PORT HUENEME — Rain dripped off Jeff Jappora ('ora calif')e's slicker as he nosed his tugboat through the darkness toward the 600-foot freighter loaded with bananas from Ecuador and Costa Rica.
A mile outside the Port of Hueneme breakwater, Jappe's tugboat bobbed next to the freighter. The smaller vessel's bumper of tires scraped the massive hull, leaving black rubber streaks. As crew members prepared rope tethers as thick as a man's forearm, a harbor pilot scampered up a rope ladder to take his position at the ship's helm.
Within minutes, Jappe and crew began their well-choreographed dance to finesse the 10,000-ton freighter into the smallest commercial port in California.
"This port is so small, there isn't a lot of room to move," Jappe said, eyeing the freighter's hull towering above. "You're working in cramped quarters, and with a big ship, there's just that much more room for mistakes."
Tugboat captains talk of missteps that snap lines, catapult tugs into the ship, or worse, allow a freighter's hull to crash into the dock.
Like other captains, Jappe relies on the harbor pilot, with his precise knowledge of the port, to direct each move from the ship's helm. Jappe provides the muscle, with twin 1,000-horsepower engines on his tug.
"The pilot is depending on you, so you can't think twice after he gives you a command," Jappe said. "You just do it. As long as you can predict what the pilot wants, it makes it a lot easier. You can stay one step ahead."
Jappe, an experienced seaman at 36, is the kind of tugboat captain who makes it look easy. Thrusting one engine forward, the other in reverse, he swings his 60-foot tug into position, providing exactly the guiding nudge needed.
"He's like a godsend, with absolutely the best training in captaining," pilot Carl Dingler said. "Jappe absolutely knows what I'm going to do and will have the vessel set to do it, whether I've told him to or not."
Jappe, a slight man with sun-bleached hair and year-round tan, is one of two tugboat captains on call seven days a week to assist more than 200 commercial cargo ships a year that pass through the narrow straits of the Port of Hueneme, the only deep-water port between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The port, although diminutive compared to others, pushes through 750,000 tons of goods a year, including imported bananas, wood pulp, fuel for Southern California electricity plants, and Mazdas, BMWs and Jaguars. Area citrus growers use the Port of Hueneme to ship tons of citrus, fresh fruit and vegetables to markets in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Jappe and others who work at the port are amazed that it is so little known in the area. "It's funny, but for all the work we do, some people still don't even know that ships come into this port."
But for Jappe, the life of tugboat captain at the port strikes a perfect balance between his love for the sea and his desire to spend time with his wife and 6-year-old son in Ojai.
"It's an easy, flexible schedule," he said. "We escort maybe four to six ships a week, sometimes in the early morning but never anything outrageously early. And best of all, I get to go home to my family every night."
For five years after graduating from the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Jappe spent weeks and sometimes months at sea, working aboard boats ferrying supplies to oil exploration platforms off the coasts of California, Alaska, Chile and Argentina. The work was good, he said, but the stints at sea shortchanged his family life.
In 1984, he completed a series of exams offered by the Coast Guard to earn his captain's license. He was working for another tug company on the Columbia River in Washington when Brusco Tug and Barge of Washington hired him in 1989 to help staff its new contract at the Port of Hueneme.
Jappe brought one of the Bruscos' tugs, the Roland Brusco Sr., down the coast to Port Hueneme. Since then, he has remained captain of the tug, named after the company's founder.
Jappe said he appreciates the smaller size of the 60-ton tug, compared to oil supply vessels. "It's a lot smaller boat, more maneuverable, and can react a lot quicker," he said. "Also, it's a lot smaller crew and that makes it more mellow."
Jappe's steady hand at the tiller has brought him the admiration of fellow tug captain David Brusco. "He's a heck of a sailor and navigator," said Brusco, son of the tug company's owner.
As captain of another tug at the port, Brusco helped Jappe jockey the 600-foot freighter into port recently so dockhands could unload its shipment of 120,000 cartons of Central American and South American bananas.
Working together, the two tugs gently pushed the ship into position along the dock, a strikingly delicate maneuver for so much tonnage.
"I like captaining tugs," Jappe said. "It's a challenge, and if everything goes right you feel good."