The Oil Spill: Troubled Waters for the Harbor Master, Others

When it came time to seal off Newport Harbor to keep out the oil spilled from the ruptured tanker American Trader, the responsibility of closing the harbor fell to Capt. Harry Gage, Orange County’s harbor master.

For the nearly two weeks the harbor was closed, it was the task of Gage’s staff to make sure that the oil booms, racing across the harbor entrance, stayed in place.

The booms were intended to keep the oil out, but the floating barriers also trapped the 8,500 boats inside the county’s biggest and busiest harbor.

“During the first 16 hours that the harbor was closed, we got a phone call every two minutes,” Gage says. “It had quite an impact on the harbor--commercial passenger traffic and sportfishing. They had a lot to lose, but they took it in stride. We were very impressed with the boaters. They have been the most patient people I have ever worked with.”


When the containment booms were removed last week and the harbor was reopened, Gage watched as a red Harbor Patrol boat escorted the first vessel out to sea. The Harbor Patrol is a part of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and Gage, who is in charge of a staff of 70 people and 15 boats, serves as a captain.

As Orange County harbor master, Gage is responsible not only for Newport Harbor but for Dana Point Harbor and Huntington Harbour as well. Although Dana Point remained open during the oil spill, Gage says there was a contingency plan for closing it should the slick drift that far south. Huntington Harbour, home to 3,200 boats, was closed immediately following the spill, according to Gage, and remained closed until last week.

Some boaters, caught outside the two closed harbors when the containment booms went into place, were stranded and unable to get back home. Gage recalls one sportfishing vessel that attempted to return to Newport Harbor after a week at sea. “They hadn’t heard the harbor was closed,” he said. “All they wanted was to get home and get some hot showers.”

The sportfishing boat and others in similar predicaments were referred to Dana Point Harbor. “We had people stranded in Avalon, too,” Gage says. Other boaters were stuck inside the harbor. “We had a lot of people who had trips planned who couldn’t leave.”


On a normal day this time of year, during the height of whale-watching season, between 300 and 500 people head to sea on commercial boats operating out of Davey’s Locker on the Balboa Peninsula. Dozens of other private boats set sail daily. But with two of the county’s three harbors sealed off, boating came to a virtual standstill along the Orange County coast.

Gage, who has been with the Harbor Patrol since 1965, says that during his 25 years of harbor duty Newport Harbor has never been closed. Bad weather has often prevented boats from leaving the harbor but no actual barricade sealed the entrance, Gage says.

“We’ve had 60- and 80-mile-per-hour winds when you couldn’t go out,” he said, “but the harbor was open. Most old-timers say the only time they can remember the harbor being closed like this was during World War II.” During the war, pleasure boats were not permitted to enter or leave the harbor without permission.

While the containment booms were in place at the mouth of Newport channel, Gage kept a patrol boat on duty 24 hours a day just outside the harbor entrance. For boats that might not have heard about the harbor’s closing, the booms could present a hazard, Gage pointed out. “We were concerned about someone running into them and getting wrapped up in the booms,” he said. “And we still had our offshore responsibility. We had to be able to get out of the harbor quickly if necessary. Plus we wanted to be able to monitor the movement of oil.”

During the first days of the oil spill, Gage virtually lived in his office at the Harbor Patrol building on Bayside Drive in Corona del Mar. Later he brought his RV from home and camped out in the parking lot.

“The booms are difficult to manage, especially in a tidal exchange,” he says. “We had tides to six feet plus with a current running about two to three knots at times.”

Proof that the booms were needed came quickly, says Gage, who says he saw oil drifting in the harbor’s entrance.

“The general perceptions were that the problems were all up the coast,” he said. “But with the southeast winds we had oil all the way down to South Coast Hospital (in South Laguna). Several times we’d see oil in the entrance to the harbor here and begin to worry. But when you look at the size of the spill, we have been fortunate. The weather conditions were in our favor.”


As Orange County harbor master, Gage says dealing with the oil spill has been one of his most challenging jobs. “We had not been involved in this type of exercise before,” he said. The Harbor Patrol did not even have any containment booms, Gage said. Gage and his staff borrowed the booms that went across Newport Harbor from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

“The oil spill showed that we may not have been prepared, but we were able to react to it quickly,” he said.

As for future emergencies, Gage said: “We have our own 1400 feet of boom on site now.”

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. On the Waterfront appears each Saturday, covering boating life styles as well as ocean-related activities along the county’s 42-mile coastline.