A SON OF A SON OF A SAILOR JOINS HIS FAMILY BUSINESS JUST IN TIME TO HELP IT RECOVER FROM THE PANDEMIC AND ROCK THE BOAT (AND BEACH) THIS SUMMER
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI • PHOTOS BY TOM ZAPCIC
With ferry service between New York and New Jersey resuming, sightseeing cruises added, a new catamaran joining the fleet, and the popular Sandbox Beach Bar at its Highlands, Monmouth County port fully open, Seastreak’s Director of Business Development/Marketing James D. Barker sees optimism on the horizon. The oldest of the third generation owners of the family business, he’s learned how to weather storms and maximize the vast experience of his relatives and long time company employees.
Seastreak, a leader in the fast passenger ferry business, provides high speed services to points in Manhattan, New Jersey, New England, and more. Seastreak’s catamaran fleet includes four 141 foot vessels with a total capacity of 505 persons per vessel, two 95 foot vessels with a total capacity of 149 persons, and one 65 foot vessel with a capacity of 149 persons. Its newest, the Courageous, will be christened in New Orleans. The sister ship to the Commodore, Courageous will be the largest high speed catamaran in the United States, said Barker. The timing is ideal for a public ready to return to working in offices, and eager to travel.
“We were absolutely devastated by COVID,” explained Barker. “We went from 2,250 riders to 50 ish. The majority of our riders at that time were healthcare workers, so we offered them free transportation. We wanted to keep as many people as possible employed. To survive, we knew we’d have to pivot.” It was another opportunity to maximize the Barker family’s penchant for innovation.
“My dad had a friend who did whale watching in Plymouth, Massachusetts,” noted Barker. “I had heard about whales returning to the New York area, so we took a boat around Sandy Hook one day and saw a whale within 15 minutes. We hired naturalist Abby Van Hemmen and created a program. We’ve seen whales, sharks, dolphins, and huge groups of rays.
Marine life in the area is abundant.” The cruises will run all summer out of New York City and New Jersey through October 7.
“The positive impact that these tours could have on local conservation efforts is important to us,” he continued. “That’s why we decided to participate in the Whale SENSE program sponsored by NOAA Fisheries and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The program provides training for our crew and naturalists so we can educate our passengers and set a good example for responsible whale watching. We are the first company to run whale watching tours from Manhattan, so we intend to set a high standard.”
Barker’s dad, Seastreak’s President Jim Barker, is the son of James R. Barker, patriarch of the family enterprise he launched in 1987 when he acquired legendary Great Lakes iron ore and coal carrier, the Interlake Steamship Company, now run by Jim’s younger brother Mark, James’ uncle. In addition to Seastreak and Interlake, they also own Moran Towing, the largest tugboat on the East Coast.
“My dad started with his father at Interlake,” said Barker. “I always admired their personal relationship. It contributed to the trust within the company.” The family works together across generations, holding a Family Council each summer where presentations keep everyone informed of all aspects of the multi-faceted firm’s operations.
James Barker assumed his role at Seastreak in March 2020, just as the pandemic emerged, curtailing a planned expansion of operations in Florida. He was brought in to help with business development based on his education and years working outside the family business. With a degree in business administration from Boston College (he also attended Colgate University in upstate New York), Barker worked at a market research company in New York City, and at Bank of America in digital strategy. When he first joined Seastreak, it was growing 20% per year.
Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, while his father worked at Interlake, Barker took summer jobs aboard vessels over the years, including as a deckhand shoveling coal and iron ore at age 19. His branch of the family moved to Rhode Island, where he attended St. Paul’s, a New Hampshire boarding school. He always knew he would enter the family business eventually, but he said everyone is encouraged to work elsewhere first.
At Seastreak today, he wears many different hats, overseeing marketing, working with groups, and “coming up with new and exciting things we can do with customers.”
Enter the Sandbox, opened on the sandy beach adjacent to the Highlands terminal on the Raritan Bay in September 2020, offering water access, picnic tables, and spectacular views of the Raritan and the New York skyline on the former site of the famed Connor’s Hotel.
“We had the liquor license from Connor’s, but we didn’t initially prioritize the beach because we were focused on our growing number of boat customers,” he said. “We tried opening a small Tiki there three years ago and decided it was a good time to try again.” Like whale watching, the upgraded Sandbox was father Jim’s idea.
“He’s the big ideas guy,” said Barker, who reached out to “popular, high end food trucks” to rotate at the site. “We have over ten food trucks from all over the state, including Cousins Maine Lobster. We added fire pits and created a specialty cocktail menu with some drinks having Caribbean influences and others from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The number one drink is the Nantucket Express made with blueberry vodka.” Live music plays Thursday through Sunday. A calendar on the Seastreak website lists which trucks and music will be on site through August.
The company and the Barkers have come a long way since Jim bought the New England Fast Ferry from Sea Containers in 2004. In addition to commuter service, packed during normal times, getaways “streak” riders to Sandy Hook, New York City, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Newport and Providence in Rhode Island. Other services include Fall Foliage Cruises, New York Harbor sightseeing, West Point Football Day Cruises, New Year’s Eve Cruise, and the aforementioned Whale Watching Cruise. Seastreak’s catamarans can be chartered for private events with catering services available.
Barker is hopeful Seastreak’s employees will be working in their offices again soon. He credits Jack Bevins, vice president of operations, for keeping things running smoothly. Seastreak’s reservation system utilizes the latest technology, and its POS (point of sale) system was recently refreshed with Square.
“We have a great team; everyone has their own special set of skills,” said Barker. “Being a family business, our employees care about each other. That approach extends to our other employees, many of whom have been with the company a long time. That family mentality extends to our guests as well. We take people to work each day and feel a responsibility. We work through problems and continue to make it a great business people want to use. I’m very excited for what’s next, and optimistic about the future. We are very well positioned for things to come.”
325 Shore Drive, Highlands / 1.800.BOATRIDE / seastreak.com