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Never a Lull Moment for These Sailors

Harbor captains have many chores, not the least of which is calming stormy passengers. Newport Bay can be a traffic nightmare.


It's 10:15 p.m. and all's well with Ed Meyers. The captain of the Entertainer is angling the 153-foot vessel into its slip, bringing a three-hour dinner and dancing cruise on Newport Harbor to a close.

Standing behind the ship's wheel in a classically cut blue suit with four stripes on the sleeve, the 49-year-old seaman looks every bit the captain. But before donning the uniform, Meyers tended to such necessary tasks as monitoring repairs to a navigation instrument, climbing through a hot and noisy hold to check the yacht's twin Detroit Diesel engines, and running crew members through an impromptu safety drill.

After donning his captain's uniform, he coordinated food and beverage service with the maitre d' and then stood by the rail to welcome nearly 50 guests on board. He spent the better part of an hour schmoozing with them in the dining room, and was back at the rail at journey's end to wish patrons a good night. When the vessel was empty, he grabbed a quick dinner before diving into a pile of post-cruise paperwork.

"There's a lot more to being a captain than standing in the wheelhouse and driving the boat," said Rags Laragione, president of the Maritime Institute, a San Diego-based company that trains and certifies about 40 boat captains each month at its 19 West Coast locations. "Sometimes it means hurrying to get all that diesel grease out from under your fingernails just in time to look pretty for the passengers," Laragione said.

The nautical gods were smiling on this cool and clear evening early in early March. The last of the winter's rainstorms had cleared out a few days earlier. Fog and the dangerous Santa Ana winds remained in check. The night's guests were equally cordial; no alcohol-fueled disasters threatening to jump overboard or punch out the waiters. Despite moderate traffic in the narrow bay, the waters remained clear of nautical cowboys.

Meyers has seen his share of bad days on the scenic bay, where he captains four yachts operated by San Francisco-based Hornblower Cruises & Events.

"One New Year's Eve, there was so much fog I couldn't see that flag on the bow," Meyers said. We were strictly on radar until two hours into the cruise when 50-mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds kicked in.

On another cruise, Meyers unsuccessfully tried to calm down an increasingly belligerent customer who appeared to be under the influence of drugs. When the man threatened crew members, Meyers made a call to the Harbor Patrol. He wanted the police boat to pull alongside and take the man in custody. But he waited until the boat reached the dock out of fear that the man's pregnant wife might suffer an injury during an at-sea transfer.

If waiters and the maitre d' determine that customers have had too much to drink, Meyers will enforce their decision to cut off drinks. Sometimes he escorts inebriated guests to a quiet corner, where he politely informs them that their behavior is bothering other guests.

During warmer weather, he's occasionally called upon to stop would-be jumpers from making a dangerous leap into the bay. "I tell them that, not only are you going to get cold and wet, you might get hurt--and then you're going to get arrested."

Sometimes, the captain makes tough decisions even before the yacht backs away from its slip behind the Hornblower office on Pacific Coast Highway. On this night, Meyers delayed the departure for a few minutes because several important guests weren't on board. Mindful of paying customers who were expecting a full, three-hour cruise, he eventually ordered the first officer to drop lines securing the yacht.

Winds and currents determine how many six-mile circuits the Entertainer must make in the narrow Newport Harbor to fill out a three-hour cruise. The Entertainer won't go faster than four miles per hour on this night. That's fast enough to give spectators a constantly changing view, but not so fast that the vessel will have to make several passes through the small harbor.

Meyers constantly monitors noise levels from Vini Turturro's one-man band to ensure that the Entertainer doesn't provide ammunition to Newport Harbor residents who view commercial boat traffic as a nuisance. The ship radio crackles with reports from other cruising vessels, as well as the occasional call for assistance from private boat operators who've lost their way or need assistance.

On this lazy night, the most demanding moments come when Meyers expertly threads the Entertainer between the aging boats that, like clockwork, ferry cars between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula. The cruise is a milk run compared with those conducted during the winter holiday season, when the cruise company generates 25% of its revenue in Newport Beach.

"You've got 150 to 200 boats in the Christmas parade and another 1,000 boats watching them," Meyers said. "The houses on shore are lit up like Christmas trees, so it's hard to tell where the land ends and the boats start."

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