Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the May 25, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Copy Shop to the High Seas
You are 38 years old and have run your first startup company into an
entity that some have valued at $175 million. After merging with three
partners, you sell out and trouser a pocket full of profit greater
than your friends will gross in two lifetimes. Not a bad beginning.
But what do you do now?
Such was the enviable decision facing Bob Figular in l999. And because
of his choice, 2,000 sailor/adventurers now explore the seas as
graduates of his Mariners School.
Eight years before, Figular had charged $5,000 to a family credit card
and launched Impact Images. Riding the tide of the digital revolution,
this new printing company provided color output for Mac and IBM
computers. In its offices at the Princeton Service Center on Route 1,
Figular employed his brother, sister, and wife Sonoe, along with his
own boundless energy. Desktop publishers, multimedia computer
companies, architectural and graphic firms signed on as clients.
By the time he merged his company with C2 Media in l999 and taken his
share, Figular came away with, as he puts it "enough walking around
millions so that I never had to worry about working any more."
Returning to his 10-acre estate in Hopewell, he pondered. Everything
lay within this young man’s grasp. Should he climb Everest? Start
another firm? Run for office? How about sailing across the Atlantic?
He had never sailed a boat before; a trans-oceanic crossing might be a
challenging place to start.
A few months later, on the coast of France, Figular cast off the lines
from his spanking new 43-foot Cantana 431 catamaran, "Destiny’s
Desire." He hauled taut the lines and pointed the bow for Gibraltar,
the Canary Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the
Bahamas, and Florida. While this 13-meter double-hulled craft was
rated cutting edge and fully capable for open ocean sails, certain
questions arise amidst a maelstrom of 50-foot seas for those actually
aboard. Fortunately, while inexperienced, Figular was no fool. He had
hired "Captain Woody," a veteran of innumerable transatlantic
crossings and two expert crew members to guide him in the venture.
It was during this voyage’s 17-day baptism by storm that the Cantana’s
owner was transformed from an apprentice into a real seaman and fell
in love with sailing. From the trough of a 40-foot wave, he learned
how to point his craft up to the crest, and then safely stay the
course as the boat plunged back down again. And he learned what every
open water sailor must: how to forge fear into useful exhilaration.
By the time Destiny’s Desire had circuitously reached Florida, Figular
was ready to sail home to Toms River single handed, with no crew to
share the watch or help set the sails in a storm.
Figular had logged 60,000 miles on his boat, and in hopes of expanding
his personal expertise, he signed up at a Long Island-based sailing
school to earn his U. S. Coast Guard captain’s license. Covering
everything from navigation to boat handling and safety, this license
has gained the slang term of "Six-Pack" because it allows operators of
uninspected passenger vessels to take aboard up to six paying
passengers. It is the common license for charter fishing, scuba
diving, and small tour cruises. Requirements include 360 days on the
water and passing a written test. It was this latter requirement that
was to spark this adventurer’s new career.
"The whole testing program was a joke," notes Figular. "It was all
nod, nod; wink, wink ‘Here are the questions on the Coast Guard’s
test. Here are the answers, now go home and memorize them to get a
good test score.’"
After researching several schools, Figular decided that this
crib-sheet process was pretty much the industry standard. He wanted to
emphasize the how and why of operating a power or sail boat.
With the supreme confidence that marks the entrepreneur, Figular saw
this as a market niche and said simply, "I can write a better course
than these old salts." The Coast Guard, however, was a bit more
skeptical. For a school to qualify as a captains’ licensing USCG test
center, it must offer up an exhaustive course of study for review.
Typically each draft is edited and restructured under the Coast
Guard’s guidance. Everything must be included: navigation from basic
dead reckoning to sophisticated GPA location; craft operation and
maintenance, rules for the harbor, distress response, right of way and
international regulations; piloting skills and passenger safety, the
list goes endlessly on. You are, after all, studying how to
competently take other people’s lives in your hands.
