Ocean City -- Ocean City is filled with people who have exchanged the corporate world for the American dream of living by the sea and starting their own businesses. But being your own boss at the beach isn't always a life of leisure; in fact, many beach bum-entrepreneurs work harder now than ever.
"The time to make it is spring, summer and fall," says Bill Osche, describing the tourist season that fuels virtually every enterprise in Ocean City. "During that time, it can be a seven-day-a-week job, from 9 in the morning until midnight. You make a lot of personal sacrifices during those months."
Mr. Osche worked 12 years as a high school teacher in Montgomery and Baltimore counties and more than two years in a government drug abuse education program. But in 1975, he said good-bye to the Washington suburbs and moved to the beach, where he invested $5,000 to open a store called the Kite Loft.
"One day I walked into a kite store in Sausalito [Calif.] and said to myself, 'This is the way to make a living,' " he remembers. "And I'd grown up in Baltimore and visited Ocean City as a kid, and so then I said, 'Ocean City is where I have to take kites.' "
Today, the Kite Loft is the largest-grossing kite store in the world, with three stores in Ocean City, another in Baltimore's Harborplace and others in Washington and New Orleans. The stores have been so successful that Mr. Osche, 55, is planning to retire in November and indulge in a dream he and his wife, Mary, have to sail to the Mediterranean to live for a few years.
Terry O'Rourke has sailed to the Med, and quite a few other places as well. But last November, with his 40th birthday looming, he gave up a glamorous job as a millionaire's private charter boat captain to come to Ocean City and start the resort's first water taxi service.
"I just decided I needed some stability," says the affable captain, whose parents had retired to nearby Ocean Pines. "I had the idea for a long time. I kept asking my father if anybody had done a water taxi there yet."
The Irish Rover, his custom-built 26-passenger boat, now roams the downtown harbors, ferrying sightseers and bar-hoppers among more than a dozen waterfront stops. Though he says the business is doing very well, Mr. O'Rourke admits it isn't always smooth sailing.
"There are some negatives," he says. "Drunks get on, and you have to be really careful. On bad weather days, you don't do any business. And the hours. It's been a big adjustment for me to ride the boat until 2 or 3 in the morning."
Not long after Terry O'Rourke docks the water taxi and knocks off for the night, Lou Reale is getting ready to go to work at My Place, the sandwich, ice cream and bakery shop he and his wife, Carolyn, operate in the Sea Watch condominium. Mr. Reale, 66, says he's usually in the shop by 5:30 a.m., getting ready for the breakfast rush. But his current hours are nothing compared to the schedule he worked to get to this point.
NTC "I worked damn near seven days a week and many nights," he says of his job at Riggs.
The Reales opened My Place in 1978. Though they had been vacationing in Ocean City for years, Mr. Reale was still working as a vice president at the Riggs National Bank in Washington and Mrs. Reale was doing office work in the Montgomery County school system. Their daughter, Lisa Boarman, operated the shop during her summer vacations from Salisbury State University.
The Reales' full retreat to the beach was hastened when the baker at the Ocean City Bakery, who had supplied the baked goods for My Place, left town in 1979. Mr. Reale, who had a financial investment in the bakery, suddenly found himself knee deep in dough -- the floury kind.
"I didn't know squat about baking," says Mr. Reale. But at 55, he opted for early retirement from Riggs and took a crash course in baking. The Ocean City Bakery became so successful that he expanded into coffee shops, eventually operating five shops along the resort coast as well as the bakery and My Place.
"It was crazy, but that's the way I do things," says Mr. Reale, whose family was working 16-hour days to keep the businesses afloat. Last year, the Reales decided to slow down. They sold the bakery and coffee shops, holding on only to My Place, which Mrs. Reale manages.
"We're not rich, but what else do we need?" says Mr. Reale. "We have a house, a car, a boat; we go to the Bahamas every January; our kids are all educated."
Joe and Sue Valenza say they have just about everything they need, too, and virtually all of it fits aboard their sailboat, Therapy. The Valenzas live aboard the 34-foot boat, and from May to September, they give paying customers a glimpse of their life at sea during three-hour sailing excursions from Ocean City.
The Valenzas moved here right out of college in 1972, but it took them years of working office jobs and saving their money before they realized their dream of sailing for a living. They began their charter sailing operation in 1981, with Mr. Valenza working full-time on the boat and his wife helping evenings and weekends. In 1984, she took a leave of absence from her job and they sailed to the Bahamas for the winter.
"When we came back, we went on the five-year plan," says Mr. Valenza. Their goals were to buy a new sailboat capable of trans-Atlantic voyages, to save enough money so Mrs. Valenza could quit her job and to sell their house. The plan worked, and in October 1989, they went to sea to stay.
Now they strive to keep life simple. "You learn how to slow down and enjoy things," Mr. Valenza says. "We hear people argue about things that seem so trivial, about television shows and the gas mileage on cars. I mean, who cares?"