The sun set with a pinkish glow as ship’s pilot Andrew Harvey maneuvered the rusty, 500-foot Sun Belt Dixie out of tiny Port Hueneme harbor and into the open sea.
His firm voice echoed through loud speakers on two tugboats that pulled the old ship, which was loaded with grapefruit, oranges, lemons and tangerines bound for Tokyo.
“Move right,” he commanded. “Back easy.”
After 45 minutes of barking orders, Harvey had guided the ship out of a narrow slip, into the port’s main channel and a mile out to sea, where he turned over control to the captain and climbed down a dangling rope ladder to a waiting tugboat.
For Harvey and dozens other dockworkers and ship hands, the Sun Belt Dixie’s departure was just the beginning of a sometimes hectic, mostly tedious night shift at the port.
Situated at the southernmost tip of Port Hueneme, near the end of Ventura Road, the 80-acre, five-berth port is small--moving just 1% as much cargo as the Port of Los Angeles--but it is still the only deep-water harbor between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It operates 24 hours a day, unloading Mazdas, BMWs and Volvos and loading California citrus and vegetables onto ships headed to the nations of the Pacific Rim. The port pours $200 million into the local economy each year and, directly and indirectly, creates about 2,000 jobs, spokesman W. Kam Quarles of the Oxnard Harbor District said.
On a typical day, three ships will come and go. But nights are sometimes busy too, since delays are so costly that ships cannot afford to wait for the dawn.
“We can go from having a few dozen people working one night, to a few hundred (another),” said Harvey, 50, one of two harbor district pilots employed to steer large ships in and out of the port, a job they do instead of regular sea captains because of their local knowledge.
“It all depends,” added Harvey, “on when the ships are arriving and leaving.”
Quiet and dimly lit, the port bustled one recent night only when the Sun Belt Dixie departed and, seven hours later, when a second cargo ship arrived to gather tons of onions for customers in Japan.
After putting the Sun Belt Dixie to sea, those who helped pilot and tug it free settled into a comfortable stillness.
“Now we sit here, drink coffee and tell old sea stories we have already told,” Harvey said as he joined wharfinger Karl Britt, a port traffic manager, in a small metal office. “That is, until we go crazy again.”
The office was lit only by a dim red light, so Britt could peer without glare through a large window at ships in the harbor.
Each told a story about the single most dangerous act ship pilots regularly endure--the leap from one ship to another in open sea. Harvey told of a pilot who fell into the ocean near San Francisco and nearly froze to death before being rescued.
Britt told of a Port Hueneme pilot who, buffeted by high swells, had trouble bridging the gap from a ship to a tugboat and ended up stranded on a rope ladder. He eventually took the ship to Long Beach before returning home by car.
As the two veteran seamen told stories, the smell of onions wafted through the air.
Next to a giant open-air storage shed, dozens of longshoremen hoisted hundreds of pallets of onions off big rig trucks from Stockton, Bakersfield and farm communities beyond.
Joel Hernandez and his son, David, worked side by side, whirling their forklifts to hook pallet after pallet and deposit them under the shed.
“I am celebrating my birthday here with a lot of onions,” said Joel Hernandez, 57. “I think I will be smelling and dreaming of onions for a long time.”
The Hernandezes, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, would unload onions their entire shift, except for a quick trip to their nearby home for a birthday dinner.
By 10 p.m. a strange quietness had settled over the port. Only the cry of sea gulls, the bark of seals and the distant hum of the forklifts broke the silence.
Once in a while, a taxi would drop off a sailor at the Crystal Pilgram, a small cargo ship that had brought bananas from Equador earlier that day.
Then came the Sea Angler, a sport-fishing boat returning from an evening excursion. Toting fishing poles and bags of calico bass and barracuda, 14 shivering men and women rushed from the boat to their cars, leaving only the crew.
Sweeping the boat’s kitchen floor, 19-year-old Becky Lidz of Ventura had already worked a 17-hour day: “I’m ready to hit the sack.”
Lidz, a 1993 Buena High School graduate, has been boat cook for a year, making hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches for one or two trips a day. This day there were two, and Lidz had reported to work at 6 a.m.
“For a summer job, you can’t beat it,” she said. “I saw dolphins yesterday, and today I am taking fresh bass home. But it gets cold in the winter.”
As Lidz tossed her broom aside and grabbed a brown backpack to leave, 16-year-old Jeff Gardener hosed down squawking sea gulls that were scavenging left-over anchovy bait.
