Casting off

Casting off

New Alcatraz ferry service leaves unions, environmentalists, and city officials fuming on the dock

By Amanda Witherell

Hornblower Yachts assumed control of the ferry service to Alcatraz Island on Sept. 25. As the new crew cast off the dock lines, spurned union workers — some 30-year veterans with the former contractor, Blue and Gold — rallied with supporters at the entrance, asking passengers not to board the boats.

Two union-friendly visitors from Sydney, Australia, ripped up their tickets and demanded refunds. “We don’t agree with what they’re doing to the workers,” one said, while in the background Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Tom Ammiano took turns with the bullhorn, also offering their support to the workers.

“All of our colleagues on the board are not going to stand for it,” Peskin said to the couple hundred laborers gathered on the sidewalk. “We’re going to stand with you and march with you.”

Terry MacRae, CEO of Hornblower, expressed little concern about the boycotting tourists and the rally at his gate. “I suspect there’s plenty more people who want the tickets if they’re not going to use them,” he told the Guardian. Visits to Alcatraz peak this time of year, with a couple thousand people turned away every day when tickets sell out, according to National Park Service spokesperson Rich Wiedeman.

The NPS decision to grant the lucrative, 10-year contract to Hornblower over Blue and Gold has resulted in more than just what some are calling the largest union layoff in San Francisco waterfront history. The story also has an environmental angle as slick as an oil spill and a nasty landlord-tenant tussle.

“The port and I are extremely concerned with how Hornblower has conducted itself,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera told the Guardian, referring to the company’s artful dodge of city and state permitting processes. “They’ve focused more energy on sidestepping public oversight than complying with it.”

Despite infuriating two leading San Francisco institutions — unions and city planners — MacRae has managed thus far to avoid too much of a stir by keeping another critical local constituency off his back with a well-played “green” card.


When NPS put out a request for proposals in 2004, three companies submitted bids for Alcatraz: Red and White, a local charter and bay cruise company that ran the service when it first started in the ’70s; Blue and Gold, which took over Red and White’s boats and unionized crew in 1994; and Hornblower Cruises and Events, which runs charter and dinner boat cruises from five California ports and is a subsidiary of a larger, $30 million company.

When Brian O’Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, announced last year that Hornblower won the bid, union activists immediately challenged the choice. Mayor Gavin Newsom, Peskin, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and both of California’s US senators expressed concerns about the decision. Neighborhood group Citizens to Save the Waterfront filed suit. Environmentalists, however, were elated.

For the first time since being passed by Congress in 1998, the Concessions Management Act applied to the bid for Alcatraz. In addition to forbidding the Department of the Interior from favoring incumbent contractors, the act also outlined new criteria for awarding contracts that included a mandate to improve environmental quality in national parklands.

“Bluewater Network has been advocating for more than five years for a solar- and wind-powered ferry for San Francisco Bay,” said Teri Schore, a spokesperson for the local environmental group. She added that diesel vessels in the Bay Area account for more pollution than cars and buses combined. “We’ve been talking to every ferry operator on the bay, and we also knew that the Alcatraz contract was up. We thought it was the perfect application.”

Hornblower’s MacRae wrote a provision into his bid that within two years of taking over the Alcatraz service, the company would build and launch a ferry to run on a combination of solar, wind, and diesel power. After one year of testing the vessel, a second would be built within five years.

That — in combination with a plan to make two initial vessels 90 percent more fuel efficient, as well as implement a clean energy shuttle service on the Embarcadero, power the landing facilities with solar panels, purchase green products, and vend healthy snacks — put Hornblower’s bid over the top.

Wiedeman said all bidders are informed that financial feasibility of the company and potential revenue for the government, as well as environmental and sustainability initiatives, were considered. But some criteria were more weighted than others, and Hornblower ranked strongly on all points.

“We’re ecstatic,” Wiedeman said. “We’re looking at higher-quality visitor services from the get-go.”

But some doubt whether the proposed vessels are anywhere close to a reality. MacRae said a final design and marine contractor have not been selected yet, although Solar Sailor’s model BayTri has been touted. A giant solar-arrayed fin provides auxiliary wind and sun power to the trimaran’s diesel engines. No such vessel has ever been built, but the model is based on a smaller solar ferry that services Sydney Harbor in Australia — with a top speed of just seven knots.

