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TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Traffic Has Been Zooming--for the Water Taxis

Transport: Stranded crews have been a boon for boats charging about $180 an hour for ship-to-shore service.

October 10, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's a stranded sailor to do?

Call a taxi. A water taxi.

With nearly 100 ships anchored away from the docks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of the 10-day shutdown there, the water taxi business has been booming.

The taxi boats have been running around the clock, delivering groceries, cigarettes and beer to ships. The taxis also ferry crews dockside so they can catch a movie in town, buy some clothes or quench their thirst.

Although the lockout ended with the reopening of the ports Wednesday night, the three water taxi services plying the nation's busiest harbor say the cargo backlog is so great that they expect business to be brisk for weeks.

"This situation is a freak anomaly for us," said Matt Pelicano, harbor operations manager at American Marine Corp. at Terminal Island.

"We're on a 10-year high, running at full throttle and pressed to the limits."

"We've even had to turn down a few requests because we just ran out of boats," Pelicano said.

Normally, water taxis serve only four or five cargo vessels anchored in the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor complex. The taxis, typically 35 to 60 feet long, also shuttle crews to and from oil rigs.

But now they're serving scores of ships, and the increase in business may be taking a toll on the equipment.

Early Tuesday morning, the helm broke off the 35-foot water taxi Stephen S, leaving it to drift uncomfortably close to the breakwater in thick fog.

Then it got lost.

Travis Seely, who was trying to get back to the container ship Lurline, recalled drifting past "four Navy Seals crammed into a tiny black dingy, an oil rig and right under the hulls of several of the wrong ships."

"When the word Lurline emerged from the fog," he said, "I felt definite relief."

If not for the water taxis, most crews could do little else in their off-hours besides pine for the shore delights of Long Beach.

As one sailor put it, "It's so close, and yet so far."

Aboard ship, the crews keep busy with a variety of tedious jobs: greasing engines, swabbing decks, chipping paint off hulls, rolling new coats of enamel on bridges and cranes, and making sure their 25,000-ton vessels don't sway at anchor and knock into a nearby ship.

A trip ashore is a welcome respite. But not all sailors can afford the taxi service.

The boats charge about $180 an hour. And because it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get from a dock in Long Beach to a ship anchored five miles out, the round-trip cost of transporting a single sailor can run close to $400.

Robert Miller, 59, chief steward on the Lurline, is lucky: His employer pays for the taxi service. He took a ride ashore Tuesday afternoon.

"It can get boring on the boat," said Miller while heading to shore. "I decided to go to town to pay my bills and pick up some stuff for crew members."

The helm on the Stephen S was reattached in about 15 minutes and was working fine by the time Capt. Bruce Root took command of the boat later Tuesday morning.

Root, a confident seaman with snow-white hair and mustache and easy smile, seemed unfazed by the sudden extra work.

Whether it was one or a dozen passengers, he welcomed them aboard with a resounding "Capt. Root, at your service!"

"I've been super-busy lately," he said, gunning the engine to 18 knots to pick up a customer a mile away. "Generally, the crews I get want to go partying, drinking. Maybe see some relatives."

Shipping agent Dennis Tsui, however, had to get an armload of maps and charts to the captain of a 23,000-ton freighter that was preparing to divert to the port of Topolabampo, Mexico.

"The owners have decided not to wait around, given the uncertainty at this port," Tsui said, as Root pressed the Stephen S beyond the breakwater toward a fleet of freighters, each carrying thousands of containers stacked above their decks.

Suddenly, Root cut the power, summoned Tsui to the bridge and asked, "Which one is your ship?"

"That big one over there," Tsui said, nodding toward a dozen big ships on the horizon.

"What color is it," Root asked.

"Gray," Tsui said. All the ships were gray.

"What's its name?"

"The Rickmers Houston. And there it is," Tsui said with a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later, Root deftly backed up to the Rickmers' long, rickety gangplank, allowing Tsui to bound aboard with his documents.

"I'll be back in 15 minutes," Tsui yelled over his shoulder.

No sooner had Tsui clambered back aboard the Stephen S than the hulking Rickmers began pulling up anchor.

"They'll be leaving port within 15 minutes," Tsui said. "I've got four other vessels still anchored out here, and many of them have crews that would like to go ashore."

"Not a problem," Root said. "We're full steam ahead."

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