Saltwater in their DNA -Fall 2019
by: David Creed
photography by: Terry Pommett
Alex Perkins’ office is the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the waters off Nantucket. He steps off the dock at Children’s Beach onto one of his 24-foot Carolina skiffs to go to work every morning. If you think his office is better than yours, he agrees.
“I learned to drive a boat before I could drive a car. I have never had a desk job in my life,” Perkins said. “I get to spend real long days out on the water. I get to show people Nantucket from my perspective. When people come to Nantucket they don’t always get to see it from our point of view.”
Alex began working for the family business, Shearwater Excursions, when he was 11 years old. The local charter and eco-tour business, founded by his parents Blair and Rachael 22 years ago, continues to provide him with the opportunity to do what he loves.
“Being able to teach a family from New York how to dig for clams when they have never really done anything like that before is such a crazy, unique experience,” Perkins said. “Teaching a kid how to reel in that first fish. Being able to see the look on an 8-year-old’s face when they see their first whale ever. I have so many days where I am being paid to do what I would be doing on my off days.”
Blair Perkins knows Nantucket continues to change, but he wants visitors to know the roots of the island and what it is all about. It continues to be one of the driving forces that pushes him every day. “Nantucket isn’t just T-shirts, hats and restaurants. We are what Nantucket is really about and that is why we started the business,” he said. “So many people don’t get to experience Nantucket for what it is. This is what islanders do. We go out on a boat. We like going fishing. We like going clamming. People we take outwillaskmewhatIdoonmydayoff.Iget that all the time. I say I go out on my boat. What else would I do?”
Blair and Rachael’s three kids, Max, Alex and Renee, have assisted with the family business for much of their lives. What initially started out as a chore, Alex said, has developed into something a whole lot more.
As the kids’ roles in the business expand, so does the business itself. What started out focused solely on whale watches and seal cruises has evolved to include additional services like clamming charters, ice-cream cruises, cocktail cruises, sunset cruises, fishing trips, harbor tours and more over the past several years.
Max comes and goes between Boston and Nantucket, working as a real estate agent for William Raveis, but said his love for the water keeps bringing him back to the family business each summer. He loves the conversations he is able to spark up with the groups of people he takes clamming. He got married at the end of the summer, and one of the families he takes out annually was in attendance.
Building relationships has become an integral part of the seasonal business that runs from May through mid-October. The family gathers around their fire pit in the back yard most summer nights to reflect on the day, what they saw and heard from the tourists, and discuss any ideas that have come to mind that could help expand the business and make it better.
“Something often times will happen during the day that will spawn an idea of how we can alter a cruise and become a better fit for what our clients are looking for,” Max said.
With the increased competition from off-island companies that run whale watches and seal cruises, Rachael and Blair have needed their kids to become more involved and vocal about the direction of the company to keep it unique and attractive to tourists, they said.
“The kids are the up-and-coming generation, so listening to them and their ideas, for me, that has been a really big thing for our business,” Rachael said. “They are out there. They are meeting people. They know what works. It used to just be me and Blair, but now it is more a collective thing. I think we make better choices because we have more points of view.”
“I see a lot of families where for parents it is like my way or the highway,” Blair added. “But we’ve somehow found a really good balance to embrace the kids’ input in the business, especially over the past couple of years. I’m older and in my 60s. You kind of tend to be set in your ways so it is kind of a difficult thing to say, ‘what is your take on this?’ It is really important as far as the evolution of the business for me to accept and embrace my kids’ input for sure. That is happening on a daily basis now.”
Blair runs the whale-watching trips and cocktail cruises; Max and Alex split time on the clamming trips; Rachael does the scheduling and planning; and Renee does a little bit of everything including marketing, public relations, assisting her mother with the planning, and working as a crew member when needed. Captain John Stobaugh, the only non-family member in the business, typically runs the ice cream cruises.
The family has three boats: Shearwater, a 47footer licensed to carry 49 passengers; Minke, a 26-footer licensed to carry 23 passengers; and Wampum, a 24-footer licensed to carry 11 passengers.
Both Max and Alex have spent time in the Bahamas. Max taught scuba diving and Alex was an engineer for two years working on a variety of renewable-energy projects. Renee is currently double-majoring in environmental sustainability and marketing, hoping to translate what she is learning at Bentley University into a career on the water.
The three refer to their father as man of encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to Nantucket, weather and the environment. Even as the company changes, their commitment to their surroundings never wavers. They continue to put the health of the environment before anything else.
“When we got the idea of doing clamming excursions I was worried about the impact being too severe on the clam beds, so a huge part of our excursions is the environmental element of it,” Blair said. “When we go clamming we teach the traditional Wampanoag way of using your feet to find the clams. We have rakes and when they are used we try to show people how to do it without ripping out every piece of eel grass, because that is what it is all about: using a resource on Nantucket without destroying it. I think it is really important to point that out.”
Rachael said she is still amazed at what the business has become and she hopes it can continue to grow.
“When we started this we were young and dumb,” she said. “We had an idea and we went in head first. We didn’t think about anything else and just went for it. Sometimes I still can’t believe we did it.” ///
David Creed is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.