Delivering ordinary yachts is about as glamorous as moving pianos. Delivering extraordinary yachts--endless pleasure barges decked out with chandeliers, crystal glasses and the latest in home entertainment--is about as glamorous as delivering Steinways.
Mountainous seas batter them. Fog besets them. Drug runners attack them. A zealous Coast Guard keeps watch for the slightest trace of forbidden substances.
It's not an easy way to make a living, but it's still the best way around, say the folks who earn their keep by ferrying the playthings of wealthy owners from port to port, around California and around the world.
"It's no get-rich-quick scheme," said Russ Sullivan, a muscular, deeply tanned Oxnard-based yacht deliveryman. "It's work. It's probably not what you see on television commercials. We get paid to move them, not sit on them."
Not surprisingly, getting paid to sail the world is a powerful lure.
"Being out at sea for many days or months at a time, I like the routine and challenge of that," said John Rains, a yacht deliveryman based in San Diego. "I get what I call a reverse form of seasickness. I miss it if I'm not out there."
Sailing is addictive, Sullivan agreed. "You spend a lot of time on a lot of blue water that after a while all begins to look the same. But I get land weary. After a week or two, I get fidgety."
That's what keeps him and other boat movers in search of the next contract.
Clients typically are wealthy yacht owners who want their boats while vacationing, but don't have the time or navigational skills to make the trip, said Pat Miller, 38, a navigator and cook for Rains.
Although some other times of year may leave them dry, during winter months, Southern California yacht-shuttlers have more requests than they can handle to move boats south to Mexican ports such as Cabo San Lucas or Acapulco. When summer arrives, boats tend to move north, to Oregon, Washington or Canada.
"That's our payoff," Miller says. "Once we deliver a boat to a nice place, we plan ourselves a vacation."
Other requests come from owners who get job transfers, or from buyers who obtain repossessed or confiscated boats at auctions. Midsummer is a busy period because it's hurricane season, a time when boats are moved out of the tropics for insurance reasons.
"I see it as a good job, but it has its drawbacks," Sullivan said. "It beats the 8-to-5 freeway rush. We're out most of the time on a generally friendly ocean. Nobody points guns at me on the freeway because I'm not there."
Still, the high seas sometimes ring with gunfire.
"We got shot at off Swan Island in the Caribbean, 100 miles off the coast of Honduras," said Miller. "Thirty guys came running down this hill in cutoffs, all carrying weapons. We said, 'Oh my God, it's pirates.' We were on the fly-deck and bullets went right over our heads."
The gun-wielding attackers turned out to be a Honduran Navy unit suspicious of the outsiders.
"They made us come into dock and stay for three hours," Miller said. "We were pretty scared. But I remembered we had ice-cold diet Pepsis. They had no electricity or running water on the island. It changed everything. They were so appreciative when we offered them an ice-cold soda. Then they loved us."
The route plied by Rains and his crew through Honduran waters is part of his most frequently traveled course, from the East Coast to the West, through the Panama Canal.
A Time for Caution
But traveling through the canal is not as carefree as it used to be. With the recent political upheaval in Panama, sailors are cautious about taking boats through the region.
"It is a concern," Miller said, adding that she had not gone through since the day before Panamanian Gen. Manuel A. Noriega ousted Eric A. Delvalle as head of state in February. "It was pretty ugly at the time. Owners are afraid, but actually it's not a problem. We just don't go ashore. We'd always re-provision in Panama. Normally, it's a lovely place."
Planning meals to satisfy a crew cooped up for as long as a couple of months is not easy, but cooking the meals is even more challenging.
"If the ocean's really rough, it's hard to cook if the boat's bouncing around," said Peggy Hollinger, a crew member for Sullivan. "He gets a big kick out of me flipping eggs in the morning."
Such hardships are easy to envy.
"Most people think it's pretty glamorous," said one deliverer, William Price, based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea near San Diego. "But it's actually pretty low-paying. We work 24 hours a day and our responsibilities are enormous."
Some of their duties resemble those of landlubber moving companies.
Before any delivery, Rains and his crew put away all lamps. Loose furniture is tied down, padded and covered. Preparing to leave the harbor can take three days.
"It looks like a vacation cabin all tucked away," said Miller. "Everything that's pretty and delicate is put away."
Most deliverers follow similar precautions.