Talk Story with Sterling Silva

Instead of stale air conditioning, there’s the sea breeze.

Desk and cubicle?

How about a sailboat rolling atop the ocean instead?

Plenty of perks accompany the task of captaining a sightseeing vessel, as Sterling Silva, 36, has for the last three-plus years.

Punching the clock every shift, his thoughts aren’t on chain emails, faxes, meetings and the like. Instead, his mind is locked on keeping an eye out for the pods of dolphins that like to swim in uniform in front of the gliding boat and spotting breaching whales if everyone’s so lucky that day.

“It’s all fun. It’s the ocean, man,” the jovial captain at Captain Andy’s touring business in Port Allen said. “There’s no bad day out at sea. Well, if everyone’s drowning it’ll be a bad day.”

But the latter part never happens, so the 1997 Kauai High School graduate and married father of two admits, well, he’s got a pretty good gig. He leads tourists thrilled to be on Kauai on snorkeling trips and sunset cruises on the Na Pali Coast, where the end of the evening run includes a sinking blood-red sun into the ocean.

“Yeah, there’s a saying,” Silva, who lives in Kalaheo, said. “‘A day out at sea is better than a day at work. And I guess it’s not really work if it is your job.’”

Last week, The Garden Island caught up with Silva to talk about what it’s like sailing for a living in one of the world’s most scenic places.

Do you ever get sick of being on the boat?

Yes and no, you know, it’s a job.

Yeah, but does it feel like you’re going into the office?

No. Nothing like that. Yeah, it’s different. The only day I don’t like going is when you’re feeling a little sick. Being sick in the office and being sick out at the sea, staying happy for people, it’s a little rough.

It’s tough?

I think so. A little bit.

How did you start out?

I started out as a crew. Just a guy applying for the job who started off knowing very little sailing, knowing the ocean and the island and the surf and whatnot and, of course, tourism and other aspects of work before.

They teach you how to sail?

You learn on the job and then you can learn on your own, of course. I learned a little of both, a little bit at the yacht club and then I learned from other captains.

How long did it take you to learn?

Well, my first year I was just enjoying being a crew. So I had no interest almost, really. Then after my first year, I realized like, “Hey, I really do actually want to learn how to drive this boat.” I’ve always wanted to drive it but the first year it was fun just hanging out with people — I meet new people every single day.

I bet it’s awesome.

Yeah (laughing.)

Staying on your feet all day, walking around the boat. Does it take a skill balancing, walking on water, so to speak?

No. I kinda already had it. Balancing a tray, for sure. But other than that, no.

Ever spill?

Yeah. I don’t know anyone who has never not spilled something.

But over a guest?

No, never, never, never. I’ve done that being a waiter, my first wait job (laughing).

Catching the wind right, turning, that must be a great sensation, no?

When you read the wind. Yeah.

Can you explain it?

The first time it’s almost like catching a triple barrel, the first time you do it yourself, without anybody’s help, the perfect wave, when you can tack or jibe perfectly, it’s just, when everything comes through really well and it’s rolling perfect and the guests are like, yeah, it’s like catching the perfect wave I think.

Almost feel weightless, yeah?

Yeah, it feels nice. Besides being lucky, being on that boat, watching sunsets, that’s a nice office. It is.

Do you feel fortunate?

At the end of the day, it’s just a job. There’s great days and bad days. Do I think it’s a better job than like working in an office? Yeah (laughing).

Do you ever take seeing marine life for granted?

I used to when I was young and moved away. And I realized how perfect Kauai is.

When I was young, I used laugh at some of the things like when tourists (would get excited), because we see things all the time, like say rainbows and whatnot and eventually you take it for granted. “Ah, another rainbow.”

But then I remember once I was in Utah with some friends and we hiked up Mt. Zion National Park, standing up on top of the hill just like huffing and puffing and everyone on the hill started running. I’m like, “Dude is that a bear or something?” And they even started tripping on things and we were like, “Get up, something is going on.” And then they all started taking pictures of this rainbow that was starting to appear. And we started laughing and laughing and laughing because we see rainbows all the time. And how they’re getting hurt taking pictures of rainbows. And no more than two minutes after laughing at these people, we were running around taking pictures of a chipmunk because we’d never seen chipmunks before. So after that, my mindset totally changed. And this was way before I started working in tourism.

Dolphins, whales, you ever get sick of it?

If you don’t see it, you feel bad for the guests. You’re trying to treat the guests. Dolphins are tougher in the afternoon. You hope and pray every single day you find them. Seeing someone get stoked off of a dolphin? Seeing someone super stoked and happy — people save their whole lives just to come to Hawaii one time, you know. You can make their dreams.

As captain of the whole boat with guests, navigating and a whole crew, is it tough?

It’s tougher than people think, how about that?

You’re seeing someone see their first dolphin a lot of the time.

A lot of times. Yeah, yeah. that’s cool. It’s like seeing your kid almost. Well, it’s not quite as much like seeing your kid stand for the first time or say dada for the first time, but it’s cool. It’s like seeing someone catch a first fish for the first times in their lives, they’re like, “Oh my God.” That happiness, you share it with them.

I imagine it’s tough to do without everyone knowing what you’re doing, like all the guests as you lead them around.

Yeah, you kind of be as calm as cool as happy — even if your kid stays up all night long because he’s teething and you have to come to work smiling. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to make their dreams, too. They’re paying you to be happy. Even if they’re sick, you try to get them out of it. I think a lot of them, you see, it’s a little bit mental, so you try to get them out of it, because you want them to feel better.

Any horror stories?

No. Well, I did CPR on a guy out for an hour on Na Pali from a different company.

He didn’t make it, correct? You arrived on the scene.

I wasn’t the first one. But I was one of about, me, and like 10 people …

Nothing on your boat disastrous? Like rude guests, this guy was swearing at people or whatever?

I’ve never had that. I mean, you hear it on other boats about people, but I mean, to me, anybody sad, like a little depressed, is a bad trip. You feel a little down. You put them down, you put your boss down.

How often do those come around, weather related or otherwise?

Every now and then. There are some people you can never keep happy no matter what you do, either, so it is what it is.

You ever been scared out there, weather-wise?

No, no, — my own boat maybe. Never with guests because if it comes to the point you’re scared you shouldn’t be questioning it, you should return.

Are you conservative watching the weather?

I believe we are the most conservative. Andy goes to the craziest lengths to keep everyone happy and safe. I personally just see it as we’re No. 1 in the state. Other people say it, not us. Other people are saying it like magazines and whatnot that we’re No. 1. It’s tough to say, “We’re No. 1” so he does everything he can to keep it going.


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