LONG BEACH — The Martins and the Utechts arrived at the dock gate in a cream-colored Jaguar, ready to be whisked aboard the huge, multimillion-dollar ship for their $400 dinner.
They had waited months for this. "I don't know of anyone else who's done it," Francis Utecht said.
The menu for this intimate supper for four had been created just that morning. It featured chicken a la king, steak, pork chops, fried onions, salad with Wishbone dressing and chocolate chip ice cream.
The dining room's major decorative motif was vinyl. The place mats were red plastic, which accented the red in the Del Monte ketchup bottle in the middle of the white table cloth.
The waitress wore slacks, a pullover and a white jacket with frayed, cut-off sleeves. There was no maitre d' and no sommelier.
But then, this was the Arco Alaska, and Dorothy and Al Martin and Grace and Francis Utecht, neighbors in Naples, one of Long Beach's posh addresses, were getting exactly what they had paid for: dinner on an oil tanker.
The Utechts bid for the meal and a tour of the ship at a local Legal Aid Foundation fund-raising auction last spring, paying $400 for the dinner, which had been donated to Legal Aid by Arco Transportation Co.
The Arco Alaska is no play ship and the visitors did not play.
The tanker is all muscle, nearly a fifth of a mile long, with enough girth to haul more than a million gallons of crude oil down the Pacific Coast from Valdez, Alaska, to Long Beach's refineries.
Activities before dinner included a 90-minute inspection of pumps, pipes, the decidedly unluxurious living quarters of the 25-member crew, and the bridge. After dinner, the guests descended to the heat and clamor of the boiler room.
The meal lasted about 30 minutes. The captain had gone ashore to have dinner with his family before the ship's departure for Alaska in the middle of the night. There were not even any oil-spill jokes about the Exxon Valdez.
"What do you recommend?" Dorothy Martin inquired of the waitress, a former office manager from Seattle lured to the Arco Alaska by the 45 paid days off she gets after 75 days on board.
"Well, the steak looks good. Actually it all does," replied Michelle Campbell, the waitress, who said the fare on the Alaska "is as good as I eat at home."
"I haven't had a pork chop in ages," Martin remarked. She later declared the food "delicious." For dessert she ordered cake with chocolate frosting. Everyone else had ice cream from a selection in the dining room freezer.
As boat lovers, the couples were intrigued by the idea of seeing the inner workings of one of the huge tankers that dwarf their pleasure craft in Long Beach Harbor. The Martins have a 53-foot sailboat and the Utechts have several boats. Al Martin, an architect, had a further interest in the tanker. He has designed several buildings for Arco, including the company's downtown office tower.
"It was worth more than my money's worth," Utecht, a patent attorney, said of his three hours on the ship. "That's something the average person can't buy."