Pilot trades 747s for water taxis

August 19, 2010

SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of the comic baseball novel “Screwball”. This article originally appeared on SecondAct.com. Top photo by Veronica DeLuca

Pilot John Voishan devoted a long career to flying travelers across the globe. He loved to gaze down on mountains and rivers as he guided massive 747s to cities in Europe, Australia and throughout the Americas. His final assigned route – from Los Angeles to Sydney – took 14 1/2 hours and spanned 7,500 miles each way, with hundreds of people reading and napping in the cabin behind him.

Though retired now, at age 65, Voishan hasn’t quite given up the passengers. But he’s traded in jumbo jets for a slow, boxy, open-air vessel known as a shoreboat, a water taxi that serves Santa Catalina Island. The rugged fleet of shoreboats – each slightly smaller than a bus – is one of the distinctive features of the picturesque island 22 miles off the Southern California coast.

A Unique Taxi

Not to be confused with the large, powerful express boats that carry tourists to and from the mainland, Catalina’s water taxis only run in and around Avalon Harbor. A shoreboat is crassly functional; it has no driver’s seat and no windows. Voishan stands in the sun and wind, his white hair blowing, and gently works a small metal wheel to maneuver the puttering vessel among the dozens of yachts and sailboats tied up at rows of moorings, or anchored in the deeper waters beyond.

His task is to ferry people from their yachts and other pleasure boats to the Green Pier in Avalon, Catalina’s resort town. On a busy run, 30 or 40 riders may fill the bench seats lining the shoreboat’s interior. The passenger load dwindles at times to just a handful, but there is always someone needing a taxi to get ashore – morning, noon and night.

“I make more landings in the shoreboat in 15 minutes than I made in a month flying that route to Australia,” says Voishan, who was a commercial pilot with United Airlines for 38 years before retiring in 2004.

He doesn’t need the small income, a few bucks above minimum wage, that driving the shoreboat brings him, but he talks poetically about the simple joy he gets from bantering with boaters and cruising the harbor at 5 mph.

View From the Water

For most of the 1970s, he says, when his flying career had him based in Baltimore, he spent “every vacationing moment on a sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. I confirmed to myself that if you want to see the beauty of the shore, you’ve got to get on the water to look back. You can drive down the road and everything is protected by hedges and walls for privacy, but everything is open to the water. On the water, looking back, you’ve got the greatest view.”

Catalina’s Avalon, a town of 3,500 people set between a crescent-shaped beach and steep framing headlands, is especially known for its idyllic scenery. “Go out on the water at 5 o’clock,” Voishan advises, “and stay until about 8. You watch everybody coming off the beach and getting ready for dinner, and the sun setting and the shadows growing long. It’s wonderful.”

Voishan and his wife, Diana, live most of the year in Sierra Vista, Ariz., not far from Tombstone, but they spend their summers in Avalon, where they own a two-story vacation home. The Voishans appreciate the singular charm of an island town that restricts cars and chain stores, and where most people get around by walking or driving ubiquitous golf carts.

“We’re pedestrians – we prefer it that way,” says Diana Voishan, who spends much of the summer relaxing under a beach umbrella and helping with cook-outs that turn into miniature block parties. Another appealing aspect of the town is that nearly everyone gets to know everyone else. “John loves meeting people,” his wife says. “He gets to meet people from all over the world and share stories with them. He loves telling people about Avalon, about the island.”

Childhood Memories

While growing up in North Hollywood, Voishan spent most of his family vacations on Catalina, where he sailed, snorkeled and became close friends with Tony Dow, who would gain fame playing “Wally” on the television series Leave it to Beaver. Dow, who still lives on the island, recalls many summer days devoted to water skiing, jumping off of rocks and playing beach volleyball. “He was a great water skier, and he’s a great tennis player,” Dow says of Voishan. “When he does something, he does it really well.”

A summer job at Catalina’s Airport in the Sky inspired Voishan to train for his pilot’s license. He got it at age 18, and afterward he flew Dow in a Cessna to and from the island and up to Mammoth Mountain. “We’d go up and fly on the Fourth of July to see the fireworks,” Dow remembers.

Staying Young
Voishan, who has four grown children, two granddaughters and two more grandchildren due in August and September, first earned a license to drive a shoreboat 30 years ago and quickly mastered the tricky art of bringing the water taxi alongside larger vessels. However, his busy flight schedule at United Airlines kept him from accepting anything more than occasional fill-in shifts.

Now, he is free to drive the water taxis all summer, and he generally works three days a week–twice on weekends and on Tuesdays, when Carnival’s Paradise cruise ship stops en route from Long Beach to Ensenada. After Labor Day, he and his wife return to the Arizona desert, where he officiates at youth tennis tournaments–a new passion.

“It’s a wonderful lifestyle,” Voishan says. “My advice to everybody is, ‘When you retire, find something you’ve never done before and do it, because it helps keep you young.'”

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