The writer Jack London would be amazed by the range of vessels docked at the waterfront that carries his name: Sailboats, ferries, kayaks, a historic lightship and a former Presidential yacht. But the adventurer would probably head first to the newest boat on the dock, a bright yellow speedboat. With a 300 horsepower engine and 12 padded seats that look like they belong in a theme park ride, the 28-foot Bay Voyager was custom designed by captain and owner Charles Jennings to take locals and tourists on thrilling rides on the Bay. Cruises range from two to four hours and begin and end at Jack London Square, at the dock adjacent to Kincaid’s and California Canoe & Kayak.
Jennings, whose family’s maritime history pre-dates Jack London’s birth, was inspired to create the Bay Voyager experience after seeing a tour boat in Victoria, Canada, that offered cruises to see nature and marine life. “Sometimes you could see a whale there; sometimes you wouldn’t,” he says. “Having spent years on San Francisco Bay, I knew almost every time you go out, you can see harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, as well as ships coming in. And there are all the fixed objects on land.”
By “fixed objects,” Jennings means everything from the cranes at the Port of Oakland to piers in San Francisco to the construction on the new Bay Bridge and sites on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge. A maritime history buff, Jennings peppers his cruises with trivia he has learned while serving on bigger boats in varying capacities from the first officer on the Hornblower vessels to a tugboat engineer with Starlight Marine and Bay Delta Maritime. The highlight of his career thus far has been his service to the WWII Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien — currently docked in San Francisco — during the vessel’s 50th-anniversary return to Normandy in 1994.
Bay Voyager provides wet-weather gear for splashes that sometimes spray over the side, but the ride itself is remarkably smooth. The v-shaped hull cuts through the waves, allowing the boat to make a trip to San Francisco in less than 10 minutes, but Jennings usually takes 20 minutes to point out things along the estuary waterfront, including the former Alameda Naval Air Base and Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland.
“Captain Charles is knowledgeable, good-humored — and a bit of a daredevil,” says Oakland resident Gary Branchaud, who booked a passage on Bay Voyager for a special cruise to see the start of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race the day the boats left their berths at the docks of Jack London Square in April. “He gives a tour of the bay that definitely won’t put you to sleep.”
Jennings’ goal is to give both locals like Branchaud and out-of-town visitors an opportunity to see the Bay from an angle that’s very different from how you see it on larger ferries or tour boats. “We’re right on the water, and we can meander where scheduled boats can’t. If we see something we want to explore, we can.”
“San Francisco Bay is our own front yard, and such a small percentage of the population goes out there. Rarely do they go out there and explore it.”
Jack London would undoubtedly approve.
by Elisa Williams, Oakland Magazine