Ahoy! Captain SOLIDWORKS!

How Dan Harper Navigated his Unique Entrepreneurial Voyage from Boat Captain to Tech CEO with SOLIDWORKS

Captain Daniel A. Harper’s passion for sailing has taken him on some amazing adventures, like sailing from the tip of South America to South Georgia Island, where he visited the grave of one of his heroes, the explorer Ernest Shackleton, who died there on the last of the three British Antarctic polar expeditions that he led more than a century ago. Harper’s love of sailing, combined with interests in computing technology and entrepreneurship, culminated in his founding in 2011 of Siren Marine (www.sirenmarine.com), a tech company that has introduced the MTC (Monitor, Track, and Control) Monitoring and Tracking System for monitoring of boats via a smartphone app and wireless cellular technology.

Harper’s idea for the Connected Boat grew out of his 25 years of experience as a professional boat captain and inspired him to found Siren Marine. However, the boat-captain-turned-tech-company-CEO’s entrepreneurial voyage has taken many twists and turns since he first fell in love with sailing as a child on the inner lakes around Lakeland, Florida.

“I literally grew up on boats, and sailing has always been in my blood,” Harper says. “I made my first sailboat at the age of five when I ‘refitted’ my canoe by attaching a makeshift rig and garbage bag. Still, I didn’t pursue sailing as a vocation until after trying to make it as a professional drummer.”

Plotting a Course From Drummer to Boat Captain 

Harper initally majored in music at Florida State University (FSU). His father advised him that if he was really serious about music, he should experience the real-world life of a “working musician”. Harper visited Nashville, Tenn., and spent some time experiencing the life of a struggling musician: hanging out with musician friends, sleeping three to a room, and playing any gig that presented itself. That experience opened the future boat captain’s eyes to the fact that becoming a successful musician is often not as glamorous as it seems and requires a lot of luck.

“I stopped playing music cold turkey, took a semester off, and went skiing in Colorado to clear my head and figure out what I was going to do,” Harper recalls. “While there, I spoke with many business people and asked them what I should study to become a successful entrepreuneur. Most suggested accounting, because it would expose me to the inner financial workings of a business. When I returned to college, I changed my major to accounting and joined every student club that was available—spelunking, flying, and sailing, to name a few—to help me figure out what I was going to do.”

Harper’s experience in the sailing club rekindled his sailing passion and landed him on the FSU Sailing Team. He bought his first boat—a Columbia 30—while still in college and paid for it by chartering and giving instruction on board. Following graduation, Harper went to work on Ocean Star, a leading celestial navigation training schooner. Since then, he’s obtained his U.S. Coast Guard 100-Ton Masters License, logged more than 150,000 nautical miles, crossed the Atlantic twice, and skippered many in-shore and ocean races, voyaging single-handedly much of the time.

The ocean voyage took place on Harper’s second boat, the Corban, a Nautor Swan 42 that now serves as the SirenMarine test bed. For the next two years, he operated a charter sailing company throughout the Mediterranean Sea and began writing articles and shooting photography for travel magazines. His return trip took him to the Caribbean Sea, and for the next 18 years he worked as a private boat and yacht captain, spending summers in and around Nantucket and winters in and around St. Barts. Yet during all of this time sailing, he remained interested in technology and thought about how it could be used to help boat captains and owners.

In college, he had developed some legal and medical search software—essentially scanning legal and medical journals and placing them on CD-ROM with some rudimentary search capabilities—that didn’t take off. “We were five years too early because there were no networks or internet to leverage back then,” Harper recalls. “We couldn’t give the stuff away.”

Nevertheless, the experience gave Harper an appreciation for the importance of timing where technology is concerned and motivated him to stay attuned to technology trends in seeking other opportunities. It was this lesson and the encouragement from one of his clients, Boston entrepreneur Jeet Singh, that led the boat captain to learn how to use SOLIDWORKS®.

Managing Boat Builds by Learning SOLIDWORKS 

As a boat captain, Harper soon became an in-demand consultant on custom boat builds and retrofits. The boat design and remodeling work exposed him to drafting and 2D engineering drawings, but left him with a desire to actually see how the design would look. Harper was on an expedition with Singh to South Georgia Island when the captain of the chartered steel ketch showed him SOLIDWORKS.

“Jeet was not just a client,” Harper stresses. “He became a great friend with an incredible thirst for life and entrepreneurship.  It was largely Jeet’s belief in my idea for the Connected Boat that kept me at it for all these years. While swapping sailing yarns with the captain on the South Georgia voyage, I told him that I was getting involved with boat design, and he showed me SOLIDWORKS. I recall saying, ‘That’s really cool.’ I realized that learning the software would help me accelerate the design and building process by keeping me in sync with designers and enabling me to speak in terms related to their work. SOLIDWORKS gave me an edge as a project manager because I could say ‘Look at this. Can we do it this way?’”

Launching a Smart Monitoring System for Boats 

Despite a successful career as a boat captain and design consultant, Harper remained on the lookout for technology opportunities. His lengthy career as a boat captain made Harper keenly aware of all the problems that can occur on a boat. “The one thing that is universal to all boats is that there will be problems,” Harper notes. “Boat owners are constantly worried about their boats because of this. The key to preventing small issues from becoming big problems is identifying an issue and taking care of it before it gets much, much worse.”

Minor issues like a dead battery or shore power failure can lead to substantial damage, such as when the water in the bilge gets too high because the bilge pump or switch fails to operate. If only boat owners had a way to monitor boat systems from afar, they could detect and address all of the little things on a boat that can cause larger problems later if they are not addressed.

Harper was cruising from St. Martin to St. Barts in 2006 when he first had the idea for the Connected Boat. Cell phones were becoming increasingly popular and smartphones were just on the horizon (the first iPhone® shipped in 2007). He knew that a smart boat monitoring system would require the ability to connect with sensors via a smartphone app that could contact the unit from anywhere.

“It was an instant in time—just a conversation between me and my friend, Joakim—but we knew that we needed to start working on it because timing is everything,” Harper recounts. “We built the first system, YachtWatch, in Joakim’s kitchen as a proof of concept, which soon became a hobby-type of business. After I developed a business plan, started raising money, and two companies later, everything began to take off. That initial idea has blossomed into a vibrant, growing company, and my ability to use SOLIDWORKS helped us to strategically complete development, time our launch, and seed the market with compelling imagery more quickly.”

Like his hero Shackleton, who completed a harrowing 720-mile voyage to South Georgia Island in an open 20-foot lifeboat in some of the world’s roughest seas to save his crew after his ship, Endurance, became first trapped and then ripped apart by pack ice on his second Antarctic expedition, Harper (aka Capt. SOLIDWORKS) certainly has a sense of adventure. Combined with SOLIDWORKS skills, an entrepreneurial spirit, extensive sailing experience, and strategic timing, that sense of adventure has resulted in the development of technology that will help people better maintain and more safely operate their boats.

I am a freelance writer who has written professionally about CAD/CAM/CAE since the early 1990s. I’ve written hundreds of case studies, numerous magazine features, and lots of white papers over the past 25 years, including many focused on SOLIDWORKS. In my spare time, I enjoy fishing, gardening, hiking, cross-country skiing, reading, and writing (fiction). Please feel free to contact me with ideas for case studies or blog posts, or just to say hello.