Cover Stories
Open image in lightbox
Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises in San Pedro California (photo by John Mattera Photography)
Photo of Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises in San Pedro California (photo by John Mattera Photography)

The Sir Winston docks a few miles away from the Queen Mary and steps away from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, yet its soul belongs to San Pedro.

When founder of Harbor Breeze Cruises, Dan Salas, first saw it arrive in 2018 after a long journey from Florida, he couldn’t believe his eyes. It is majestic in person. The new $5 million acquisition cruises at approximately seven knots per mile and past any entrepreneurial risk that Salas has ever taken in his long career in and around the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbors.

“The first time I saw it, it made me stop in my tracks,” recalls Salas. “It was so massive and so impressive of a vessel that I knew in the L.A. and Long Beach market, there was nothing like it. There was a tremendous ‘wow’ factor to it.”

With five decks that can host up to 500 guests, four service bars, a live band and DJ dance floor, and eight restrooms, the 135-foot long/60-foot wide ship, or ‘private dining yacht’ as Salas appropriately calls it, is the largest special events vessel to operate in the Los Angeles Harbor.

Ad for Grand Annex in San Pedro California

Salas expected it would take longer for the ship to launch, yet the Sir Winston exceeded their expectations, with weddings and special events being booked months in advance.
“I was so amazed when I brought it into San Pedro for the first time [last year],” recalls Salas. “People were calling me, and I was seeing photos of it all over social media.”

Christened last July in Long Beach, and rechristened in San Pedro last September, the Sir Winston is the ninth ship in Harbor Breeze Cruise’s fleet, which began nearly 30 years ago.

GROWING UP FAST

In 1976, Salas moved to San Pedro into the old Naval housing with his younger brother, sister, and mother. Although the family was on welfare and food stamps, when his father left, the responsibilities of the man of the house fell on his young, 11-year-old shoulders. He borrowed a neighbor’s broken bike (which he promised to buy after his first paycheck) and with loose bars and broken brakes, he began delivering for two competing newspapers, the San Pedro News-Pilot and Long Beach Press-Telegram.

“I got the worst paper route that nobody else wanted,” laughs Salas. “I didn’t know any better. I was just so happy that I got a job. It was from 25th Street to about 17th Street and on Gaffey. I had to go up and down 22nd Street and 21st Street from Gaffey. Some of the biggest hills that none of the other paperboys wanted.”

Salas recalls one morning, after coming home from an early delivery (he delivered newspapers from four to six a.m.), waking his mother after discovering no food in their fridge and cupboard. Out of desperation, the young man took his wagon and began searching for bottles to recycle in the alleys of San Pedro. Opportunity revealed itself when Salas spotted a stack of empty Coke bottles behind a bamboo fence on someone’s back porch. The haul would have been worth a day’s salary and fed his family, but Salas, not wanting to steal, instead hung his head down and cried. He cried for his brothers and sisters hungry at home and was mad at God. Then something happened.

“I put my head down and I start crying,” says Salas. “Then I looked up and saw a paper sack sitting on a brick wall. I opened the paper sack, and there was a quart of milk and a loaf of French bread. And the milk was ice cold. The store wasn’t even open yet. I had chills.” The boy who had come from Ss. Peter & Paul Elementary School in Wilmington had discovered in San Pedro a world that was different from anything he had experienced before.

SETTING SAIL

We never know where our choices will lead us. Such was the case when Salas saved up $20 over a month to buy a ticket that would take him on a half-day fishing trip on a boat called the Sport King.

“I remember seeing the fishing boats going in and out. They were the Saint Joseph, Saint Catherine, Saint Christopher. All named after Saints. I saw hundreds of these boats,” recalls Salas. Although the deckhand had given him a large sinker not to distract the heavy fish, Salas caught a giant halibut, the largest on the boat.

Shortly after being suspended for three days from Dana Middle School for selling firecrackers after school to provide for his family, Salas went back to the Sport King, where former Vietnam veteran, Captain Peterson gave him his first job on the fishing boat.

“Captain Peterson was like a father to me. When I was scrubbing the boat, feeling the ocean spray, contemplating life and everything, it felt good,” recalls Salas. “It was a peaceful feeling coming in. At the end of my first day, they handed me a burlap bag with 20 leftover fish that nobody wanted.” Salas sold the fish in the parking lot for $30 and quit his newspaper route the following day.

By the age of 18, Salas was the youngest captain in the harbor. At 19, he was taking out 100 passengers in the ocean. And at 27, he earned his 1600 Ton Master license.
“I was fortunate, in the beginning, to be surrounded by great, experienced people,” he says.

