John Bilski spent the first quarter-century of his professional life in the insurance industry, working within the confines of an office setting. But, over time, the appeal of laboring in an environment illuminated with fluorescent overhead lights and subdivided by cubicles had hopelessly frayed.
“I was tired of being a number in corporate America,” he recalled, unhappily. “Twenty-five years in corporate America and it hadn’t gotten any better, in my opinion.”
However, Bilski did have an outdoors outlet as an active sportsman on the Long Island Sound. When an opportunity arose earlier this year to take over the Southern Connecticut franchise for Sea Tow, Bilski did not pause to consider the opportunity.
“I was pretty much on the water from day one of my life,” he added. “I used to fish with my dad and my parents, sisters and I always vacationed on the water. I’ve been a boater and scuba diver and fished in these waters my entire life.”
On June 29, Bilski — now formally Capt. John Bilski — took over the Sea Tow franchise covering the Connecticut territory from Greenwich to Milford, trading an insurance industry workplace for a snug office in a tiny cottage along the waterfront promenade at Bridgeport’s Captain’s Cove, where his distinctive yellow and black Sea Tow vessel is moored at the marina.
For those unfamiliar with the company, Sea Tow is a 24/7 marine assistance provider — think of AAA on the water. The company operates 120 franchises in the U.S., Europe, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. Bilski’s franchise covers an area of approximately eight miles into the Sound, and he acknowledged that he was already familiar with Sea Tow’s value before taking charge of the franchise.
“I’ve been a member my entire boating life,” he stated. “One of the first things I learned is you need to have Sea Tow. If you break down out there, no one is coming to get you. If you need gas, or run aground, you should have Sea Tow membership, which is $179 a year. And if you need a tow, fuel drop, or a jump, that is extremely inexpensive compared to what you would have to pay out of pocket.”
However, Bilski noted that “we’re not emergency responders. We’re not the Coast Guard or the marine police or the marine fire department. We’re not the ones on the spot if there is a mayday call. Will we make our way there if we’re on the water? Of course, we’ll go there and see if we can assist. Our most common calls are for a breakdown that requires a tow, or if the boat hit rocks and took on water. We try to resolve that and make arrangements with an emergency haul out.”
Bilski operates the franchise with three full-time captains, two back-up captains and two on-call scuba divers — the latter come in if lines need to be attached below the surface or if a boat requires salvaging. Being a 24/7 service requires that Bilski and his staff are always monitoring the VHF radio channels used by boaters out on the water, both at the Captain’s Cove location and in their homes. Bilski has already noticed that assistance calls have a strange habit of coming in during mealtimes.
“It seems every time that I start cooking dinner or I put something on my fork, I get a phone call,” he laughed. “But that’s the nature of the business.”
Bilski estimated that he had “several thousand members” in his franchise market, and stranded boaters are always “very happy when Sea Tow gets there.” The level of appreciation from members has forced Bilski to exercise his memory with greater strength.
“Everyone knows Sea Tow and everyone knows your name, and it’s really tough to remember everybody else’s name,” he explained. “You might remember the situation you helped them out with, and everyone is really nice out on the water when they need assistance.”
Bilski’s franchise also operates life vest stands at different marinas that allows boaters to borrow vests before heading out on the water, and the company runs a marine insurance program that Bilski represents locally. He noted that the door at his Captain Cove’s location is always being opened by boaters in search of information, and he credits being the next-door neighbor to the boardwalk’s ice cream parlor with helping to keep Sea Tow visible.
As for looking back at the corporate life he left behind, Bilski stated he’s not looking back. “I’m outside all of the time,” he said, his sun-bronzed skin attesting to his absence from the office. “And when you get out mid-Sound, it’s beautiful.”