Charting His Own Course : For Ferry Captain and Musician, 9-to-5 Routine Can Wait

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scott Woods graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a prestigious university and speaks four languages. But instead of trying for a high-powered job, he spends his days piloting the Balboa Island Ferry back and forth across 300 yards of water.

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He does it, he says, to stay in the outdoors and keep his nights open for gigs with his surf punk band, "Just Plain Big."

"People always ask me if I get bored," Woods said, glistening waves reflecting off his black sunglasses. "Naah. I make lists in my head. Sometimes I think about what I have to do after work. I read a lot. I listen to National Public Radio in the morning to keep my brain active.

"You meet interesting people on the boat, plus you meet regulars and chat a little bit."

Woods is one of 27 captains who skipper the Balboa Island Ferry on its quick, scenic route across a narrow channel linking Balboa Island with the Balboa peninsula.

At 6 each morning, the 28-year-old Balboa Island native maneuvers the ferry toward the peninsula. At 6:03, he shuttles morning commuters and fishermen back through the mist, to the dock where he started. It's the first of about 50 round trips he makes during a typical Orange County summer day.

Piloting ferries has long been a summer job for the county's maritime-inclined, ever since the service started in 1909. Some use it as a steppingstone to becoming captains of large ships, operations manager John Mehan said; for others, it's a fun way to get a paycheck.

Mehan said about 2 1/2-million people ride the ferries each year. Three-fifths of them use it from June through September.

This is the 75th year that the Beek family has operated the ferries. Pioneer developer Joseph A. Beek won the bid to operate the ferry in 1919.

The boats, late-1950s models, can carry as many as 100 people from the flower-draped pastel cottages of Balboa Island to the Ferris wheel and carousel rides at the Balboa Fun Zone. Pedestrians pay 25 cents each trip and motorists pay 65 cents.

Driving the 64-foot boats can be repetitive, but there have been memorable incidents in ferry lore: In 1989, an Irvine woman drove off the ferry by accident and plunged into the bay (she and a passenger escaped serious injury); and Woods said a sailboat once crashed into a ferry he was piloting when the sailboat's skipper wasn't paying attention to traffic.

Woods started working on the boats while he was attending Corona del Mar High School, and continued on vacations during his four years at Stanford University. He earned a master's degree in 1991 from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

He said he studied Latin American history in college and toured South America for four months. He also studied in Luxembourg and Spain, and found time to learn Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Woods hooked onto the ferry for the same reason most other teen-agers have: His friends worked there and it was an outdoor job with flexible hours.

But 12 years after he started as a coin collector on the boats and later moved up to captain, Woods still spends his summer days shuttling teen-age roller-skaters and couples holding hands across the channel.

"I do love being out here, but if I didn't have a band I wouldn't still be doing it," Woods said. His band, Just Plain Big, has played at local venues like Club Mesa and Club 5902.

Along with Woods and another fellow ferry captain who plays guitar, the vocals-driven band counts a salesman and pizza delivery driver among its surf trunk-wearing members. Woods credits bands such as The Beach Boys and X as influences.

"I have two sides to me, I guess," said Woods, who got his first drum set at age 12. "There's the serious academic side . . . and then there's the beach and music side too."

After he clocked in six years of heavy-duty studying, do his parents wonder what he's doing with his education?

"Yeah," Woods said, sliding a triangular wooden block under a Ford Bronco's wheel to keep it from shifting on the ferry. "They look at it from the sense that entertainment is a hit-or-miss thing. They don't want to see me do this year upon year.

"Some people think it's a phase, but it's an opportunity," he said.

Woods lived in Boston during his two years at the Fletcher School, but the East Coast didn't feel like home. "I like the beach and surfing," Woods said. "I was a bit out of my element."

Orange County's beaches and friends drew him back. "I didn't move back here to start up another band, but it just happened," said Woods, who wrote facetiously in a Stanford publication his senior year that his goal was to become a punk rock musician.

If his band doesn't become successful, Woods hopes to someday go into the import-export business with South American companies. Then there's his dream of opening a restaurant.

"There's no formula for success in what I'm doing," Woods said. "At one point, I could've gone to law school. For that, the path is clear. But in this, there's no one way to success--it's timing. You try a lot of different things and hope one works."

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