As boat rides go, it’s just a bit longer than a cruise through the Tunnel of Love at a traveling carnival. But veteran passengers and local residents will tell you, in its own way, this ride is a lot more fun.The Balboa Island Ferry has been traversing an unusually picturesque stretch of channel in Newport Harbor, from the Fun Zone to Balboa Island and back, since 1919—about 900 feet of tranquil bliss.

It’s seen everything from daily commuters to movie stars, it’s employed generations of young skippers and deck hands working summer jobs, it’s been the scene of pranks, impromptu musical performances and weddings, and it’s managed to become one of the most beloved and recognizable features of the Newport Beach lifestyle.

Seymour Beek knows the ferry better than anyone. His father, J.A. Beek, took over ferry service from the Balboa Peninsula to Balboa Island a year after World War I ended, when the neighborhood was a sand pit with hardly any permanent residents. “People camped on the island and had beach shanties in the summer,” says Seymour Beek. His father won a contract from the city worth $50 a month, “which was pretty good back then,” says the son.

Balboa Island Ferry
Balboa Island Ferry

There weren’t a lot of people who wanted to go across the bay in those days,” says Beek, “but my dad had to be around to answer the phone if someone called and wanted to be hauled across. We didn’t operate on a regular schedule back then.”

They do now. The current fleet of three boats—the Admiral, the Captain and the Commodore, all built in the 1950s—ply the waters daily, beginning at 6:30 a.m. At peak season, all three boats are in service, carrying cars, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists across the placid waters. Beek, who worked on the ferries part-time, mostly in summers when he was in school, said that “there’s a trick to it. The easiest person to train is someone who’s a dinghy sailor. They catch on real fast. It’s a double-ended boat, with a rudder and a propeller on each end. As long as it’s going in one direction everything seems normal. But when you go in reverse, it’s a whole different deal.”

Beek, who has been president of the company since his father died in 1968, and who lives on the island only a short walk from the ferry landing, says that operating the ferry “is fun a lot of the time. You love to see people having a good time. And most of the people who ride the ferry are happy.”

Happy, but occasionally perplexed. “Something that’s very common,” he says, “especially with the person in the first car [on board], is that you’ll find them trying to steer the boat in their car, turning their steering wheel back and forth. “I actually find myself doing that sometimes.”

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