ABOARD THE ROYAL STAR — Slicing through churning waters, with the Bay Bridge on the left and towering oceangoing vessels on the right, this must be one of the best free rides around.
The Port of Oakland offers free harbor tours sailing past its territory, terminals and vessels once a month from May to October.
It seems an unlikely attraction — the daily hustle and bustle of the nation’s fourth-busiest port — but a port spokesperson said demand for the tours has grown so great since they were first offered in 2001 that port administration is considering adding tours. Reservations are required, but the tour is open to individuals and groups.
On a tour last September, several groups of students, seniors’ singles clubs and church associations boarded the Royal Star in front of the port’s offices at 100 Water St.
The ship, under the command of Capt. John Elkin, has space for 650 people “but we don’t go over 625,” lead deckhand Bruce McBride said.
The vessel, chartered from Blue and Gold Fleet, used to ferry cars back and forth from Catalina Island, McBride said.
But the tourists aboard that day had little interest in the vessel they were on; they were more interested in the vessels at dockside.
Oceangoing mammoths from the great names of shipping around the world — Hapag-Lloyd from Germany, K Line from South Korea, Matson of Hawaii, Maersk of Denmark, China’s COSCO, APL (formerly American President Lines and now owned by NOL of Singapore) — lined up at terminal after terminal.
The ships are a geography lesson in themselves besides what they teach about trade.
One passenger elbowed his brother-in-law and pointed to the containers on a German vessel. “That’s how I got my BMW, Hank,” he said.
The port began the program as an effort in community education and pays for the tours from its community outreach budget.
“We’ve always had lots of people who are curious about the port,” said spokesperson Joanne Holloway.
On each tour, a port spokesperson recounts the history of the port and the various terminals.
On that day in September, public affairs associate Laura Arreola told passengers that in 2005, $800 billion worth of goods came to the U.S. from overseas. Cargo worth $33 billion came through the Port of Oakland, both imports and exports.
Leslie Aronson, a first-grade teacher from St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, told her 24 charges they could expect a writing lesson on their experiences when they return to the classroom.
Parents explained how the port’s huge gantry cranes were models for great white galumphing machines in George Lucas’ “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Elementary school students Maria Rincon and Alexa Ingersoll were excited after a peek at the captain’s bridge.
“We got to see them drive the boat,” Alexa said.
Passengers gaped as a crane operator high above in a glass enclosed compartment lifted 20-foot long containers from the decks of vessels.
The Royal Star passed a mountain of scrap metal piled at the terminal of Shitzer’s Steel Co. Among the Port of Oakland’s largest exports, these twisted, broken ruins are the building blocks of every Hyundai, Toyota and Nissan automobile we buy
here, Arreola said.
For some, however, the trip itself was the main draw.
“The kids are looking forward to riding on the boat,” said parent Wayne Christopher, a chaperone with the group from St. Paul’s Episcopal School. “I don’t think they care about the operation of the port very much.”