From Ortega Neighbors Magazine
Photos: Brooks Wilder Photography
by Doug Milne, Jr.
Without much of a stretch, parallels between wind and water and one’s life can be made with relative ease. Wind is motivation’s fuel, direction and momentum. Water represents times and situations in a life. Sometimes it’s rough, while other times- and more preferably- life is smooth.
For yacht broker Barbara Burke, the analogy crossed over seamlessly with both style and grace.
As regional Manager for Curtis Stokes & Associates, Inc. (yacht brokers), Burke’s life is in the wind and on the water. Both professionally and personally, she relies on, relishes even, those two elements.
“I remember being a kid and going out before the storm rolled in, when all there was all this wind,” Barbara said. “I still do that today. The wind was blowing the other day when I was walking down a dock and I was thinking ‘Ah, I love this!’”
And, that love is what has kept her moving and motivated throughout her life.
“I’ve always loved boats,” Barbara said. “I have a picture of myself as a toddler in a little sailor outfit. I’ve just always been fascinated with boats and, especially, wind. Personally, I’m a sailor. I started water skiing in high school. I started sailing in college and owned my first and only boat when I was in my late 20’s. I had that in Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta. But, sailing has always been my thing.
Originally from Atlanta, Barbara eventually migrated to Hilton Head, South Carolina to be closer to family. When she wan’t able to establish much of a social life there, she headed south to Jacksonville, where she got involved with the Florida Cruising Club.
“It just seemed like every time I was up in Hilton Head, I was missing something fun to do here. So, I was going back and forth and got really involved with the club.”
Burke, who has more than three decades of real estate experience under her belt, recalls a friend from the sailing club who was retiring as a yacht broker in 2013.
“He called me one day and said ‘Hey, they’ve asked me to help find my replacement and you’re the first one I thought of’”, she said. “At first, I thought I could never do this job. But, then I began to think that I probably could.
Not only could she do it, but she did do it. She held that position for nearly three years, before joining the team at Curtis Stokes yacht brokerage three years ago.
“The business has built to where I needed help. I couldn’t handle it all”, she said. “I now have two brokers here that work for us. I’d like to hire more people, but it’s a process of trying to find people that want to work and that want to work for free until the sell something, Commission sales is kind of tough.”
Barbara admits that being a woman in a predominantly male industry makes her sticking out “like a sore thumb.” But that’s precisley what has worked well for her.
“I bet I have has as many boats by solo females as solo males. About 60 percent are couples. When I bought my boat back then, it was really an anomaly for a woman to be a boat owner. I would pull up to a gas stop and the men would be like ‘whose boat is that’. It was just such of an unheard of thing back then, in the late 80’s.”
“It’s a blast. A lot of boats are bought by couples and I think a lot of them women open up to me more so than they would with a man,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they feel more comfortable around a woman. I can talk the mechanical part, too, but I think I may be a little more sensitive to the lifestyle issues than the male brokers are.”
To watch Burke in action is to witness a well-oiled machine. She certainly loves and has fun with what she does, but she also works well under pressure.
“Survey and sea trials are usually long, hot, stressful for everybody,”she said. “If something is going to go wrong, it’s going to happen on survey day. Engines are pressed to their max rpm, engines that haven’t been pushed to their max in years. Sellers are holding their breath. It’s stressful. I always bring food on survey days and let people stress eat.”
Survey day, according to Barbara, is the marine equivalent of a home inspection. It’s when a boat is taken out and everything from the smallest clamp to strongest engine is tested. While it’s accredited marine surveyors who check all the gears, lines, sails, etc., as the broker, Barbara attends. In February, she closed five boats, which she said was a good month. In 2017, averaging about two boats a month, she sold nearly 30.
“What has helped me to be successful in this business is the attention to people more so than the machinery,” she said. “You’ve got to be familiar with the machinery, but it’s ultimately about people. Like I said, on survey day, I bring food. I always try to council my sellers for what to prepare for on survey day. You only have one chance at a successful survey, so I also always send a little checklist.”
And, as to be expected, sometimes thing don’t go exactly swimmingly.
“There have been quite a few surveys I have been on where the seller wasn’t entirely confident in the boat”, she said. “So, I just prayed on those occasions that we would get back to the dock.”
Seemingly one to have a little time to actually stop and feel the breeze these days, Barbara’s phone starts ringing at 7am and doesn’t stop until about 10pm. She’s either on the phone or in the car- or both- nearly all day, every day. Sometimes to avoid traffic getting to sea trial of town, Barbara gets up and leaves as early as 3am.
“In a world where people want instant gratification and/or responses, I do me best to return every call, text or email the same day,” she said. “A lot of times, I’ll be showing a boat on one dock and go straight to the next dock over to show another, leaving little to no time for anything in between.
“But, I like that kind of lifestyle,” she laughed. “If I’m not doing three things at once, I’m bored.”
Barbara’s territory extends as far north as Charleston and south to Titusville.
Part of Burke’s counseling people selling yachts is not just advising the seller on how and when to use her, but also when not to use her.
“if it’s worth it to the seller, I will take it,” she said. “While some brokers say they won’t take anything under $100,000, I try to help everybody. After all, that boat of theirs is just as important to them as bigger ones are to those owners. But, it needs to make financial sense to them and us, because we do a lot of advertising and spend a lot of money.”
In other words, “For sale by owner” is not exempt from her line of advice.
“The biggest challenge is managing business for people without them feeling like their boat isn’t good enough to list,” she said. “I always try to let them see it from their angle. For a $10,000 boat, I’d have to charge a higher percentage just to make it. So, I try to encourage them to sell it themselves.”
As Barbara trains new people, she teaches them to keep in mind the best interests of the clients. Livelihood will come, she insists.
“If you always stay focused on doing a good job for your client and don’t worry about your individual commission checks, you’ll make a good living. You’ll be fine,” she said. “But as soon as you start calculating your cut from a sale, you’ll feel guilty over the easy ones and beat up over the hard ones. So, just don’t do it.”
Barbara said Curtis Stokes is trying to hire more people, as the need is there. A lot of folks who envisioned themselves regularly hitting the waterways are just finding their schedules too busy to justify keeping the boat. Burke feels they cannot do anyone any favors be spreading themselves too thin in an industry that requires full steam full time.
“A lot of people think it’s so glamorous, but it’s not that way,” she admitted. ” We leave a trail of sweat dripping down the dock. I am always ruining clothes in the engine rooms, getting diesel fuel on them or tearing them on the rigging. They don’t see the midnight hours and 3am departures. They just see the happiness of someone pulling our of a slip on a nice boat. That’s the part we want them to see, but once many get the whole picture, it tends to scare them off. They how they get paid. In this business, you eat what you kill.”
Despite her busy schedule, Barbara stays true to her roots and makes time for time on the open water. Once the owner of a boat herself, today she relies on what she calls OPBs (Other People’s Boats).
Her boyfriend owns a 35 foot Baba Sailing vessel, which the couple gets out a few times a week. And, true to form, the more intense the wind, the better.
“My boyfriend and I love to sail in small-craft warnings,” she laughed. “If it’s 30 knots or stronger, though, we reef the sails. We’ve been out in the ocean where the bow is way above the boat.”
Barbara recalled one particular story which would have most people chaining themselves to the earth.
“Once, we were out in 30 mph winds,” Burke said. “My boyfriend was down below and I was at the helm with my feet propped up. He looked up at me and shook his head. He said, ‘most people- especially most women- would be terrified. You’re sitting there with you feet propped up.’ What I was doing was bracing myself. If we’re not having to crawl from one side of the boat to the other, we don’t feel like we are getting the full effect out of it. We call that white-knuckle sailing.”
Barbara Burke loves what she does. She loves what she does for fun and for work. Both are the result of the wind, either literally or metaphorically.
“I’ll still probably be selling boats two weeks after I’m dead. I love it. I don’t see myself giving it up, she stressed, “I realize one mis-step coming of a boat could end it, because its a very physical job. I’m always contorting myself around the engine compartments to get this or that picture hidden behind the another part. But, as long as I am physically able, I’ll do it.”
And, exactly how long will that be? Well, she’s 60 now.
“Ten years from now, I know that I may have to slow down… maybe. Maybe it will be more like 20 years from now,” she laughed.
Really, it’s wherever the wind takes her.
“The best part of this business is that not only do you get to be out on the water for your day at the office, but you meet so many wonderful people,” she said. “Boaters, for the most part, are just laid back, happy people. That’s one thing that struck me about couples that have enjoyed boating together. They like each other and are a team. That’s so remarkable.”
Barbara’s ride on the wind has brought her a long way from the little girl photographed in a sailor’s outfit. She has been the newsletter editor for the North Florida Cruisers Club, cruise captain, membership director, vice commodore and ultimately head commodore in 2016.
“I’ve just always been involved in the boating community. I was Secretary of the Jacksonville Sail and Power Squadron for a year and am now a member of the MTOA (Marine Trawler Owners Association) and AGLCA (America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association), It’s a lifestyle. Boating is very much the core of my life, not just a job. Being involved in the lifestyle has helped me be successful with my job. All the friends I’ve met in the boating community have helped me enjoy the success I have.”
Some days, there is no wind and surface of the water is like a giant pane of glass. Nothing seems to move. Other days, winds are howling and all that isn’t tied down blows on. A healthy mixture of both is the best description of Barbara Burke. And, whatever kind of day it is, it’s the perfect one for her.
“It seems like water and fire are very calming for people,” she said. “If you’re around a campfire, there’s just something very calming about that. With boats, when you drop the dock lines and get out of the fairway, all the stress seems to go away.”
So, keep an eye out for her. There really is no surprise as to where you’ll find her.
“Anything in, on, under or around the water… I’m there.
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