“They love that staff,” Jeff said. A student at Camarillo High School, he said he has worked on the Sea Angler every recent summer, pulling the anchor, cutting bait and scrubbing the boat.
Jeff said he replaced his older brother as the boat handyman years ago. But he has no plans to leave the salt air and open sea.
Meanwhile, Harvey was deep into the tedium of waiting for another ship to come in.
Since returning from the Sun Belt Dixie, the pilot had waited for the Jorgen Lauritzen, the Danish ship that would take the Hernandezes’ onions to Japan. Because of engine problems, it was four hours late.
“Whenever you can, you grab some sleep,” Harvey said, before catching a nap on a tugboat bunk. “You got to be totally alert when you are out there.”
Because of Harvey’s familiarity with local water currents, turning basin and tugboats, he is better equipped to avoid accidents than the ship captains who come only once in a while, he said.
“The captain of a ship could navigate a vessel in and out of the harbor,” Harvey said. “But he would be asking for trouble.”
At midnight four big rigs loaded with broccoli from Stockton arrived at the port’s security gate. The drivers flashed documents to a guard who alternately glanced at some, then closely examined others.
“I recognize a lot of the truck drivers,” said guard Doug Devine, 66, a retired sailor who has worked at the port for two years.
Devine said his life at the port is problem-free, except for drunk sailors and skate-boarding youths who try to slip past him into the port.
“We don’t have many problems,” Devine said, as he poured coffee from a thermos.
But not too long ago, Devine and the wharfinger had to carry a drunk sailor back to his ship after he tried to ride a bike onto the wharf at 2 a.m.
Between truck arrivals, Devine reads history books while listening to police scanners and easy-listening radio.
“This is the type of job I can do until I die,” he said.
Nearby, a fisherman lolled patiently in an old pine chair and gazed into the harbor’s dark water. Eric Najolia of Ventura had come to the port three hours early to get a good spot on a fishing boat.
“Fishing runs through my veins,” he said. “Getting a good spot makes a big difference.”
Dressed in faded jeans and a floppy fishing hat, carrying four poles and a tackle box, Najolia fantasized about catching the large, aggressive calico bass.
“That’s what everyone wants to catch,” Najolia said, sipping a cola. “They put up a good fight.”
It was 2 a.m., and Najolia was not due to depart until 4.
But time had begun press on Harvey, who had been rousted from his bunk by wharfinger Britt.
After brushing his teeth and pouring a steaming cup of coffee, Harvey was on the radio with the captain of the Jorgen Lauritzen, which was churning up the coast from Long Beach.
“I am trying to get my act together,” Harvey said.
The pilot’s crew and the dockworkers who would load the ship with onions also wrested themselves from sleep and began to emerge from their night caves. Some had slept inside their cars. Others had gone to nearby homes.
Longshorewoman Janet Ritza, 36, bolted into the wharfinger’s office, rubbing her eyes and thirsty for coffee.
“I need a strong and large cup,” said Ritza, who already had come in twice only to find the ship delayed. “This is the down side of this job. You don’t have a set schedule.”
One of 30 longshorewomen at the port, she has worked the docks for 13 years. Although she has earned the men’s respect, she still has to prove herself every day, she said.
“It’s OK, because it keeps me on my toes,” she said.
While Ritza headed toward the dock, a tugboat took Harvey to the open sea.
In the tugboat’s churning wake, an aqua-green fluorescence flashed in the dim light--the result of the summer emergence of a top-floating, warm-water algae.
“I am psyching myself,” Harvey said in anticipation of his jump to the Jorgen Lauritzen. “This will be a good jump.”
He would have to leap from the tugboat to a rope ladder that hung 30 feet down the ship’s hull.
“The new ships have elevators,” he said, “but with the old, you still have to get onto them the old-fashioned way.”
As both the tugboat and the ship moved into position, the ocean swelled to five feet. But Harvey made a clean jump onto the moving ladder.
“The most dangerous time for a pilot is boarding and disembarking,” said the tugboat’s captain, Jon Belchere. “The timing has to be just right.”
In the darkness, Harvey climbed to the deck then piloted the 530-foot ship into the harbor. It tied up at 3:35 a.m.
Then Ritza and 20 other dockworkers took over. Driving forklifts, they loaded the onion pallets onto huge nets that lifted them into the ship’s hold. They would load onions until their shift ended at 8 a.m., when the day crew would take over.
“This will be a long day,” Ritza said. “And when I’m done, I will go home and be a mom.”