Bay CrossingsWorking Waterfront


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 Francisco Bay?

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 workers."

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 now."

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".

"Environmental issues 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.