Vessel Master Curtis Brown

Curtis Brown has been a vessel master (in other words, a captain) for Golden Gate Ferry for the past seven years.

Curtis Brown was a social worker before he started a new career on the water. Photo by Carolyn Bookhart

By Matt Larson

Published: August, 2014

Curtis Brown has been a vessel master (in other words, a captain) for Golden Gate Ferry for the past seven years. He helms another boat out of the Berkeley Marina for the Neptune Society, as well as the charter yacht Five Stars in Sausalito. With these varied maritime endeavors, Brown is one of the busiest captains on the Bay.

“I just like being out on the water,” said Brown. “Doesn’t seem so much like work as long as everything goes alright.” When he’s not working, which is a rare occurrence, Brown can often be found racing sailboats in various parts of the Bay, including Friday nights at the Berkeley Yacht Club and at the helm of the big boat for the Leukemia Cup—any race he can find, really. “There’s a race every day out on the Bay,” he said. “They’re organized races, really it’s just for bragging rights. We won last night and got a bottle of wine.”

Brown and his wife actually got married on Five Stars. “It was really nice to be on the other end of things, because whenever I’m on a boat, I’m usually driving it. So I actually got to enjoy it for a change.” And the wedding guests were just fine with the destination wedding. “It was a chance to share the experience of being on the water with friends and family,” said Brown. “They’re not on the water as much as I am.”

Given Brown’s current life, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t until adulthood that he started driving boats. “I have a degree in social work,” he said. “I used to be a mental health social worker in the City. Didn’t pay very well so I got a job waiting tables on a dining yacht and just worked my way up from there.” He bought himself a sailboat during that time and taught himself how to sail. “If I could sail my own boat,” he figured, “I could operate the boat that I’m waiting tables on.”

“I went into social work for altruistic reasons,” said Brown. “I’ll probably do something along the lines of social work again in the future.” Though it’s not directly in his job description, Brown’s experience as a social worker has proven useful a number of times in his current profession—sometimes to diffuse an alcohol-meets-baseball-fan argument on the boat, or even just generally in dealing with people. “I find myself using skills that I learned in social work quite a bit.”

Even though Brown has seen just about everything there is to see out on the Bay, some of the sights just never get old. “It’s always nice to go under the Golden Gate,” he said. “You often see a lot of porpoises out there, sometimes a whale, so it adds a little to the day.”

Sometimes the beauty of the Bay creates obstacles for the ferry captains, as it often attracts the general public to go windsurfing or take their boats out for a spin. “There’s a lot of traffic on the Bay,” said Brown. “And it’s often very foggy. Sometimes there are white-knuckle moments where you can’t see anything, and sometimes there’s a storm coming and it can get pretty windy.” Nature certainly plays its role in the life of a ferry captain, but, Brown said, the good days certainly outweigh the bad.

Brown recommends that people take the ferry if it fits into their schedules. “It’s a much more scenic and relaxing way to get around,” said Brown. “Most people in the Bay Area never go out on the Bay and kind of take it for granted, hardly realizing it’s even there.” Brown believes that cruising on a ferry boat is really hard to beat, if it’s for your daily commute or just to take the day off and see the sights. As Brown said, “Getting out on the water is a lot nicer than being on the road.”