The proposed boat is emissions free and could go 12 knots with the aid of the wind, although it would need a push from auxiliary diesel engines to keep up with Alcatraz’s schedule. Boats now run between 15 and 19 knots.

The other concern is that MacRae’s commitment of $5 million for constructing the 600-passenger vessel might not be enough. The San Francisco Water Transit Authority has been looking into a similar vessel carrying no more than 150 passengers that would cost between $6 and $8 million.

“Their requirements for design are different than what mine would be,” MacRae said. “I think it’s possible to do it for $5 million.”

Bluewater Network founder Russell Long worries that the low-budget cap could hurt the vessel’s environmental potential. “We believe that Hornblower may intend to maintain this budget ceiling even if it compromises other aspects of the design, such as best management practices in regard to environmental components,” he wrote in a letter to NPS, urging reconsideration of the contract.

NPS awarded the contract anyway and Bluewater is hoping for the best.

“We will be watchdogging the progress and keeping track of what’s going on. If it doesn’t happen, it will be a huge black eye for the National Park Service, Hornblower, and the city of San Francisco,” Schore said. “At this point we have faith that it’s going to get built, because it’s in the contract.”

However, Hornblower’s snub toward union contracts and dodgy relations with the city suggest that playing by the rules may not be a top priority for the company.


Since 1974, boats to Alcatraz have run from the Pier 39 area of Fisherman’s Wharf, where waiting ticket holders can indulge in the myriad distractions the tourist hub offers.

MacRae launched his new ferry service from Pier 31, half a mile farther south on the Embarcadero, where he currently leases space and operates a charter and dining cruise business.

Pier 31 is little more than a parking lot with a ramp and floating dock, which only sees about 100,000 people a year, far fewer than the 1.3 million annual passengers Alcatraz draws.

MacRae has attractive plans for a complete overhaul of the area, which would include landscaping and sheltered seating, a bookstore, and an informational center. Such alterations would require a thorough run through the city’s planning process, which MacRae told the NPS he won’t be doing until 12 to 18 months from now.

Instead, interim improvements to the lot were planned, which sparked concern from the city that the sudden increase in foot traffic wouldn’t be properly mitigated. That area of the Embarcadero also hosts 250,000 passengers a year from cruise ships docking at adjacent Pier 35. The Port spent close to $200,000 last year controlling that traffic with signage and police officers. The addition of thousands more visitors streaming down the sidewalks seeking passage to Alcatraz could cause gridlock every time a cruise ship docks.

Monique Moyer, executive director of the port, sent repeated letters over the last year to MacRae asking for clarifications about his plans and expressing concern that the change in use of Pier 31 required a review of existing permits.

She wasn’t alone. On July 31, Citizens to Save the Waterfront filed suit against Hornblower, claiming that the amount of activity at Pier 31 would increase twentyfold. “That represents a substantial change in the intensity of use,” Jon Golinger, a representative from the group, told us.

A change in the intensity of use of a waterfront property triggers the need for a complete environmental impact review (EIR) from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency with jurisdiction over anything within 100 feet of the shoreline. As many city developers know, EIRs can take many months to consider all potential changes to the existing landscape that the applicant would cause. Delays of that sort could have hindered MacRae’s ability to assume ferry service on the contracted date of Sept. 25.

MacRae said the litigation kept him from divulging to the city his proposed plans for upgrades to the pier.

Just days before the lawsuit was to be argued in San Francisco Superior Court on Sept. 6, BCDC executive director Will Travis sent a letter to Moyer stating that Hornblower’s new service and alterations to Pier 31 did not require any new permits.

He cited a typo from Hornblower’s current BCDC-issued permit as an allowance for the increase in passengers. The permit states that the pier may provide “access to the entire bay via vessel for 200,000 to 5000,000 [sic] people/year.”

He footnoted the quote: “There is clearly a typographical error in the 5000,000 number, which is intended to state the maximum anticipated usage of the dock … the correct number is probably either 500,000 or 5,000,000. While it seems reasonable to believe that the correct number is 500,000, the record contains nothing to substantiate this conclusion.”

Travis also relayed that Hornblower plans to use temporary measures that include trailers with port-a-potties, a portable ticket booth, and hollow traffic barriers for guiding traffic and pedestrians on and off the boat.

