Member Profile: Debora Radtke, American Yacht Agents March 28, 2018
Although she operates as a bit of a one-woman show, Debora Radtke has made a habit of surrounding herself with caring, supportive friends, family, and dogs. Born in Bayfield, Wisconsin as the youngest of seven siblings, Debora spent her formative years on Lake Superior in the Apostle Islands, where she and her siblings developed their love of sailing and the water. After high school, she attended a small liberal arts college and went on to film school, establishing the foundation of her first career as a copy writer and video producer.
In 1993, after years of the fast-paced world of video production, Debora decided to explore other career opportunities. Although she was unsure of what she wanted to do, her brother Joe pointed out that the two things she loved doing were writing and playing with boats. Since she needed a break from writing and he needed a captain for a charter fleet, he urged her to get her captain’s license.
For the next two and a half years, Captain Deb also taught sailing and created a women’s only sailing program called WOW – Women Only Weekends, but in 1995 heeded the advice of friends to come to Fort Lauderdale and look for work on a yacht. She secured three interviews and was hired by Captain Kevin Klar as a cook/stewardess, as there were very few women on deck in those days. Coming from a sailing background, she had initially assumed the 92’ Cheoy Lee she would be working on was a sailboat but was not disappointed to learn otherwise since she already knew how to sail and vowed to learn everything she could about motor yachts. She continued to work with Captain Klar and that yacht owner for the next years, onboard the 92’, a 112’, and a 142’ – which was when she was able to get back in the wheelhouse as 1st Officer in 2000, having upgraded her licenses along the way and become well-versed in every position on a yacht.
In 2005, when the boat she was working on sold, Deb stayed-on and started managing a refit for the new owners, then accepted a job as the captain of a 104’ Burger, spent a few years working as a captain on various vessels, and even spent a summer taking a 52’ Grand Banks through the river system up to her home town on Lake Superior. In the fall of 2007, Deb got a call from Captain Klar, who asked her to rejoin his team and become the 1st Officer and 2nd Captain onboard Ohana, a 154’ Admiral. At the end of 2010, the Ohana also sold.
Deb had earned her 1600-ton license by the Spring of 2011 but no longer desired a life at sea. At first, she struggled finding balance between part-time sea- and land-based opportunities but soon began to freelance, helping friends start their own businesses. By the following year, she had her heart stolen by a Beagle when she adopted her first dog, which virtually guaranteed she wouldn’t be going back to sea. She compromised by working locally for the Water Taxi and went back to Wisconsin to run an excursion boat, not ready or willing to completely abandon her second career as a captain.
Eventually, she accepted a position with an international yacht agent, but found it stifling to her entrepreneurial spirit. In April of 2015, friends stepped-in again and persuaded Deb to start her own agency, but not before she experienced an emotional encounter that truly set her on the course to opening her company, American Yacht Agents.
A month prior, Deb received a random request from an agent in Baltimore to intercede on behalf of husband-and-wife cruise passengers who were involved in a traumatic incident. Deb immediately responded, using her own financial resources to secure rooms for the couple’s family at a nearby hotel and arrange transportation from the airport. When she arrived at Jackson Hospital to personally assist the husband, he had no idea who she was. As she was explaining her role, a group of surgeons and the hospital social worker escorted them into a private room. Despite Deb’s objections that she was essentially a stranger, the professionals insisted that she stay as the man was told of the severity of his wife’s injuries. Deb was there to hold the man’s hand as he conveyed his grief and the fact that his wife was his whole life. She determined that had she worked for a larger company, she would never have been able to make those decisions without more specific information about who would be paying or how they would be billed. As it turned out, the Baltimore agent simply said, “send us your bill.”
Her business took-off strictly from referrals and repeat customers and she loves it, knowing that sometimes she’s making decisions that just feel right in her gut, like that one that started it all. Today, she and her two employees manage approximately 25 vessels annually that range in size from 80’ to 525’. Her agency is a single point of contact for owners, and does everything from accepting packages, to managing florists, to scheduling mechanics, and marshalling vessels through clearance. Deb explains many of the captains she helps are foreign and accustomed to using agents because it is a requirement in other countries, such as Italy. Her clients appreciate having a familiar advocate who can help them navigate immigration issues, visas, and permits through the Customs and Border Protection processes.
In her spare time, Deb is devoted to her two Beagles and is involved in dog rescue organizations, MIASF and AYSS. She encourages boaters to spend more time cruising the U.S. and would like to see people adopt a multi-year cruising plan that includes the Great Lakes. A bucket list item to restore an old boat was recently added to her hobbies when a close friend gave her a 24’ V.B. Crockett-designed unfinished Dade-County-pine sailboat that she keeps at a yard in Stuart near her home in Palm City. She hopes to complete the vessel within the next two years with the help of local craftsmen – and maybe a friend or two.