BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Jonathan Van Campen is a boat captain who was so interested in getting into the charter business that he actually built a vessel so he could get started.
Van Campen created, co-owns and operates the Ninth Wave, a 48-foot, 48-passenger catamaran docked along the boardwalk. He takes out passengers several times a day, with sunset charters being his most profitable run.
The Merrimac native has captained the craft for a dozen years, but the trip out to the sea is still an exciting adventure.
“I like it when kids come on the boat and learn something about the ocean,” said Van Campen, who graduated from Pentucket High School, Class of ’68. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Lawrence University and a master’s degree in education from Salem State University.
“I also like taking out groups and watching them enjoy the area,” he added. “Some out-of-town visitors don’t even know this is the Merrimack River, but they learn.”
Though the captain’s parents didn’t own boats while he was growing up, many in his family did. Perhaps as a result, he started kayaking in college and later began working at Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury.
His tenure at the boat shop enabled him to learn enough to build his own vessel.
“Jonathan got some help in building the boat, and then jumped into the business like a crazy man,” said Tim Moore, a lifelong friend and sometime boat passenger from Merrimac who has observed the progress of his friend.
“He’s a very capable guy, great with the passengers, and has been able to develop the business on the river. People really enjoy the trips he offers.”
The voluble skipper not only built the Ninth Wave, but he also repairs it when things go wrong. And to keep his skills in trim, he fixes the boats of others in the off-season.
“You learn because you have to,” said Van Campen. “You’ve got to fix things yourself and react to problems as they arise.” Other captains who help with the Ninth Wave are Dan Swift, Dan Cody and Dan Carter.
One circumstance he can’t adjust is the weather. The captain remarked that his business “lost all of June and half of July” due to rain and storms.
But he added, “I go back in the records every year, and the number of passengers always ends up about the same. There are people who have the time, or make the time, to get out on the ocean.” He estimated he takes out about 3,500 passengers per year.
Van Campen said the name of the boat is Celtic and comes from the legend that the person standing on shore can only see as far out as the “ninth wave” before the vision is replaced by the horizon.
His twin, 56-horsepower diesel engines get him out to sea, and then he chooses the best path for the day based on friendly winds. The skipper’s trips generally last about 21/2 hours.
Van Campen was formerly associated with Paul Aziz, captain of the Yankee Clipper, and Van Campen keeps his on-board commentary to a minimum so the experience he offers is not competitive with his former business partner.
“Jonathan is hard-working and determined,” said Aziz, who is no longer professionally tied to Van Campen. “Sailing with those longer hours on the sea can be difficult, but he’s learned the business well.”
The captain said his tours don’t take a specific route. “We sail to no particular destination, preferring to head north or south along the coast or directly out to sea, choosing the best wind angle for maximum speed.
“As conditions permit, we encourage our passengers to take an active role in the handling of the boat: raising the main, trimming the sails or taking the helm under the tutelage of one of our experienced captains,” Van Campen added.
One of Van Campen’s goals is to pay off the boat, which visitors will see tied up on the west end of the boardwalk by the Black Cow restaurant.
Another is to keep sailing, with locals and tourists alike on board.
“Just being on the boardwalk here is a great thing,” he said. “People come down and will look at the several boats here. Sometimes they go out; sometimes not. Many visitors just like coming to the waterfront, watching the world go by. And when they get on the Ninth Wave, they can see what’s happening outside the harbor.”