Tideline Marine Makes a Move

In a purchase rife with implications for transportation on the Bay, small boat operator Tideline Marine Group has announced the acquisition of a 149-passenger craf-more than three times larger than its current vessels.

Tideline currently operates two 45-passenger boats and one 20-passenger boat for public and private ferry service around the Bay. Photo courtesy of Tideline


Published: February, 2019


In a purchase rife with implications for transportation on the Bay, small boat operator Tideline Marine Group has announced the acquisition of a 149-passenger craft—more than three times larger than its current vessels.


The new boat, the 75-foot Peregrine, is on its way through the Panama Canal and is expected to begin test runs here in February. Tideline said it hasn’t decided yet precisely where it will use the new boat, but said the purchase comes in response to growing demand for ferry service from many parts of the Bay.


“We get so many inquiries from private companies and towns,” Danielle Weerth, Tideline director of business development, said in an interview. “We’re sifting through all the expressions of interest.”


The acquisition moves Tideline into a bigger league. While the vessel’s 149-passenger capacity keeps it just below the 150-passenger level that is considered the threshold for a “small boat,” Tideline now becomes a much more substantial competitor for transit business on the Bay.


“I don’t know what they’re going to do with it, but it definitely signals a change in their profile,” said one transit administrator who asked not to be identified.


Reportedly purchased at a heavily discounted price, Peregrine will be Tideline’s fourth vessel on the Bay. With financial backing from investment banker Richard Blum, the company operates two 45-passenger boats, and just began service with a smaller vessel, a 20-passenger catamaran called Kestrel.


Tideline’s boats provide regular public commuter service between Berkeley and downtown San Francisco (a likely run for Peregrine), as well as a private service for the biotech company Exelixis between San Francisco’s Oyster Point and Harbor Bay in Alameda. Mill Valley-headquartered Tideline also runs a variety of charters, including weekend viewing cruises with the Marine Mammal Center and other nonprofits, and it is partnered with the city of Napa to provide cruises on the Napa River.


Peregrine is a very special vessel and will also be available for a wide range of charter services,” said Taylor Lewis, Tideline’s founder and CEO.


Beyond the implications for the company itself, though, Tideline’s move points to the complex economic and political dynamics of bay transit, as government agencies, private operators and labor unions all grapple with the best means to expand service.


Currently, the vast majority of Bay Area ferry service is provided by two public entities. The Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA) operates service between San Francisco, South San Francisco, the East Bay and Vallejo, while Golden Gate Transit provides ferry service between San Francisco and the North Bay.


A variety of alternate transportation services—call them small boats, private ferries, charter ferries or water taxis—have been nibbling around the edges of the main ferry business for years. Right now, most regular small-boat passenger service in the Bay is provided by Tideline and by a company called Prop SF, which operates private runs for biotech employees between South San Francisco and Alameda.


But smaller passenger craft seem certain to play a more important role in the future, as transit on the Bay grows. Tideland’s boats are often full (many commuters make reservations in advance), and some WETA lines routinely run out of room, leaving would-be passengers behind at the dock. And private-sector interests that haven’t previously been part of the picture are beginning to see opportunities in water transit.


“We designed our cities and roads around the car, but that’s not as viable as it once was,” said one venture capitalist who is weighing a major investment in the ferry business. “There’s a need to expand ferries in a major way, with a role for private enterprise, probably in conjunction with government agencies. If you build it, people will come.”


The enlargement of ferry traffic is the seemingly certain response to an ever-louder chorus of demand, not only from commuters trying to squeeze aboard existing vessels at rush hour, but also from businesses and towns that want their own ferry runs. Examples include:

Major technology and biotechnology companies on the Peninsula that need a faster way to move employees to San Francisco and across the Bay;

Peninsula towns such as Redwood City and Mountain View, as well as such cross-Bay neighbors as Fremont;

San Pablo Bay and Sacramento River communities, including Hercules, Martinez, Antioch and even Sacramento.

