company right in the middle of downtown Tampa seemed perfect," he says. "Tampa’s waterfront has developed so beautifully; I figured that somehow there was an opportunity for something great."
The yacht's name stems from a celebration of diversity. Swope and his partners at Swope, Rodante, own a second firm, Vanguard Attorneys. Vanguard is operated by three women attorneys of varying cultural backgrounds. "We committed to hiring the best, most-dedicated attorneys we could find, and just organically, the diversity flowed," Swope says.
Since Vanguard Attorneys is a diverse group committed to giving back to the community, Swope designating his yacht Vanguard only made sense. Unbeknownst to Swope at the time, the crew to operate his Sunseeker would be all women.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the entire world and affected many industries, including luxury yachts of the travel and tourism sector.
"I was just about ready to accept defeat and join the legions of other yacht owners through history whose charter 'businesses' were little more than a thinly disguised and expensive hobby," admits Swope.
Then, Swope learned that Tampa's Yacht StarShip Cruises & Events operations had been temporarily shut down as a result of the crippling pandemic. StarShip's loss became Sunburst's gain as one of their former captains, Captain Wendy Clark, was interested in adopting Vanguard. Swope and Clark met via Zoom, and the rest is history. (Yacht Starship
has since resumed operations under CDC safety guidelines.)
"Even through the camera, it took no more than 90 seconds for me to know that she was the perfect fit for Vanguard," Swope says.
Swope offered the captain position to Clark, who accepted and soon assembled her operations team. He said that, just like Vanguard Attorneys, by selecting the best people for the crew, the all-women team happened organically.
Joining Capt. Clark aboard Vanguard are Shannon Lawson (First Mate) and Ashley Giron and Layne Mapes (Stewards).
"I absolutely love working with an all-female crew," says Clark. "The dynamic and energy are so different from the male-dominated crews I’ve always worked with. It is really rewarding getting to pay it forward to females in the industry."
What initially began with a desire to work on the water turned out to be so much more than that.
"I didn’t get into this industry thinking I wanted to change hearts and minds, or break glass ceilings, or trail-blaze," says Clark. "I guess the significance can be found in the simple fact female mariners don’t fit the common mental image when someone says 'sailor' or ‘captain.' It’s a moment of cognitive dissonance that I love to be an observer of."
"It’s one small step in the direction of blurring gender lines and challenging the social norms," Clark continues. "I hope the significance can be found in the difference between the phrases: 'Look! Women can be captains too' and 'It’s nice to meet you, Captain'."
Clark tips her hat to the great captains who have guided her throughout her career in Captains Bob McKoy and Craig Manicki.
"I feel it is my duty to make sure my crew gets the same mentorship and leadership that helped me grow, independent of gender," she says. "But having said that, it is such an amazing feeling to get to mentor other females in the industry. I hope we can get to the point where female mariners are commonplace, where names like Captain Sandy Yawn, Captain Kate McCue of Celebrity Cruises, Captain Wendy Williams of Virgin Voyages, and Captain Belinda Bennett of Windstar Cruises are part of the general lexicon."
Swope tips his hat to Clark.
"Since Captain Clark took over, even in the middle of the pandemic, and despite the souring summertime weather patterns, our fortunes have turned around," says Swope. "We are now massively in demand, and every single charter customer so far has returned to the dock with rave reviews. These women are supremely competent and capable, but they are also really, really fun.
"It is our crew of dedicated and experienced sea-women that have made this dream business real."
For more information, visit the Sunburst Yacht Charters website.
To read more about the former Florida Brewing Company, check out this 83 Degrees story from 2019.