Catching a seaside shuttle Owners hoping for smooth waters to grow successful harbor taxi business in area

Charleston Water Taxi co-owners Chip Deaton and Scott Connelly take a group across Charleston Harbor.

The tide is shifting in the right direction for the Charleston Water Taxi Co.

Once feared to fail like others that gave a go at operating similar ventures, expansions are coming for the privately held company as it approaches its eighth year of shuttling riders between downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

The company, founded by former marina workers Scott Connelly and Paul “Chip” Deaton III, plans to hire more staff and add another vessel to its fleet of two boats.

“It has been a lot of hard work to keep this thing going as it should be going,” Deaton said last week.

The owners say the company is witnessing an uptick in business. They and others attribute some of the growth to Charleston’s rising profile within the visitor industry, including its being named the world’s No. 1 tourist destination by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine last year.

That kind of publicity means more foot traffic by out-of-towners. One gauge of how the region’s tourism market is faring is hotel room occupancy, which has been steadily rising on the peninsula and for most other local lodging markets, according to the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston.

The water taxi is a vital piece of Charleston’s tourism scene, said Perrin Lawson, deputy director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“People want to get out on the water and this gives them a chance to do that,” he said. “Water taxis have been successfully used in other port communities, and it’s an option to get people around, and that’s a good thing.”

Deaton and Connelly are hoping to grow sales even more, and attract more locals, thanks to a highly anticipated water taxi stand recently added to Waterfront Park in downtown Charleston.

The two partners launched the company in November 2005 with $145,000 for a 40-foot catamaran.

Deaton, a former Navy officer, gained some know-how of the business model as captain of a 40-person water taxi for the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina for about two years before it folded.

The Charleston Water Taxi Co. started right before the recession set in and pinched the visitor industry, which in turn hurt its business. Connelly and Deaton kept their venture chugging along during the downturn by some belt-tightening.

“We did everything ourselves,” Connelly said. “We weren’t paying anyone to do it. We didn’t even get paid.”

The game plan of low overhead, aggressive marketing and set schedules was used to keep the company afloat.

That strategy appears to have paid off. The hard times have eased for the two owners, who still can be found behind the controls of the 40-seat catamaran or the much smaller express cruiser.

“Still the best part of the job is driving the boat,” Connelly said.

The owners are not the only ones behind the wheel. They have since added four additional captains and five staffers for operations.

There are plans to add more employees, including staff for a sales counter at Waterfront Park, the owners said.

The city of Charleston recently opened a new floating dock at the end of the pier at Waterfront Park, now an official stop for the service.

It marked the third pickup and dropoff point for Charleston Water Taxi, which shuttles passengers for $10 a day.

The $419,000 dock, paid with funds from online travel companies, completes a longstanding plan to bring a waterside stop closer to the high-profile City Market area.

Connelly and Deaton say the new stand should put an end to complaints from passengers who felt the city Maritime Center farther north was too far to walk from the heart of downtown.

Lack of a stop in the heart of the tourist district has also been cited as a reason previous water taxi companies have failed.

There was a water taxi stand near the existing cruise ship terminal at Union Pier until security changes following the events of 9/11, officials said.

Deaton believes the Waterfront Park stop will grow business for the company.

“This is very important,” he said. “It will link the market south of Broad and the locals from Mount Pleasant can spend the day downtown as opposed to driving in.”

Mayor Joe Riley lauded the water taxi and the new stand as key to promoting alternative transportation to the downtown area.

“This water taxi dock will offer residents and visitors unique transportation which doesn’t require a car to get around,” he said.

Owners are now hoping to add more stops to the list, including destinations like Daniel Island, North Charleston and James Island.

“We’re just excited to expand more now,” Deaton said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.