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Orange County

Time Traveling Aboard Ferry

Landmarks: Since 1919, Balboa Island commuters have relied on the service.

September 05, 2002|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Balboa Island Ferry has been the workhorse of Newport Harbor since 1919, moving folks slowly but surely between the peninsula and the island.

Service has been halted only a few times--mostly for bad weather, but occasionally for accidents, such as the one Labor Day in which a driver lost control of her car while trying to board the barge.

Thirteen people were injured in the accident, and ferry service was halted.But only briefly.

The ferry fleet consists of three 64-foot boats that chug 900 feet each day every five minutes from 6:30 a.m. until midnight--24 hours a day during the peak summer season--transporting locals and tourists between Agate Avenue on Balboa Island and Palm Street on the Balboa Peninsula. The diesel-fueled boats connect an estimated 2.5 million riders with work, beach homes, school and stores each year.

At 4 mph top speed, the ride won't generate much of a thrill. But the three-minute crossing provides a breathtaking view of a bay filled with sails and yachts and lined by beautiful homes.

"It certainly does give you [an] identity when you own a ferry," said Seymour Beek, 68, whose family's name has been synonymous with the ferry for 83 years.

"I wouldn't mind being identified with some other characteristic, like being a great sailor or something," he said, "but people remember [me] by saying, 'Oh, there's Seymour. He's the ferry guy.' That's my identity."

Beek, who retired as a program manager at Ford Aerospace in Newport Beach 10 years ago, manages the ferry part time with three others. He and his older brothers, Allan and Barton, grew up two blocks from the ferry and worked on the boats during their school years.

They also make up the board of directors for the ferry corporation. Seymour Beek, who lives in the old family home on Bay Front, has served as president since his father, Joe, died in 1968.

Over the years, the boats have been hit by tough times, heavy weather and errant yachts. But they've also had their moments in the limelight, such as serving as backdrop for an Abbott and Costello movie and for weddings.

For locals, the ferries provide not only a needed service, but also a link to the past. As a result, there is always an undercurrent of concern over whether they will cease operation.

"People want to be assured that the ferries will keep going, so we reassure them just by keeping the ferries going," Beek said. "It's convenient for a lot of commuters, but there's a whole contingent of people who ride it like an amusement ride. For some people, part of the tour of Newport and Balboa is a ride on the ferry."

Part of the ferry's charm is its bulky, tugboat appeal and the fact that it's one of the few such turn-of-the-last-century services still operating. Plus, its fare is a bargain: $1.25 for a car and driver, 50 cents for walk-ons.

"If you live and drive around the peninsula, you take the ferry," said Marcus De Chevrieux, curator of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

"It's just what you do. It's so well-known, it's taken for granted. It's been a landmark to Newport Harbor since the turn of the century. It's like everyone's third-favorite thing to do in Newport Harbor. It's unique."

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