Figular wanted to join the hundreds of other schools that give Coast
Guard courses and examinations. For a year and a half, Figular
burrowed in and wrote. He had rented a small shack on the shore in his
boyhood hometown of Toms River. By day, he would hone his course
techniques, teaching sailing. His newly formed U.S. Sailing Academy
instructed an upscale clientele aboard Destiny’s Desire for $600 a
weekend. "I could see that just down the shore a ways the cut rate
boys were offering weekends for $199," Figular recalls, "but sailors
want quality and my trips were always full."
By night, Figular, stayed in his shack and designed his captain’s
license course. Can a boat sail faster than the wind? Figular’s course
explained how it could and how you can do it. The name of his game
remained comprehension, not test score. At last, he submitted his
first draft to the Coast Guard. Six weeks later, by Figular’s account,
the phone rang, "Mr. Figular, I have received your Captain’s License
course outline and in 20 years with the Coast Guard, it is the best I
have ever read. Do not change a word."
With that call, and $165,000 Figular borrowed from himself, the
Mariners School set sail in autumn, 2001, on a course that its owner
felt would reinvent the industry. "I have lost millions of dollars in
the stock market," says Figular now, "and I am going to earn it back."
To date, the school has grossed $4 million.
Robert Albert, executive director of Sea Schools, one of the nation’s
largest Coast Guard licensing schools, feels that Figular’s school is
certainly not unique and is actually quite typical. "What he has done
is what we all have done," says Albert, who is based in Florida.
For instance, Figular’s website touts the idea that "the benefit of
Mariners School testing is that the USCG has literally thousands of
questions in their database from which to draw a test. Mariners School
uses only a few hundred questions from that database and all questions
are provided in the student workbook and study guide."
Says Albert: "The Coast Guard’s database is famous for its ambiguous
questions, and all the schools try to eliminate those in order to
produce a fair test."
Today Figular has returned to the same offices in the Princeton
Service Center where his first company had soared to prosperity.
It seems a lucky spot. After just four years, his Mariners School now
teaches six different onshore licensing courses at 30 sites in 10
states. By far and away, the most popular of these remains the Inland
and Near Coastal Captain’s (OUPV) License course, entailing 57
classroom hours over three consecutive weekends. (The inland or near
coastal boundary rating is based on whether one’s 360 days of required
boating experience lies within or out of certain lines of
At $795 Figular is the first to admit that his OUPV course is no
bargain. Others do it in two thirds the time and as much as $200
cheaper (see page 44). But Figular believes that his graduates have
really learned the hows and whys of seamanship. And while test scores
may not be the aim, Mariner’s has a 94.8 per cent success rate on the
U.S. Coast Guard exam.
Currently a core of 15 master captains instruct the various classroom
courses. Among them is Bob’s brother, Bruce Figular, a retired state
trooper bringing decades of open sea rescue and scuba expertise to the
school. In addition to the basic OUPV certification, students can
upgrade to a Masters License, certifying them for operation of larger
craft with larger numbers of passengers such as small ferries and
whale watch boats. Commercial Assistance Towing and Auxiliary Sail
endorsement training and testing are available for would-be tugboat
and sailboat operators. First aid and CPR courses are also available
Having delegated his classroom duties, Captain Bob Figular remains
once more at the helm of Destiny’s Desire, teaching the several
onwater courses for power and sail boaters. His favorite jaunt is the
four-day Mariners Onboard Navigation Training class. From Toms River
to Baltimore, sailors aboard this catamaran take part in every aspect
of navigation from piloting out of the marina to standing watch to
plotting courses. Thriftily, Figular makes a return trip from
Baltimore back to Toms River, with a crew of power boating students.
"It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sailing cat or a tug boat," he says,
"the basics of seamanship are the same on any vessel."
Docking is among the day courses. For under $400 the schools sends an
instructor to your boat for a half-day’s practice. No longer do
students practice steering Destiny’s Desire into its slip. "After
spending $5,000 in gel coat repairs, my nerves won’t take it," says
Figular. "It’s really hard to be calm and to be a business man when
somebody crashes your $800,000 boat."
In addition to the licensing, navigation, and docking courses, the
Mariners School offers briefer onwater classes including radar
training and maneuvering, and the American Sailing Association’s
bareboat (renting a boat with no crew), chartering, and cruising
courses. (For onwater or classroom courses visit
www.marinersschool.com or call 609-987-0555.)