Ultimately, even freight companies, such as UPS, for whom water transit offers an efficient way to move packages and other cargo from one side of the Bay to the other.


But augmenting water transit is already heating up long-simmering debates over many policy issues. Among them:


What is the role for government agencies, such as WETA and Golden Gate, in expanding service and adding small boats themselves?


WETA recently completed an exploratory study of small vessels’ potential, which was presented to the agency’s directors at their January 10 board meeting. The relatively modest plan called for adding five small boats over the next few years to service Treasure Island and Mission Bay, and to supplement existing ferry runs. A separate phase down the road could add more boats for yet-unspecified purposes. But the study made no mention of expanding service to such ferry-hungry areas as the Peninsula and far North Bay. And some argue that a more nimble, private-sector approach is better suited to serving businesses and navigating the shallow waters south of the San Mateo Bridge. While stressing that her company works with WETA and does not see the water transit agency as a competitor, Tideland’s Weerth added: “We don’t want to do long studies and build big terminals.”


How does expansion get funded?


WETA, which is heavily underwritten by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is in the best position to invest large sums of capital in new ferry boats, docks, berths and maintenance facilities. But WETA has been counting heavily on monies from voter-approved Regional Measure 3, and that money is now tied up in litigation and may not be available for two years or more, even if the agency ultimately prevails in court.


Speaking of those shallow waters, how do hovercraft, ferries that ride on a cushion of air, fit into this picture?


The flat-bottomed boats are the key to ferry service in the South Bay, which can’t accommodate the deeper draft of traditional vessels. It’s not clear, though, who buys and operates the hovercraft. One option being discussed: WETA buys boats but hires an outside firm to operate them, just as the Blue & Gold Fleet operates ferries for WETA. Jim Wunderman, vice chairman of WETA’s board and president of the Bay Area Council, has now formally requested that WETA fund a study on the potential for hovercraft.


What policies should govern the use of publicly funded WETA docks?


Tideline, for instance, has a six-month permit to use public docks for a Harbor Bay-Oyster Point run, but there was lively debate at a WETA board meeting this past fall regarding ADA compliance and safety issues for small boats.


How do the small boats assure a smooth, commuter-friendly trip in the Bay’s often-choppy waters—not an unimportant issue for commuters?


“This isn’t a Disneyland e-ticket ride,” Anthony Bruzzone, who worked on the WETA study as a consultant with the planning firm ARUP, told WETA’s board this month.


What is the future for trade unions on the Bay?


Organized labor has jurisdiction over the two big operators, but the smaller private companies are largely non-union. That could soon change. Marina Secchitano, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (Marine Division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union), said that after several months of informal talk, formal contract negotiations are just starting with Tideland. In general, she said, unions ought to represent any ferries “carrying passengers commercially.”


And while looking to talk with Tideline, Secchitano also spoke in support of major government agencies as the principal ferry operators on the Bay. “I am strongly in favor of continuity through WETA,” she said. “I would not want to diminish WETA.”


It isn’t clear whether unions literally expect collective bargaining at any and all Bay transit companies, but they are a force to be taken seriously on the waterfront—all the more so if some part of the ferry fleet begins to carry packages or other freight. “You ignore labor harmony at your peril,” said one longtime waterfront expert. “It doesn’t necessarily mean union jurisdictions on every boat, but you can’t undercut the unions. You need to find a path to labor harmony.”


This list of issues, which is by no means exhaustive, suggests the complexity of ferry policy going forward. And the debate over that policy seems certain to intensify in the months ahead.


In the meantime, though, back at Tideline, Danielle Weerth offered a healthy reminder that along with the matters of economics and jurisdiction, there’s an important, underlying human component to the ferry equation: “People love the ride,” she said. “They say it’s the best part of their day.”

Smaller ferries and water taxis have become more popular in recent years. Photo courtesy of Tideline