Herrera told us that this was the first Moyer had heard of what was planned for the lot and there was concern about how other services in the area and traffic on the Embarcadero would be affected, as well as if any structures, signage, and other enhancements would require additional permits. “It certainly would have been nice if they had shared all these plans so the port could conduct the proper environmental review that we all agree is in order,” he said.

In a strongly worded letter to Travis, Herrera wrote that to allow Hornblower to proceed without any environmental review could violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and urged the BCDC to “issue an immediate cease and desist order” to prevent the start of service. Herrera also made the salient point that “the later the environmental review process begins, the more bureaucratic and financial momentum there is behind a proposed project, thus providing a strong incentive to ignore environmental concerns that could be dealt with more easily at an early stage of the project.”

On Sept. 7, BCDC commissioners met in closed session at the end of a four-hour meeting and voted to stand by Travis’s argument.

David Owen, a former Peskin aide who’s also a BCDC commissioner, was one of two abstentions to the otherwise unanimous vote. “It was really frustrating, because it seemed like Hornblower did everything in their power to avoid a permit review,” Owen told us. “Now what? We have a CEQA lawsuit and then the Board of Supervisors shuts down the Alcatraz ferry service? They’ve managed to start up service without acquiring a single permit. Kudos to them for strategy.”

Citizens to Save the Waterfront then dropped its lawsuit, feeling it was weakened by the BCDC decision.

“Essentially, now there’s a turf war between Bush’s park service and the Port of San Francisco,” Golinger said. “BCDC tried to avoid getting involved, but the precedent it sets is horrible. A corporation can come in and skirt any planning process.”


After scoring the Alcatraz bid, Hornblower sought an exemption to the Service Contract Act of 1965 that would have required MacRae to pay equal to or more than what current crew make. But the Department of Labor ruled Sept. 21 against Hornblower. So veteran Blue and Gold crew have added safety to their concerns.

“I’ve made tens of thousands of landings on Alcatraz Island, and now they have captains who have never been there,” Capt. Andy Miller said. For 17 years, Miller has navigated the busy shipping lanes and the constant summer fog against the tugging tide and the sudden slams of inclement weather to bring tourists, park service staff, and supplies to the island.

“No one’s ever gotten hurt. It’s a very tricky place to land a boat. It takes skill and experience that you can’t just hire off the street,” he said.

Miller said he applied for a job with Hornblower but was not interviewed. So far, no captains and only three ticket agents and a deckhand have been hired from Blue and Gold’s former fleet.

“We have a ready workforce,” Master, Mate, and Pilot union spokesperson Veronica Sanchez said. “They’re going to have to be paid the same wages as union workers at Blue and Gold. They don’t want to be a union shop. Why don’t you want to be a union shop on a union waterfront like San Francisco?”

One reason could be concern that it might bump up costs for Hornblower’s other tour operations. “They want us to agree that if we sign up our workers for Alcatraz, that we won’t organize the dining yachts,” Sanchez said. In 1998, the union attempted to organize Hornblower’s dinner cruise operations in San Francisco but didn’t prevail in a supervised election.

MacRae said he’s not opposed to the unions and he’s encouraged the Blue and Gold staff to apply for jobs. “The unionization is the choice of the workers,” he said. “We try to let the employees make the choices. Last time I checked, that’s who the unions represent.”

“We want to make sure we have the best crew,” he said. “Many of the products and guest services we provide aren’t what Blue and Gold do now.” He added that some current employees from the dining cruises have also been shifted to the Alcatraz route.

“I’ve been here 21 years, and we’ve been replaced by busboys and waiters,” said deckhand Robert Estrada, standing with fellow workers outside the gate of the new Alcatraz ferry service.

Estrada said Hornblower’s reliance on part-time, low-wage workers has earned the company the nickname “the Wal-Mart of the Water.” The company’s rapid expansion, from a two-boat Berkeley-based charter to a multinational fleet with government contracts is a similar characteristic.

Blue and Gold spokesperson Alicia Vargas assured us that the remaining ferry services to Alameda, Angel Island, Oakland, Sausalito, Tiburon, and Vallejo will be solvent, but some of the veteran crew who haven’t been laid off yet are worried this is the beginning of the end.

“The public needs to be warned. If funds don’t come from Alcatraz, Blue and Gold could fold,” said David Heran, an International Boatmen’s Union member and deckhand since 1974 who applied to Hornblower but wasn’t hired. “I’m not ready to retire yet, and this wasn’t the way I was expecting it to happen.”

Originally published September 26, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian