Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Most Beautiful Commute

by Tom Emch

Commuting to the City by ferry boat.  Getting to know the fog and the water.  The sound of the gulls and the sea changes, the feeling of intimacy between passengers drawn together on a voyage, no matter how brief.

It's more than just a way to get there, as any escapee from the exhaust fume funnel will tell you.  It's leisure.  Time enough for a conversation, or for long thoughts at the rail, lulled by the gentle slap of waves against a moving hull.  It's a style.

Gone are the Bay's great fleets of ferries,, but there's a survivor, a spicy dame.

She's a little broad of beam, three decks high and 100 feet long; she's smooth and powerful, but you couldn't call her beautiful.  Not early in the morning as she squats alongside the Tiburon Ferry Landing in the dawn.

She's the M.V. Harbor Emperor.  And from the main deck floats the promise of strong coffee and fresh rolls and donuts.  Off the water the air is sharp.  A bit of spray and a changing seascape.  A landlubber's bargain at $1.00 the round trip adventure.

It's a feast for the senses even before the blast from the bridge signals the beginning of the 5 1/2 mile cruise to The City, 35 minutes away.  "Let go the bow line."  You hear the salty phrase and the captain sets a course for Alcatraz and San Francisco, silhouetted in the distance on an orange canvas.

"This is the way to go," says Hilda Gibson, a ferry boat fan since the Tiburon run began in 1962.  "You can stand up here on the top deck and sip coffee and feel the freshness of the morning.  And the trip is different every day."

The Emperor cruises past Alcatraz, cutting an 11-knot wake, and nudges up to the Ferry Building Landing to disgorge some 300 voyagers, braced and ready for the day.  Then with the sun rising, she turns back to Tiburon.

Four round trips in the morning and four in the afternoon.  Shoppers during the day, and the crowd of commuters on the "5:30" back to Marin.

This is the heaviest and thirstiest run.  Card games and newspapers occupy some, but there is cocktail action at the bar.  "We do better than $100 in 35 minutes," say Manuel Melas, who is manager for the food and drink caterer.

"Most of them order doubles so they don't have to get back into line," he explains.  "But one guy got up to the bar four times, ordered a double martini each time.  It's a record."

Up on the bridge, guiding the tight little ship and the homeward bound, is the captain, James Hill.  "It's a good run and the passengers like the ride: they like us (the skipper and four deck hands)."  The crew plays a game when they spot a "runner" at the dock.  Says Hill: "He knows we'll wait, but he runs anyway and when he comes aboard, the passengers cheer."

The Emperor? "She's a good ship, handles like a doll, even in choppy weather.  But you're right about her looks," he admits.

You couldn't call her beautiful."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle