Boston Harbor Views

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Rob McPherson, City Water Taxi

Though he is sometimes too busy to notice, Capt. Rob McPherson is a pretty happy guy.

Rob McPherson of City Water Taxi says people thought he was crazy when he started in Boston Harbor-based business.

As the owner of City Water Taxi, he is often on Boston Harbor before sunrise and works until 9 or 10 at night, managing his “Checker Board Fleet.”

“It is all about the customer,” says McPherson as the marine radio crackles in the background. “When they call, we have to be ready.”

McPherson, 63, founded the company in 1992 with just one boat, Lightning II, purchased second hand in Newport, R.I. Today, with nine boats and 18 captains under his command, McPherson still takes an extremely hands-on approach to both fleet operations and customer service.

Just having a sustained conversation with McPherson when he is working can be exhausting. With a cell phone in one hand, another on the seat, and a portable radio at his side, McPherson monitors vessel traffic, juggles reservations, dispatches taxis and skillfully pilots his small craft around Boston’s busy harbor. “Busy?” he quips on a bright winter morning. “I’m not busy. Give me a call in May, when things start to pick up.”

According to McPherson, it wasn’t always like this. His first days on Boston Harbor were rocky, as McPherson struggled to survive.

“I scraped hulls, painted boats, rebuilt engines and drove a water taxi for 12 hours a day. People thought I was crazy, though they were usually polite enough to call me ‘ahead of my time.’ ”

Today McPherson’s fleet serves thousands of Bostonians and visitors, providing “on-demand” service to nearly every dock on Boston Harbor, including Logan International Airport, Long Wharf and most of the harbor’s hotels, restaurants, museums, marinas and attractions. They also provide launch service to both commercial and recreational vessels moored in the harbor, and charters to the Boston Harbor Island national park.

When he is not “top taxi” at Logan or bringing visitors to the Bank of America Pavilion for a live concert, McPherson can often be found aboard his 1979 34-foot Marine Trader, Cavale, which is moored in East Boston, and serves as an informal clubhouse and on-the-water home.

“I like what we do,” says McPherson. “When I first started the business, people were just beginning to rediscover Boston Harbor. Today, it is the place to be. I just wish the phone would stop ringing for five minutes so I could get that lobster line out of the prop.”

Author E. Bruce Berman, Jr. teaches marine science, harbor history, management and communications at Boston University, and is the spokesman for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay (www.savetheharbor.org).

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the October 2009 issue.