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sunny day on the docks

A Boat By Any Other Name

Written by Ray Roa

Meet Tampa’s most prolific namer of boats.

That’s what Doug Rohloff says, anyway. The New Jersey native and graphic designer spent the ‘80s with an airbrush in his hand before transitioning to wall murals and portraits in the ‘90s. Photography, painting, and sign making took up some years in between, but he’s always worked in the arts.

“And so, I guess that just led to this,” Rohloff explains.

On a sunny, fall Saturday on the Garrison Channel in downtown Tampa, “this” includes 30 boat slips behind the Marriott Water Street. Rohloff helped put names on at least 10 of the vessels docked there, which range from Carvers to Sea Ray Sundancers, Uniflites, and even luxury Azimut yachts.

In its most basic function, a boat name is like a license plate. With a few exceptions, most boats over 30-feet long must have a name and hailing port, which helps the Coast Guard identify the vessel. More importantly, a boat’s name—usually on the back, or transom, of the vessel—also says a lot about its captain.

Doug Rohloff

To name a boat, Rohloff, literally known as “Boat Name Guy,” suggests opening one book in particular—the thesaurus. He tells owners to find synonyms for words that represent the things they love in their lives besides the boat.

Behind the Marriott, handles include some that are punny: Aquasition, geographical (Nola), abstract (Think Tank) or just literal names (Lisa Ann, Brenda Marie). One boat owned by a local cardiologist has a particularly apropos tag, Knot On Call, displayed in rope lettering.

Rohloff—who currently doesn’t own boats but had a couple called Soulmates and Blue Oasis—has even named boats for clients when they really wanted him to.

Sometimes he has to remove old boat names, which, like christening a boat, can be a ritual in itself. The process often includes a lot of elbow grease and acetone, and gets tricky depending on how long the previous names have been baking in the Florida sun.

De-naming a boat can also involve superstitious rites like burning the material from the old name. In other instances, complications arise when a boat needs a new name after the owner goes through a major life change like a divorce.

“I just did one of those,” Rohloff says. “It’s called, Not His.”

No matter the circumstance, Boat Name Guy always wants the boat name to look good. Once an owner decides on a name, Rohloff helps them select the perfect lettering style, font, and colors. He also provides mockups of the boat name on the transom or side of the vessel, and can do the installation of the new name, too.

Jeff Schrier says one of Rohloff’s unsung talents is his ability to match all aspects of a boat’s name to both the aesthetic of the vessel and the feel of the owner’s personality.

warm, sunny day on the dock

I’ve been selling boats for four years, and been around boats my whole life, and generally speaking, people who boat know how to have a good time.

Jeff Schrier

Schrier is retired now but sells boats for the Tom George Yacht Group and has three vessels of his own. One is named Rocco’s Ride in honor of his French bulldog, the others—a dinghy called Puck and a fishing boat named Breakaway—are a nod to Schrier’s love of hockey and the Tampa Bay Lightning. “The ‘Y’ in Breakaway is a hockey stick,” Schrier adds.

Schrier met Rohloff shortly after his transition to full-time boat naming in 2015 and has tapped him to not only handle the names on his own boats, but the vessels of every client that buys a boat from him. “Every time I get a new customer, I send them the link for the Boat Name Guy,” he says.

And over the last couple of years, there’ve been a lot of new people on the water. In 2020 and 2021, as the U.S. navigated COVID restrictions, a wave of first-time buyers helped the marine products industry nudge boat sales to highs not seen in more than a decade. While sales have since cooled, the National Marine Manufacturers Association says numbers are still 7% above the five-year sales average.

boat names painting on a nautical canvas

Rohloff, who admits he could use an assistant to help with the day-to-day operations, has been fortunate to keep up with demand, but can’t put a number on how many boats he’s helped christen in his career. With a coverage area that spans the 115 miles of coast between Siesta Key and Spring Hill, it’s not surprising that the Dunedin resident has lost count. Rohloff estimates that he does 200 to 300 boat names a year.

He won’t say that he’s the most prolific boat name guy in the U.S., but Tampa Bay has always been a particularly good place to be in Rohloff’s line of work.

In May, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that the Sunshine State was home to more than 1 million registered recreational vessels (read: boats). Hillsborough’s 41,495 registered vessels put it in the top five Florida counties for boat registration behind Miami-Dade, Lee, Broward, and Pinellas.

And while there’s no hard rule that says a captain has to name their boat, there are some guidelines the coast guard makes boat owners adhere to.

For one, boat names must not be more than 33 characters. They also may not actually or phonetically be identical to any words used to solicit assistance while at sea. Boat names that are phonetically identical to hateful epithets are a no-go, and while some boats definitely bend the rules with creative abbreviations and innuendo, profane, indecent, or obscene language is off-limits, too.

Other frowned upon boat names allude to tragedy (Titanic, or Summit Venture here in the Bay area) or test the fates (Cyclone, Hurricane).

Rohloff has his own simple rule when it comes to avoiding a bad boat name.

“A negative name, I think, is bad for a boat,” he says. “Like Last Time or something like that. People are just saying bad things right off the bat before they leave the port.”

But boat people probably already know all of that.

“I’ve been selling boats for four years, and been around boats my whole life, and generally speaking, people who boat know how to have a good time,” Schrier says. “They know how to get away from work, they know how to unwind. And if they don’t, once they have a boat, they learn how.”

And as they let loose, Rohloff can walk past the docks knowing he helped by practicing what he’s been doing his whole life—making art.

For him, peeling off that last bit of film off a boat name, taking a picture of work he’s satisfied with, posting it online and sending a link to the owner is the ultimate gratification. “They come back and say, ‘Great job,’ or ‘I love it.’ Some people say they’re crying, you know,” he explains.

It’s a feeling Boat Name Guy says he’d chase after forever.

“I’ll probably work for the rest of my life, even if I was a billionaire—this is fun to me,” he says. “I always decided to do something fun.”