When winter forces Destiny’s Desire into her berth, Figular moves into
marketing mode, taking his school on the road, making the trade show
circuit. His boat schedule is supported by a hefty national marketing
budget of $10,000 a month.
Last year advertising CEO Jeffrey Barnhart, who had sailed with
Destiny’s Desire, approached Figular to discuss marketing the school’s
hands-on approach to marine safety. Now Barnhart’s Clarksville
Road-based Creative Marketing Alliance has revamped the website, made
a television commercial that aired during the FOX network’s Northeast
Angler, and put together a newsletter, brochures, and stationery. "My
success isn’t because I used an ad agency," says Figular, "but CMA
gave me a national look and feel."
The grueling grind of boat shows requires constant gladhanding, giving
out brochures and the company spiel. After a couple of weeks most of
the sailing school owners begin to show the strain.
Figular, in contrast, holds himself as a walking billboard for self
and company. In fact he radiates confidence, bordering on arrogance.
Figular does not think, he knows he has the best product; he knows the
other schools are inferior and he is happy to explain to you exactly
why. The spiel seems to work. By Figular’s account, other sailing
schools end the show season by discounting prices and scrambling to
fill their schedules, but Mariners School is booked and has a waiting
Innovative courses and slick marketing alone will not guarantee a
sailing school $4 million in four years and give it a major share in
the competitive northeast market. Unabashedly self confident and
slickly persuasive, Figular is the consummate salesman. "I am
confident in my abilities and I have an incredible track record," he
says, "If you aren’t confident you don’t get to the top."
What is the source of Figular’s Midas touch?
Following his Atlantic crossing, Figular took to the ocean, planning
to circumnavigate the globe. Midway, he received the message that his
mother was dying. Cutting the trip short, he arrived at her bedside
one day late. Beatrice Ann Fowler had died, but she left her son a
letter in which she wished that "Robert would follow his dreams."
In many ways this letter was preaching to the choir. Against all
warnings, her son had already carved a swath away from traditional
paths. When his high school refused to allow him class credit for his
after school construction job, he simply dropped out. Grudgingly, he
later took the GED exam, passed, and joined the Navy.
For Figular the service was a banquet of everything he had ever
wanted. Travel, comradeship, and disciplined challenge were the
everyday currency of life on the aircraft carrier Midway, where he
worked as an electronics specialist. "I was part of a trouble-shooting
team and it forced me to think quickly and take rapid responsibility,"
Figular had planned to make a career of sailoring, but after being
mustered out then asked to re-up, he explains, the Navy found itself
unable to meet his terms.
After a brief stint at Brick Computer School, Figular joined IBM and
won the Rookie of the Year Award. This young salesman seemed set. His
dad had worked for Motorola for 35 years and done well. Now it seemed
as if the son could climb even higher. Figular the younger lasted
Once again being warned that he was throwing his life away, Figular
left IBM. He learned the printing business at another firm, then
risked it all on Impact Images, and soon friends and family realized
that Figular wasn’t throwing anything away.
Figular refers to his small printing company growing to be a $175
million entity, but that represents how three companies, merged by an
investment banker in Houston, were valued in preparation for going
public. By his account, the merger was not his own idea, but he walked
away sitting pretty: "It took almost two years to strike a deal, and
within eight months the corporate structure had changed, not to the
good," says Figular, noting that this was the time of mega mergers and
an optimistic stock market. "The original plan was that we would merge
and go public at the same time, but two weeks before we were to go
public the stock market was going nuts. I didn’t agree with the
direction. At the last minute I told my partners I wasn’t going to do
the deal unless I got a larger portion of cash."
The merger took place, but the company never went public. Figular says
he was "paid to go away" and soon C2Media was filing for Chapter 11
bankruptcy; a remnant is still doing business in Manhattan.
