By Laura Myers
Captain Samantha Zeher, 29, owns KeyZ Charters and works out of Islamorada's popular Robbie's Marina as one of its only woman charterboat operators. She's also been the captain of her own fate — earning her license at just 18 while still a college freshman.
Zeher offers sightseeing charters that include snorkeling and sunset cruises, paddleboard, eco-tours and Everglades excursions. Among her other offerings are island trips exploring Indian Key, Lignumvitae Key and Alligator Lighthouse, each with a history dating back to the 1800s.
She's operated her own 21-foot tri-hull deck boat, capable of cruising Florida Keys waters as shallow as 2 feet, for the last seven years.
"Robbie's Marina was always a fun place to go for locals and tourists," Zeher said. "When I decided to run a charterboat, I couldn't think of a better place to put my boat."
Zeher enjoys showcasing the Keys' unique environment to visitors and cherishes her free-spirited lifestyle on the water. The only challenge she faces as a woman captain, she joked, is a lack of onboard restroom facilities.
"My office view is great! Even though the days are long and the sun and wind have weathered my hair and skin, I wouldn't trade it for a cubicle 9-to-5 job any day," Zeher said.
The native South Floridian was born in Fort Lauderdale. She grew up in the city, attended high school at St. Thomas Aquinas and spent frequent vacations, with a family of three protective older brothers, in Islamorada's Lower Matecumbe Key.
"Playing on the water and boating was in my blood," Zeher recalled. "My mom had a hard time keeping us in school. She says her kids spent too many days at the beach and not enough in a library. All four of us have worked as captains on the water for a good portion of our adult lives."
Zeher studied marine biology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, and spent college summers working for Florida Sea Base — known as the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base, a Boy Scouts of America camp with aquatic programs — as a dive boat captain.
After graduation in 2009, she worked as a mate on the Miss Islamorada party boat at Bud N' Mary's marina.
The boat's "Captain Ben" allowed Zeher to drive and dock the vessel. A Keys mariner who had told her previously that girls couldn't captain was standing on the dock.
"Captain Ben told me I was going to dock the boat in front of him, so I did," she said. "That captain was in shock."
As much as Zeher enjoyed fishing and working as a mate, it wasn't something she wanted to do forever. After searching for jobs without finding much of interest, she purchased her boat with her parents' assistance.
When not working Zeher still enjoys on-the-water pursuits including snorkeling, lobstering, fishing, crabbing and shrimping.
Reef, her 2-year-old yellow lab, "takes up a lot of my spare time but he loves the boat and the water," she said. "Just like me, he's hard to keep out of the water."
Among her other current activities is learning new carpentry skills with hands-on home improvement projects — replacing a kitchen sink, laying tile and converting stairs from carpet to wood and tile.
Zeher's future includes a possible business expansion with additional boats.
"I'd like to continue captaining as long as I can, showing off this slice of paradise to my customers," Zeher said. "I like to take each day as it comes and see where it goes."
Like most Islamorada residents, she wouldn't live anywhere else.
"I love living in the Keys for so many reasons. It is a tropical paradise," she said. "I love the small-town feel that everyone knows everyone and no one is shy about lending a hand when someone is in need."
Captain Sam takes visitors on eco-tours that can include snorkeling experiences in both Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Photo: Heath Padgett
When not working Zeher still enjoys on-the-water pursuits including snorkeling, lobstering, fishing, crabbing and shrimping. Here she shows off a nice-sized stone crab, whose claws grow back after one is harvested during season (Oct. 15 - May 15).
A do-it-yourselfer, Zeher is now also learning new carpentry skills with hands-on home improvement projects — replacing a kitchen sink, laying tile and converting stairs from carpet to wood and tile.