Family-run business adjusts fishing industry changes

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BOWERS BEACH, Del. — For many, when the metaphorical seas get choppy, they turn to family to find calmer waters.

When Capt. Bob Trowbridge of the Bowers Beach-based Captain’s Lady charter vessel is dealing with dangerous waters off the coast of Delaware, he literally turns to his loved ones for help.

The Captain’s Lady, a 70-foot-long, 82-passenger charter boat with his-and-hers bathrooms and a sun deck powered by twin diesel engines, takes charters daily from its Paskey’s Wharf dock in Bowers Beach.

Capt. Trowbridge’s family keeps his business afloat. His brother, Capt. Willie Trowbridge, assists him in operating the Captain’s Lady, and their sister, Doris Morris, handles dock operations, ticket sales and their land-based needs.

The boat can be chartered for lighthouse cruises, birthday and bachelor parties, weddings and more. The crew regularly takes anglers out to fish the waters off the coast of the First State. Further, the Captain’s Lady often hosts fishing tournaments and other angling events.

“We all grew up down here, and we grew up around the boats,” Bob Trowbridge said.

Though he left the area around 1989, a few years later, he sold the businesses he had started and decided it was time to come home.

“I always wanted to be a charter boat captain,” he said. “I decided to get my license at a late age. I think I was 40 years old.”

Then, in 2013, he and his then-business partner, Mary Ewing, took over the Captain’s Lady, fulfilling that dream.

Soon after, his brother joined the crew, along with their father and sister. Bob maintains the boat and any major projects, while Willie runs the charters and customers. Ms. Morris and their dad would work with customers on the deck and prepare fish. The siblings have lost their dad, but the family stayed together for the sake of their shared business.

“It’s amazing. I couldn’t find anyone better than my brother. He works hard. I say, ‘Willie, take a break.’ He always says, ‘No, I got her.’ On his days off, he goes fishing,” Bob said, smiling.

“The more you do it, the more you love it,” Ms. Morris added. “I helped cleaning fish that came off the boat for years. The more you learn, the more you love it.”

Her brother, Willie, agreed.

“We grew up around it down here. I love it. I’ve always loved it. I go fishing on vacation,” he said. “I got my license in 1983.”

Capt. Bob started his charter business with Ms. Ewing back in 2013. Sadly, she passed away in July 2021 after a battle with cancer.

Her obituary included her love for the Captain’s Lady and her crew: “The boat was her pride and joy and (she) always loved watching the boat coming back and forth. You could always find her at the dock enjoying time with people. She loved to sit in the afternoon with our regulars after a morning trip and enjoy conversations.”

Bob called her “one of the nicest ladies I ever met.”

“And the one thing she taught me about being in business: When you give back, it comes back to you tenfold,” he said.

To that end, the Captain Lady’s crew prides itself on giving back to its community. Bob said that Ms. Ewing tried to assist anyone who called to ask for help or a donation.

“She’d say, ’Bobby, we’re going to give these people tickets. We’re going to do this for this. We’ve given away free charters for a child with cancer. We’re firefighters, so we give to all of our first responders, military,” he added, noting a discount of 10% for those folks.

To remember and honor Ms. Ewing, Bob had a meaningful dedication painted on the front of the ship, so she’d always be a part of the business and the vessel.

“This is a tough business down here. The fishery isn’t what it used to be. Every fish we take aboard this boat, you have to work for,” Bob said.

Since the Trowbridge siblings were children in Bowers Beach, the waters and the fishing industry have changed a lot.

“There used to be boats stacked two deep down here,” Bob said.

He said that, between the ever-shifting regulations and other transitions he’s observed in the Delaware Bay, it’s getting harder to make a living fishing.

To keep his customers happy and continue the spirit of giving started by Ms. Ewing, the charter boat captain and business owner has had to think outside of the tackle box.

“We started an oyster cracker tournament. Anyone that knows anything about oyster crackers, they are an ugly fish. Nobody wants to keep or catch them. So we started tagging them. And we give away money to anyone on the boat that catches them. They pay a dollar to get on the boat, and they could win $1,000 if they catch a tagged oyster cracker,” he said.

With fuel costs and prices on other supplies rising, the Captain’s Lady’s crew has to be creative. For example, Bob is in the process of purchasing a smaller, faster boat that they can use to take anglers out into the ocean for a different fishing experience. The smaller boat would be for more specialized groups, but it would keep the crew working without having to spend the fuel the larger vessel uses.

“It’s something to keep people interested. In this business, you have to think outside the box. If you go out there and drop a line and think that the fish are just going to come to you — it’s not like that anymore. We work for everything we get,” Bob said.

The crew of the Captain’s Lady recently purchased a machine to marinate their bait, making it more attractive to fish.

“We go the extra mile to try and make the customers happy,” Bob said. “If we’ve got to run 20 miles to get a fish, we’ll do it.”

Running a close family business is hook, line and sinker for the captain, who said he works to make all his crew feel like they are part of the Trowbridge clan.

He often talks with the parents of his younger employees to see how they are doing in school or at home. If he senses trouble, he makes them focus on their schoolwork or other goals. He said he also works to give people a chance that others may not take.

“Sometimes, I pinch myself. When I am out there, especially in the morning, when you have the sun hitting you in the face, and it’s a nice, calm day, I literally pinch myself and say, ‘This is my job. This is my livelihood.’ And it makes me feel good that I can bring my family into it,” Bob said.

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