In one sense, his mother’s note did take root. Figular had grown up in
the shoreside town, Toms River, where his father owned a Silver T
power boat and young Robert worked summers aboard the power charter
boat, "Miss Michelle," owned by his history teacher. "My first book
was `Popeye the Sailor,’" laughs Figular. He had always dreamed of
sailing and today he does. "Find what you love and you’ll never work
again a day in your life," says the captain and owner of the Mariners
Beyond loving the work, Figular holds an intuitive grasp of commerce.
"I was a businessman, turned sea captain," he notes. "Most of my
competitors were just the opposite." Instinctively he boils situations
down to the simplest terms and sees the furthermost extent of any
project. In the short run, Figular is adding an online OUPV training
and testing service to his Mariners School and has just begun a
compacted seven-day OUPV license package in Annapolis for those who
can’t free up three consecutive weekends.
With an eye toward distant growth, Figular is assembling the machinery
for a separate division which would make Mariners School the national
drug testing center employed by the Coast Guard. He paces quickly
around his Princeton office, as he did for most of this interview, and
explains. "The U.S. Coast Guard requires that every merchant mariner
be periodically tested for drugs. There is a specific form and a
review by a registered medical officer required. We would supply the
centers, personnel, and do the paperwork."
Figular has long since paid himself back the $165,000 he borrowed to
found the Mariners School. He has another hit, and is racing full with
it, living very much in the moment. He dismisses the mention of Impact
Images as "Oh, that was a company I started and sold awhile back."
Today Impact Images’ old offices house the new Mariner’s School with
an atmosphere so intense that it feels like a lifetime project. But
Captain Figular is only 45. Who knows what innovative creation these
offices may house in the year 2015?
Mariners School Inc., 3490 Route 1 North, Building 19, Princeton
08540. Captain Bob Figular, president. 609-987-0555; fax,
609-987-0531. Home page: www.marinersschool.com
The Mariners School’s six pack captain’s license course, $795, starts
in Princeton on October 10 (running for three weekends) and on
November 16 (Monday and Wednesday nights), and it is offered in other
locations this summer. Destiny’s Desire takes students on a four-day
bareboat certification cruise from Toms River to Baltimore Cost: $895,
including breakfast and lunch, double occupancy. Other courses are in
CPR and First Aid ($99) and the physicals and drug test ($99).
New Jersey Sailing School, 1800 Bay Avenue, Box 691, Point Pleasant,
732-295-3450; fax, 732-295-3331 (www.newjerseysailingschool.com).
Established in 1973, the NJSS focuses on sailing instruction and
partners with the Mariners School for Destiny’s Desire cruises. Basic
Sailing is two days for $299 on weekdays, and Advanced Coastal
Cruising, a cruise to Block Island on a 44-foot ketch, is August 8 to
Sea Schools, based in Baldwin, Long Island, founded in 1977,
headquartered in Florida, 800-535-3393 (www.seaschool.com), focuses on
USCG licenses and offers no on-water training. Recreational boaters
take the captain’s license six-pack course given in six New Jersey
locations, for $725, and if they decide to take the exam, it costs
America’s Boating Course for recreational boaters, a joint project of
the U.S. Power Squadron and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
866-262-8222, (www.cgaux.org). Beginner’s and advanced courses offered
in many location, such as in Point Pleasant Beach on Saturday, July
16, at 8 a.m. Call David Clark, 732-295-2126. The course is also
available on CD for $34.95.
Coast Boating School offers personal watercraft and safe boating
courses at West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Education (609-716-5000,
x 5034) and Mercer County College (609-586-9446) for under $85.
Not every boating safety course costs money. The BoatU.S. Foundation
for Boating Safety and Clean Water offers a free, online safety course
for both power and sailboaters (www.BoatUS.org/onlinecourse),
recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of
State Boating Law Administrators.
The course offers background material on question topics, and
corrections and explanations are given when a question is answered
incorrectly. Any unfamiliar topics can be reviewed with a "study
Those with correct answers for at least 80 percent of the 60 multiple
choice questions get a certificate of completion that may entitle them
to insurance discounts. "The best part of this course is that it’s
free and can be done any time of the day or night," said a
spokesperson. "While it’s great for less-experienced boaters, we get
feedback from older salts who tell us they have benefited as well."
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.