Captain Maggie & the Porpoises

If you’ve ever enjoyed the short ferry ride between Tiburon and Angel Island, it’s likely your boat was captained by Maggie McDonogh, a fourth generation ferry boat captain and owner/operator of the last remaining family-owned ferry service in California.

Maggie_Ferry   YouTube
Click to view video

Every day Maggie dons her sunhat and prepares to ferry tourists, school children, day-tripping locals, and National Park employees back and forth between Tiburon and Angel Island. She’s been doing this all her life and she’s seen the Bay through many changes.

She learned the business from her dad who took it over from his dad, who took it over from his dad. And it looks like her children will follow in her wake as well. Son Sam is the deckhand and her daughter and other younger son are also on board whenever possible.

Recently, my colleague Tessa and I had an opportunity to hang out by the captain’s chair with Maggie during one of her regular trips to the island. As she steered the boat, she told us stories of her family in Marin, the Bay as it was and is, and the characters and wildlife she’s met along the way.

Because Maggie is out on the Bay every day, she notices changes before almost anyone else does. She was one of the first people who saw that porpoises had returned to the Bay. She shares her story in this video.

We asked her if she thought the Bay was healthier than it used to be. She told us that her grandfather “Sammy the Skiffman” used to take vacationers out on fishing expeditions on the Bay for 25 cents (including tackle and bait). Today Maggie doesn’t see the number and size of fish that she once saw, but in some ways, she says, “the Bay is healthier than I’ve ever seen…but we have to be vigilant, and do the best we can. It’s a delicate balance.”

For Maggie that means interacting with riders in a way that prompts them to appreciate the majesty and wonder of the Bay, while helping them to see its fragility. The porpoises have helped her in that mission because they capture people’s imaginations. “The porpoises give us an in with people. It’s an opportunity to inspire them…right in that moment,” she tells us.

She loves what she does and is proud that she has kept the family business going. She told us about children she’s ferried who come back as teens and asking for summer jobs, or return as adults with their own children. Noting that all the other ferry operators are larger corporations, she told us, “We’re it. I’m still here. I get to make people happy for a living…I’m so privileged I get to do this.”