After a decade working as a tug boat captain, Salas decided to go into business on his own, and in 1994 bought his first charter fishing boat. Harbor Breeze Cruises, Inc. was later formed in 2001. Today, the cruise line is the only year-round whale watching company in the L.A. Harbor.

“With anything in life, you try things. Some work, and some don’t,” says Salas. “You make a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I’ve learned along the way what worked and what didn’t. Now we have 30 years of experience. That’s the key to any successful endeavor. All of it together makes us who we are today.”

In 2015, he founded a second company, Los Angeles Waterfront Cruises, that began business in the Port of Los Angeles and still runs out of the former Ports O’ Call Village. “When we won the bid for L.A. Waterfront sport fishing, that was the exact same spot where I went fishing for the first time,” says Salas. “The Sport King is still there. I went right back to where I started.”

WATCHING WHALES

One of Southern California’s unique features is our relationship with the ocean, and nothing illustrates that point more than the incredible popularity
of whale watching. Organized whale watching began in 1950, and since then it’s become a multi-billion dollar industry with whale watching tours covering both coasts of the country and in many other parts of the world.

The California coastline sees the seasonal migrations of blue whales, gray whales and humpback whales that swim to southern waters to mate before migrating back north with their calves.

“The ocean is vast,” says Salas.

“Many people only enjoy the ocean by standing on the beach or on a cruise. But to take people out on a daily basis – kids, parents, grandparents – and to expose them to the beauty that lies just a couple miles off our coast, they really appreciate the experience.”
He adds, “Plus, you can’t go wrong with the view of Catalina on a beautiful afternoon as the sun’s going down.”

NEW BOAT ON THE BLOCK

Salas could have been more reserved before deciding to purchase the Sir Winston, but being in Los Angeles, one of the world’s premiere harbors, there’s a certain level of spectacle that needs to be maintained.

“I could have gotten a used boat,” says Salas. “I could’ve gotten something cheaper, not as fancy. But I opted to go for the ‘wow’ factor.”

Along with that spectacle, the Sir Winston also brings a breath of much-needed fresh air to the L.A. Harbor. All of Harbor Breeze Cruises’ nine vessels are now equipped with the latest engines that comply with the California Air Resource Board. The harbor craft, tug boats, and ships that stay in the harbor are mandated to meet certain air quality standards. In the near future, Salas hopes to acquire new technology, such as hydrogen engines. “We’re ahead of all of them. All of our boats meet the conditions now or already meeting the ones for 2024,” he says proudly.

He adds, “When people step on [the Sir Winston], they imagine what it could be. It’s so unique. Weddings, conferences. It’s not just a boat. Most of the boats we compete with are 15-20 years old. This one is brand new.”

Today, the ocean veteran with the stars of a captain looks forward to how his company will embrace the new waterfront development and the impact that San Pedro will play on the world economy. His challenge to San Pedro is simple: embrace the future. “A lot of us like to hold on to the past,” explains Salas. “We need to hold on tight and never forget where we come from, but the future is coming. We need to encourage our kids and their kids to never forget how San Pedro got to where it is today, and to be a shining star for other communities to what innovation, ingenuity, and hard work can do. To transform a town into an innovative, cutting edge, and environmentally futuristic city.”
He adds, “To me, San Pedro stands for hard work. It’s embedded in us. We got grit and tenacity. That will never go away.”

For more information on Harbor Breeze Cruises and Los Angeles Waterfront Cruises, visit 2seewhales. com or lawaterfrontcruises.com.


Did You Know…

  • The large number of humpback sightings in recent years suggests the species is recovering — and some may opt to stick around rather than make the long trek down south to warmer waters.
  • Humpback whales have their own migration pattern. They spend summers off the shore in areas of central and Northern California such as Santa Barbara and Monterey. In the winter, they head south to nurse and breed in Mexico and Central America.
  • Gray whales can be seen passing by California in December and January during their southern migration, and again in March, April, and May on their northern journey.
    The gray whale makes one of the longest of all mammalian migrations, averaging 10,000-14,000 miles (16,000-22,530 km) round trip.
  • Today, gray whales are protected by international law, and their numbers have grown. In 1994, the gray whale was removed from the United States endangered species list.
  • Scientists aren’t sure if breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale’s skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.

(Sources: Daily Breeze, Marine Mammal Care Center, American Cetacean Society, National Geographic)

Marisa Bojiuc

Comments

Ad for Grand Annex in San Pedro California