O captain, my captain

Capt. Jim Heffelfinger

Photo By Jeff Kearns

As the only full-time operator with the River Otter Water Taxi service, Capt. Jim Heffelfinger says he has the best maritime job in Sacramento, piloting the bright-yellow vessels between Old Sacramento and a handful of restaurants upriver. Heffelfinger’s always had a thing for the open sea. After a stint in the Navy and a career in the electronics industry, he found a new career as a sailing instructor in Southern California. But he left all that for love and moved to Sacramento. When his new bride suggested that he apply for a job driving the Otters, it turned out to be his lucky day. Now, Heffelfinger shares stories and local history as he shuttles folks up and down the river—and, in some very special cases, he just might let one lucky passenger take a turn at the wheel.

How’d you get to be a captain?

It started out with my granddaddy telling me all these crazy wild stories about great adventures at sea. He passed away when I was 6, and I found out later that he spent his entire life on the railroad. But by that time, I was a voracious reader, and I was reading about anything maritime. I got my family involved in boating, and we took sailing lessons on Chesapeake Bay. Then I went off in the Navy. Anywhere there’s a Navy facility near water, there’s a sailing club, so I kept sailing for a number of years, and I started teaching it part time when I was in the Navy.

What attracts you to water?

It never has any bias or politics about it. It is what it is. A storm comes up and lays you down on the water, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, a commercial fisherman or a yachtie, in a life raft or on a big tanker—the storm lays you down no matter what.

How’d you get the captain title?

We’re all licensed by the Coast Guard as licensed mariners, which is a personal credential. As soon as we board a vessel, we become the captain of that vessel.

What’s the captain responsible for?

I have the responsibility for everybody’s life and safety on this thing, including yours and your tape recorder.

You the only captain?

I’m not. We have three seasonal captains, plus myself. We start our seven-day-a-week schedule Memorial Day weekend, and that’s when we bring on the other captains.

There many captain jobs around here?

Very few. I’ve got the best one. I’m full-time, salaried, with full benefits, and I get to work year round. All the other guys are hourly. There’s a total of 10 [captains] in the area. There are four that the River Otters use during their summer season, and then the riverboat cruises. Between the Sprit of Sacramento and the Matthew McKinley, there are six operators.

The Otters run all year?

No, we shut down end of October. Then I switch hats, become the maintenance guy for the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. I also work on boat maintenance and developing new marketing and ad sales for the next season. Springtime picks up again, I get the boats ready to go and start all over again.

Ever get trouble from other boaters?

We have a lot of problems with other boaters. We’re a cute little boat, kind of whimsical, so people notice us bobbing around like a little yellow cork up and down the river. That catches people’s eye, and they want to play with us, which is fine, except they play with us with their personal watercraft or Jet Skis. Generally, they want to get everybody in the boat wet, so we’ve had problems with that. This year, an operator decided to do a high-speed run directly at us. He passed within three feet of the boat, and as he passed, he kicked out and hit everybody on the port side of the boat with his jet exhaust.

Any other high-seas tales?

Last year, there was a fishing boat out here that got swamped by a big boat wake. One of our captains, Capt. Dirk Sirbina, went over there and helped rescue them. Unfortunately, he got some of the floating line wrapped around the propeller of the Otter, and then he was in trouble, too. He ended up having to anchor the boat, go into the water and clear the line.

What kind of boat is this?

It’s a late-1980s Harbor Hopper, designed specifically for water-taxi service. This is the 22-foot version, rated by the Coast Guard for 24 passengers. It’s powered by a three-cylinder, 30-horsepower Volvo diesel. It takes us up to the incredible speed of about 5 mph, which is a real fast walk if you’re not careful. It’s pretty economical. We burn fuel at the rate of about one-half gallon an hour, so we can run all day long on six gallons. The boat is all fiberglass, really heavily built. It’s designed as a commercial boat, a licensed vessel, which means that every year, the Coast Guard comes by to give it a full inspection with over 250 inspection points they look at, everything from life jackets and first-aid kits to the electrical system and bilge pumps.

Just like they do with the Queen Mary.

Pretty much.