New Zealand yacht racer turning childhood passion into a career

Robert Tomkies raced yachts in his native New Zealand, with a reputation respectable enough to be hired to work for a fellow named Ted Turner. But as Tomkies' dreams grew, so did his family, until he figured that he had to do something else to take care of his wife and four kids.

Tomkies opened a shop in Wellington selling lighting and electrical parts, and bought a small farm off Moonshine Road. Tomkies never got rid of the racing bug, designed and built a 30-foot yacht he named the "Moonshine Express" and tried to pass his passion for fast boats and the open sea on to his brood.

The second oldest, Boyd, was the only one who was similarly bit.

The younger Tomkies raced and managed yachts through his 20s, once taking part in an around-the-world race from Hong Kong. But a similar thing eventually happened to Boyd Tomkies as happened to his father. He got married, had two children and settled down — thousands of miles away in Annapolis.

But unlike his father, Boyd Tomkies has found a way to combine his childhood passion with a way to support his family — buying what he described as a "failing" inflatables business three years ago and recently becoming the owner of what was once Marks Marina in Annapolis.

Tomkies, now 38, will be one of the exhibitors who will talk about their business and life experiences at this year's Marine and Maritime Career Fair for seventh through 12th graders at Annapolis High School on Feb. 25.

"A lot of people think it's a relaxing industry because of the lifestyle, but you have to work as hard or even harder in this industry," Tomkies said one afternoon last week as he drove from the shop to the marina. "Some people think there's a lot of semiretired people who treat it as a hobby. That's not the case."

Tomkies, who still races competitively when the opportunity presents itself, said he has been helped in his current endeavors by what he calls "a natural entrepreneurial" spirit and said his years managing yachts has helped him as well.

"When you're a professional sailor or managing race boats, you're kind of running a small business," Tomkies said. "When I wake up in the morning and go to work, I love what I do. You have to have a skilled staff to do this; there are not a lot of inflatable shops around anymore. When you're in a business that deals in survival equipment, there's always some challenges. I wouldn't want to do anything else at the moment. It's a fascinating business."

Tomkies received some attention when he sold 10 of his inflatables to be used for judges and other officials in last summer's Pan American Games in Mexico, which eventually led to his selling some more inflatables to the Mexican Navy. His business is a Mid-Atlantic regional representative for the professional and military division of Zodiac, a French-based manufacturer.

Aside from selling to recreational sailors and boaters, Tomkies also has several police and fire agencies as clients, including the New York City Fire Department. He is also selling parts for inflatables for the U.S. government on the crafts used by Navy SEALs and uses part of his showroom to do repairs.

Though the two business will be separate, Tomkies said there will "some synergy" between them, in that he plans to keep some of his demos at the marina.

The marina, located off Route 2 at the mouth of the South River, fell into disrepair after the owners died a few years ago. Tomkies stumbled upon a "For Sale" listing on the Internet six months ago while looking for a larger location for his growing inflatables business.

Gretchen Tomkies said that at first she wasn't "keen" on her husband's idea to buy a marina.

"He has a growing business, we have two small children and I work full time," said Gretchen Tomkies, who is the director of development at Anne Arundel Community College and serves as the treasurer for a member of the Anne Arundel County Council. "This seemed to be one too many things for us to get involved in."

But much like the Matt Damon character in the recent movie "We Bought a Zoo", Gretchen said of her husband of seven years, "His passion has a way of convincing you."

After negotiating the sale of the 1.6-acre property, getting the financing in place and working through the bureaucratic maze that is involved in opening a small business, Tomkies and Gretchen finalized the purchase of the marina, and the house overlooking it, last month.

They plan to move into the house next month and open the marina and start renting out the 40 slips starting in April.

Acknowledging that the income he takes in from the marina will allow his family to afford living in waterfront property in Annapolis, Tomkies said it will bring back memories of a childhood when he spent a lot of time on Marlboro Sound, near Wellington.

"Working in a brick-and-mortar store [where Annapolis Inflatables is located] is a lot different than racing boats and working on boats and being on the water," Tomkies said inside the showroom at Annapolis Inflatables. "It is one way to way to get back on the water. It's great for the family and kids to grow up around."

Gretchen Tomkies, who met her husband while working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agrees that it will be a great place for 4-year-old Willem and 2-year-old Henry to grow up.

"Once they get a little older, their free time will be spent around the water," said Gretchen Tomkies, who despite growing up 20 minutes from Lake Michigan outside Milwaukee never spent much time around boats until she met her husband. "Who knows? They might get their father's passion and one day turn it into a career."

For now, Tomkies is retreading and rewiring the two 120-foot, 20-slip docks — he will charge the boat owners for the actual wattage used rather than split the monthly electrical bill among anyone who rents a slip — and plans to add some luxuries such as a bathroom and washroom after replacing the portable potty the previous owners had for their customers.

The Tomkies are working with the South River Federation to help upgrade the shoreline along what the locals call Gingerville Creek. Boyd Tomkies said he will eventually remove the concrete blocks currently acting as a barrier and have sand, soil and native grasses along a "living shoreline."

"It's a lot better for the environment," he said. "It's a lot better for the creatures that live here."

It also seems better for Tomkies. As he looks at the South River from his future backyard, Tomkies said he has been told that "we have the best sunsets around." He speaks of the new house and marina, though both in need of renovation, as having "good bones."

But something seems to be missing.

Asked whether he has his own boat, Tomkies laughed.

"A shopful," he said. "I'm going to have to cross that bridge and sell my wife on [buying] a boat."

Marine and Maritime Career Fair

Where: Annapolis High, 2700 Riva Road

When: Feb. 25, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Who: For seventh through 12th graders in Anne Arundel County Schools

Admission: No charge

Information: Call Susan Nahmias at 410-295-3022 or email