Meet The Expert: Captain Fred And Lil' Toot

Oct 25, 2019

For Santa Barbara residents, Lil' Toot is simply a water taxi. But to the Ask Me Another staff, Lil' Toot became something of an obsession. The captain of the boat, Fred Hershman described it as a "cute, lil' yellow tug boat that goes back and forth across the harbor." While the ride only lasts 12 to 15 minutes, the boat is equipped with a cute little horn, and bubbles coming out of the smokestack.

Host Ophira Eisenberg quizzes noted cruise-haver Jonathan Coulton on his nautical knowledge with a lil' help from Captain Fred.

Heard on Michael McDonald: Once A Doobie, Always A Doobie.

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The Final Round is coming up. But first, it's time for us to play a game. This is Meet the Expert. So in our research of Santa Barbara, one of our producers stumbled across a water taxi service, and when she told us the boat's name, we became obsessed.


EISENBERG: The boat is Lil' Toot.


EISENBERG: And its owner is Captain Fred Hershman.


EISENBERG: Welcome to the show, Captain Fred.

FRED HERSHMAN: Glad to be here.

EISENBERG: So for everybody outside of Santa Barbara who is not familiar with Lil' Toot, can you describe Lil' Toot for everyone?

HERSHMAN: You know, Toot's a cute, little, yellow tugboat, goes back and forth across the harbor.

EISENBERG: How long is the ride?

HERSHMAN: It's about 12 to 15 minutes.

EISENBERG: And what was the inspiration for Lil' Toot's origin as a water taxi?

HERSHMAN: I think we kind of stumbled onto it, but that's straight from the story from Hardie Gramatky...


HERSHMAN: ...1938. And the boat we bought looked just like the one in the book.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And does it have any special features?

HERSHMAN: It has a - bubbles come out of the smokestack.


HERSHMAN: And it has a toot-toot whistle, and it has a smile on the bow.


EISENBERG: That's amazing.

HERSHMAN: And the kids get to help drive.

EISENBERG: And the kids can help drive. Is it easy to drive the tugboat?

HERSHMAN: No, it takes years and years of practice.

EISENBERG: Years and years - OK.


EISENBERG: And why did you start a water taxi business?

HERSHMAN: I grew up on the water.


HERSHMAN: And I was in the Coast Guard. And then I was in business, and I retired, and we needed something to do. So we went to the city with an idea, and they said, no, we don't like that idea. So we wanted - we'd rather have a regular-scheduled water taxi from the wharf to the harbor. So we scratched out our business plan, and now we're in the water taxi business.


EISENBERG: What was the other business plan that they didn't like?

HERSHMAN: We were going to have a wine tour (ph), an electric boat.



EISENBERG: So you - Captain Fred, you grew up on a sailboat, as you mentioned, and you were in the Coast Guard. You know a lot about boats.

HERSHMAN: I would like to think so, yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Our house musician, Jonathan Coulton, also has experience with boats because every year, he runs his own cruise - the JoCo Cruise.

JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: That's correct. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So have you picked up any boat knowledge along the years of doing?

COULTON: They don't let me drive the cruise ship.

EISENBERG: They don't?


COULTON: Apparently, it's very complicated, so I'm not allowed to do that. But yeah, I guess I may have picked up a couple of things here and there. One thing I know is that they get very angry when you call it a boat; it's supposed to be called a ship.


COULTON: And when you say boat, they say, no, no, no. It's a ship.

EISENBERG: What's the difference?

COULTON: I don't know. Do you know the difference, Captain Fred? You know why they get angry?

HERSHMAN: You can put a boat on a ship.


EISENBERG: But you can't put a ship on a boat.

COULTON: If it has other boats on it, then it's a ship. That makes sense.

EISENBERG: That makes perfect sense. OK. This is perfect. Jonathan, Captain Fred and I are going to quiz you about basic nautical knowledge.


EISENBERG: And if you fail, you are never allowed to go to sea again.

COULTON: That's going to make it hard to run the cruise, but OK.

EISENBERG: It is. All right.

COULTON: I accept your terms.

EISENBERG: First question - what unit of measurement describes a boat's speed?

COULTON: I believe that is the knot.

HERSHMAN: Correct. Correct.

EISENBERG: That's a knot. OK. Very good - well done.


EISENBERG: So - and what does a knot equal? Like, if I say, well, what's a knot?

HERSHMAN: A nautical mile's a mile and an eighth.

EISENBERG: A mile and an eighth.


EISENBERG: Seems easy to remember.



EISENBERG: And so Lil' Toot - like, if you really punch it, how many knots could you go?



EISENBERG: I don't know what that means, but it sounds fast.


EISENBERG: Jonathan, what does a boat's green safety light indicate?

COULTON: A green safety light.

EISENBERG: Green safety light.

COULTON: I have seen a lot of times, on boats, there's, like, a red light and a green light on the front...


COULTON: ...Which I think is some indication of which side of the boat, when you can't see the boat at night. So maybe the green light has something to do with which way you're supposed to cross in front of the boat?

HERSHMAN: It marks the right-hand side.

EISENBERG: The right-hand side, which is the starboard side.

HERSHMAN: Starboard side.

EISENBERG: So can we give him a point for that? What do you think?


EISENBERG: Very generous. Very generous.


COULTON: Thanks, Lil' Toot.

EISENBERG: So speaking of safety, sharing the harbor with other recreational boats has got to be pretty challenging if you're, you know, going full speed at 6 knots in Lil' Toot.


EISENBERG: Right. So what are some of the challenges there?

HERSHMAN: Stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, other boats.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.


EISENBERG: Yeah. Which ones do you like the least?




HERSHMAN: We call them speed bumps.


EISENBERG: Speed bumps. All right, this is your last clue, Jonathan. You're doing great.

COULTON: Terrific. Thank you.

EISENBERG: You're doing great. Jonathan, when speaking over the radio to another boat, what should you say to end the conversation?

COULTON: You say, like, nice talking to you, other boat.


COULTON: No, you say - I don't know if this is a ship thing, but I think radio etiquette is - you say over and out at the end of a conversation.

EISENBERG: Over and out. Over and out.

COULTON: I don't know if it's the same on a ship.

HERSHMAN: One or the other, not both of them.

COULTON: Oh, OK (laughter).

HERSHMAN: When you finish talking, you say over.


HERSHMAN: When you're done with the conversation, you say out or clear.

EISENBERG: Oh, so when I finish my - the end of my thought, I say over, and that indicates...


HERSHMAN: Then it's the other person's time to talk.

EISENBERG: And when we're done completely, I say out.


EISENBERG: But if I say over and out - confusing. What's going on there?

HERSHMAN: Rookies.



COULTON: Right. Somebody from the soft cruise industry is trying to...

EISENBERG: Yeah. Right. I bet kayakers say over and out.

COULTON: They probably do.

EISENBERG: I bet they do.


EISENBERG: OK. I guess, Jonathan, you did amazing.

COULTON: Thank you.

EISENBERG: So I guess we will let you get on a boat again.

COULTON: That's good.


EISENBERG: I learned so many things. So thank you so much. Give it up for our expert, everybody - Lil' Toot Captain Fred Hershman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.