Take me to Anchorage 9 - and Step on it!
You thought getting a cab in
San Francisco was tough? Well, how about hailing one in the middle of San
No problem, as it turns out.
In fact, a taxi ride is easier, safer and far more scenic in the middle
of the Bay than just about anywhere else.
Welcome to the world of water
taxis serving the ships of Anchorage 9, the Coast Guard designated parking lot
for ships just to the South of the Bay Bridge. Ships stay here because dock fees
are extremely expensive. Ideally, owners want their ships kept on the move but
sometimes swinging at anchor just canít be helped.
An example: there is a ship
that commutes between Hawaii and San Francisco Bay filled to the brim with
molasses. The molasses is mixed with grain in Stockton to make cattle feed. The
ship, however, is too big to make it all the way to Stockton so it parks at
Anchorage 9 for a few days offloading bite-sized loads to a barge. The process,
in maritime jargon, is called "lightering". A tug pulls the barge back
and forth to Stockton. When the molasses tanker is emptied, back it goes to
Hawaii for more.
Bobbing on the Bay gets old
quickly for the crew stuck waiting on board. The delights of San Francisco are
tantalizingly close, although I expect even Long Beach is enticing when just in
from a long ocean voyage. How do crews get from ship to shore and back again?
And what about everyday needs like fresh food and garbage removal?
Water taxis, at your service.
Really small ferries, water taxis have been a fundamental part of the San
Francisco harbor scene since its earliest days. The great Crowley maritime
empire began as a water taxi service, using a rowboat to shuttle supplies and
seamen back and forth to ships at anchor. Carrying on the tradition today is
Mary McMillanís Westar Services.
I called Ms. McMillan and
asked if I could take a ride on a water taxi. She kindly agreed and so it was
that I made my way to Pier 50, very near Pac Bell Park on San Franciscoís
southern waterfront, for front row seat on the working Bay.
Mary McMillan is a happy
soul, with an explosive laugh that punctuates just about her every comment. I
asked her if it was difficult being a woman in the high testosterone world of
the waterfront. "Oh not at all, and Iím hardly unique", she trilled,
thoroughly entertained by my naivetť. "Many ship servicing companies
around the Bay have passed from fathers to daughters".
So your father passed Westar
Services to you, I asked? "Oh no, I bought out my boss and then took over
the biggest competitor, which happened to be owned by my husband".
Oh. Are you still married, I
asked? "Oh, yes", she replied gaily. "Heís one of my best
Apparently, Mary McMillanís
happy waters run deep. Competition; take note.
As we made our way to the
dock, I asked Ms. McMillan how many tugs and water taxis she operated.
"Nine tugs and five water taxis. We use the tugs to pull barges and guide
ships. The water taxis are like miniature ferries, with seating for up to 40
people and able to carry cargo like dumpsters and crew luggage".
We boarded the water taxi,
which is about the size of a prosperous car dealerís motor yacht but
workmanlike. Captain Janis Smith, a startling good looking young woman, was at
the helm. Workingwomen were calling the tune on the waterfront this day,
and weíre not talking women in high heels.
I wanted to ask Captain
Smith. But before words could form in my mouth she gave me the gimlet eye and
ordered me to sit down and stay out of her way. Her tone and bearing evoked
keelhauling and the cat oí nine tails. I immediately sat, put my hands on my
knees and looked straight ahead.
Mary McMillan, enormously
pleased, let go a laugh blast. Changing the subject, I asked her how big her
business was. "Weíre about 65-85 employees, depending on the jobs we
have, and running about $5-7 million a year. In this market everyone knows
everyone else and Iíd say about 90% of our work is repeat business."
Closing in on an oil tanker
named Long Beach , which was getting really, I mean surreally
big, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, I asked Ms. McMillan how
often her taxis visit ships riding at anchor?
"The contract says every
four hours. We bring out fresh food, that kind of thing and take back garbage
and crew heading for home or a night on the town. The big change is in the
environmental safety concerns. Itís just clear liquid and bird feathers
Come again? Bird feathers?
Ms. McMillan and Captain
Smith thought about it. "Well, by clear liquids it means all you can throw
over the side these days is water, everything else has to be taken ashore. I
guess by bird feathers they mean itís OK to throw seagull feathers over the
side, but everything else has to be given to us for handling on shore".
are really a big deal for us," continued Ms. McMillan. "Weíve spent
hundreds of thousands re-powering our boats with cleaner engines. And we did it
because itís the right thing to do, not because someone made us do it".
The square of her jaw, and uncharacteristic seriousness, spoke volumes about her
love of the Bay. "But serious and important as all that is, safety is still
number one with us. My workers, the folks out her on the ships, they depend on
us for their lives, really".
We were now alongside the Long
Beach. Bored men in hard hats look down on us from far above. Captain Smith
jauntily put on a shocking pink hard hat, the gift of San Mateo bridge workers,
to supervise the loading of two large dumpsters. When that was done, a long
staircase was lowered and a sailor named Audrey Heggins carefully made her way
down to join us.
Ms. Heggins was headed for
the airport, having worked 58 days straight on the Long Beach. She was
going home to Hampton, Virginia for 46 days off before returning to this
or some other ship to start the routine all over again. It was the middle of the
day. I asked Ms. Heggins if her crewmates would be calling the water taxi later
on to take them out for a raucous night on the town.
"Itís really not like
that anymore, not since the Valdez incident", she said. "Now youíre
not allowed to have a drink 4 hours before going on watch. Thatís not to say
people still donít party, they sure do. But itís just not nearly as extreme
as it used to be".
Ms. McMillan nodded her head
way up and down in agreement. "It used to be, well, interesting on
some of the early morning runs back to the ships. But itís very different now,
much more professional".
The Long Beach receded
from view, retaking its place a part of the scenery on the working Bay. Audrey
Heggins was grinning from ear to ear with thoughts of home.
We were headed back to the
Westar dock and I asked Ms. McMillan what it was like being so close to Pac Bell
Park. Grimacing, she replied, "Well, we were evicted to make way for Pac
Bell Park. We were no sooner relocated to Pier 50 than the Mayor Ďs Office of
Homelessness announced he wanted to turn it into a homeless shelter. That
passed, but the latest is the plan for a yet another sports arena and on Pier
50, no less. We question whether the Port of San Francisco cares about the
working waterfront anymore with all these developers willing to spend millions
on fancy office buildings and sports arenas".
Back at the dock, I was
introduced to Ms. McMillanís husband. I asked him if it hadnít been a little
bit weird having his company taken over by his own wife. "Hell, no! Never
been happier!" Ms. McMillan, beaming, walked me to the front door. "If
youíre ever stuck down here in the wee hours feel free to use your waiting
room", she said pointing out the converted trailer set aside to shelter
sailors arriving at all hours of the night for transfer to ships riding at
Anchorage 9. I said thanks to Mary McMillan, for that and much more.