Bay Captain

LAST YEAR, 2.3 million people crossed San Francisco Bay on a Golden Gate Ferry. Many of them were being transported by Capt. Bob Ketchum, a 15-year veteran of the fleet. We caught up with him in the wheelhouse of the Del Norte, a $7.8 million, 400-passenger catamaran that makes the 13-mile voyage from Larkspur to San Francisco in 30 minutes. How did you get started? I was a tuna fisherman in San Diego and we’d be gone for months at a time. It was a lot of fun, but I met the woman I was going to marry and I looked around and everybody I knew had about three or four exwives and they were pretty much alcoholics. I said, “This isn’t going work.” So I studied and got my license and started working on a cruise line to Catalina Island. And the marriage worked out? It’s been 33 years now, so something’s working right. We live in the city. I’m one of the few people who work here who lives in the city. Did you go to a maritime academy? No, I’m a fo’c’sle guy. I came up through the fo’c’sle. What’s a fo’c’sle? The forecastle. On old ships, it was the place on the bow that was sort of pointy and not very good for stowing cargo. That’s where they stuck the crew. How many round-trips do you make a day? Most captains do about five. Me, I man this boat for the 7:30 a.m. run and I change hats and do my operational planning — boat moves, crews, stuff like that. And then I’m here again for the 5:20. What do you worry about as you drive? We are constantly vigilant about debris in the water. Debris will get sucked up into the jets. The worst thing would be trees or wood. If you run over a big enough log you could damage the hull. Do you have your own boat? Nope, I’m smart enough to know not to. What sorts of things do you notice among the passengers? When I used to work weekends, the 11:40 boat would be filled with tourists. As it passed San Quentin, the guys in their yellow jumpsuits out in the yard would wave at the tourists and the tourists would wave back and I’m sitting there going, “Do you know who these people are?” What is it about waving and boats? It’s always been funny to me the mentality that people have on boats. I don’t know what it is, but it is so socially acceptable on boats to wave at other people. I’m going to do a study about it when I retire.

Check out the gallery below for more photos of Captain Bob Ketchum on the job.