As summer draws to a close, the last days of the Marina del Rey WaterBus are upon us. “This is like, the best time,” says the chipper dock attendant, as a straggling handful of riders piles aboard the boat on a cold, quiet Friday night at Fisherman’s Village. “Because of the tide, you can hear the water crinkle. During the day, you can’t hear it with the waves and water blasting white. The other reason this is the best time is because you see things pop up.”
Things? What things?
“Like fish,” she says. “You see them flop out of the water. Or seals.”
In its current incarnation, the WaterBus, a floating breadbox of a pontoon boat, makes a slow, chugging arc around the marina, depositing people at seven ports of call. Service began in 2002. For a while, people weren’t riding because they just couldn’t find the boat. So the county rebranded and remarketed it with colorful signs and banners. “We wanted to take it to the next level of service and professionalism,” says Debbie Talbot, marketing analyst for the Department of Beaches and Harbors. It now runs in tandem with the beach-shuttle land bus. Ridership has since doubled. On crowd-packed July 4th, it is the only way to get around.
The county spends $269,933 a year to operate the WaterBus. Miraculously, it was not axed from the imperiled county budget during this last round of cuts — especially considering that both state and county funds for community health clinics, gang-rehabilitation programs, child-support services and assistance for the poor and the elderly are on the chopping block. Or maybe not so miraculous. “I wasn’t worried,” Talbot says. “The WaterBus is a very important component of the Local Coastal Program, which is the blueprint for the development of the marina.”
The executive summary calls it “an instant stress-reliever to riders as they motored around the marina, enjoying spectacular views of marine life, yachts, sunsets and full moons.”
“It’s a nice thing for people who can’t afford a boat,” Talbot adds. “We get everyone, from moms holding babies to couples going to restaurants. We had four people sitting on a hill when we started the Summer Concert Series. Now we have thousands.”
A quarter of a million county bucks pays for fuel, staffing needs, insurance and boat maintenance. “Boats are expensive,” Talbot admits. “You know what they say about a boat. If something breaks, it means ‘Bring Out Another Thousand.’ ”
Onboard, the wind whips your hair around. The air smells of the ocean. “Excuse me,” says a woman as she wraps her two kids, a girl and a boy, into a pashmina shawl. “Does it go fast?”
“Pssssh,” says the captain, “no, not at all.”
“It’s nice to be rich,” she says, scrutinizing the boats.
“Stupid rich. See that one?” He points to one of the yachts. “That costs a hundred thousand dollars. That one with the lights? That’s three hundred thousand. Stupid money.” He looks at the kids. “You guys want to see some sea lions? Hold on to the rail. Be careful. They come out and slap you.” He kills the engine and lets us drift.
Four fat sea lions huddled on a dock gaze up sleepily. One animal sniffs at the boat. His eyes are big and cute.
“The captain says there are tiger sharks!” says the boy a few minutes later. The captain, whose first name is Warren, clears his throat and spits into the ocean. Captain Warren is young and looks all of 25 but is on his way to becoming a crusty old man of the sea. He hates L.A. He is done with this seasonless city and its perpetual 75-degree sunshine. He is done with this pontoon boat with its maximum harbor speed of 5 knots. He is a Coast Guard master captain accustomed to manning fast boats like the Catalina Flyer, boats that zip out to the island and make tourists barf. When a black Zodiac motors by, he stares at it wistfully. The captain is moving to San Francisco when WaterBus summer season ends on September 7.
It is slow for a Friday. The bait-and-tackle shops and bike- and skate-rental shops and replica New England lighthouse are closed for the evening and the only action at Fisherman’s Village seeps out of El Torito. The sounds of the marina at night — water slapping the yacht hulls, creaking docks — make you feel melancholy and forlorn. Tomorrow, Saturday, is the day the boat gets slammed with folks. The WaterBus is intended as a means of transport, not a harbor tour, but for only $1 a ride, people often “do the loop” and stay on for the full 45 minutes. This year, the county added additional nights to coincide with the free classical, opera and pop concerts and Marina Movie Nights. A large, inflatable screen was set up at Burton Chace Park. They showed March of the Penguins, Madagascar 2 and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
One night on Captain Warren’s watch, a group celebrating someone’s 21st birthday at Tony P’s boarded the WaterBus, drunk and happy. Keeping the drunks out of their cars and off the streets is one of the WaterBus’ stated benefits. That, and traffic mitigation, to the tune of a thousand fewer cars per week clogging Marina del Rey roads. “The guy was pretending to be a pirate,” recalls Captain Warren. “He had a pirate hat and a plastic sword. He kept waking up everybody in the marina, shouting ‘Arrrgh.’ Aaaaargh!”
We chug past yachts and houseboats with names like Best Week Ever and Torpedo and Dream On. The tethered ships bob in the harbor, small squares of light from their windows glowing yellow in the darkness.
“Are there dolphins?” asks the boy, softly this time, so as not to wake the people who live year-round on the docks. In fact, two dolphins followed the WaterBus around the harbor for hours yesterday. Out on the crinkling water, gliding past the Cheesecake Factory, it is a nice ride. Board while you can.
WaterBus: $1 per person, (310) 628-3219, marinadelrey.lacounty.gov