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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.

Business soared.

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

demarkation.)

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

onshore.

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

list.

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,"

he says.

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

eight years.

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

School.

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).

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Other Boating Courses

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

12, $999.

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

$80.

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.

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Free Boating Course

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

topics" button.

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."


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