Taking the Helm at Golden Gate Ferry

Colin McDermott has been at the helm of many boats in his career, but now hes at the helm of the Ferry Division of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

Juggling ferry boats to make sure that they are always in the right place at the right time in case of a breakdown can be like a chess game. Photo courtesy of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

By Matt Larson

Published: November, 2014

Colin McDermott has been at the helm of many boats in his career, but now he’s at the helm of the Ferry Division of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. He has been director of operations there for the last two years, and before that, he was a ferry captain for Golden Gate for about 14 years.

“I started out as a deckhand working on the Bay in 1976,” said McDermott. “I started as an ordinary and worked my way up.” And now, he’s enjoying his rank. “I’m very lucky to be a part of the Ferry Division during a period of growth. I get to work with a lot of interesting, diverse people daily and I get to see different perspectives on how things are done,” he said.

McDermott enjoys the challenges of the job and at times has to strategize to keep things afloat. “When a boat breaks down, it takes something like a chess move to make sure you can get everything in the right place,” he said. “It’s an everyday chess game, trying to juggle boats and make sure that we’re always in the right spot at the right time. You never can see the horizon.”

The maritime world has surrounded McDermott since his earliest years; in fact, it has been part of his family for generations. His great-grandfather William P. Noyes was a schooner captain who was credited for bringing the first sea turtles to San Francisco from the Galapagos Islands as part of an excursion funded by Stanford.

Then, his grandfather Paul Noyes was a speculative vessel broker in the 1940s. “He was involved with some pretty famous boats,” said McDermott. Noyes and his partner purchased some iconic vessels including the Putah, which was sold to John Wayne for the film Blood Alley, and the schooner Zaca, which they sold to Errol Flynn. “When I was a kid he had a bunch of boats,” McDermott said. “We used to travel around on the boats and see things around the waterfront—so it’s sort of in the blood.”

In addition to his great-grandfather and grandfather, McDermott’s father was a Navy Seabee who later became a firefighter, retiring as captain of the San Francisco Fire Department. McDermott has followed the family tradition of working on the water. “Sometimes I long for being back on the boat—if you do something for 29 years, and you enjoyed it, there’s times when you want to go out there,” he said.

Since McDermott has taken the reins, Golden Gate Ferry service has never been better, yet it is always looking for ways to improve. “We took on a lot of new programs,” he said. “The district came up with a new ticketing system for the Giants games, and the Ferry Division has expanded its service in Sausalito due to a lot of growth from folks biking in. In Larkspur we have the everyday parking issue that we’ve been dealing with, trying to find additional parking spaces. You’re always juggling things,” he said. “Trying to make sure that you maintain the schedule and the service.”

As you might expect, McDermott highly recommends the ferry to commuters and the general public. “Just relax and read the paper,” he said. And it’s a lot safer without other hunks of metal speeding all around you at 65 mph. “It’s nice to not have to worry about the guy next to you,” he said.

From deckhand to director, McDermott has experienced the complete journey of ferry service in the San Francisco Bay Area. With more experiences to come, he’s grateful to the commuters who have made it all possible over the years. “I’d like to thank them for their patronage,” he said. “I’d like to say that over the years as captain I’ve gotten to meet some great people and I’ve really enjoyed my time.”