Captain Bob Wagner started Wagner Charters offering weekend boat and fishing charters for anyone who wanted to fish and explore Orange County’s coast with his son and first mate Robert years before the oil spill this past weekend.

After Bob retired from a profession in engineering, he made his charter operation, based in Huntington Beach, a full time business where both of them could pursue their passion of fishing and share it with first timers looking to get out on the water.

“When I retired, I said, ‘Well, why don’t we just do this full time’ so he quit his job and that’s what we’re doing,” said Bob, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard Masters credential.

OC Oil Spill

Latest Figures
  • Authorities now estimate a spill size range between 25,000 gallons to a maximum of 131,000 gallons
  • 5,544 gallons of oily water retrieved
  • Approximately 172,500 pounds of oily debris has been recovered from shorelines
  • 14,060 feet of boom laid to try to curb oil spread
  • More than 900 people on the ground in cleanup effort
Contacts
  • General questions: 714-374-1702
  • Do not approach affected wildlife, call in a report: 877-823-6926
  • Assist with animals: 714-374-5587
  • Help with cleanups: 714-374-1702
  • File a claim: 866-985-8366

“What’s nice about this business is we get to take a lot of people out that have either never fished before or never been out in the ocean — adults and kids and they catch their first fish and they just go bonkers.”

Robert has been sailing these waters and fishing with his dad and his dad’s friend for decades ever since he was kid.

“I would be going with them just learning along the way and creating that passion and eventually we all kind of wanted to do this as a dream and actually got to do it,” he said. “We’re part of memories that last a lifetime. That’s definitely what makes this the most fun.”

The business hasn’t been without challenges though.

Together, the father-son duo managed to survive the economic devastation of the pandemic. 

“Originally in March, within like three or four days we lost almost 55 charters that we had booked out for months in advance and it instantly devastated us,” Robert said. “It just took out three months worth of bookings that we closed for about four months.”

They resumed in the summer of 2020 with strict Coronavirus protocols and because it’s just the two of them, the Wagners didn’t qualify for the paycheck protection program.

The business once driven by tourism had to become more dependent on the local market.

“The local community helps us out a lot with doing local collaborations and supporting each other and that’s what kind of helped us get through the pandemic last year,” Robert said. “We luckily had the locals come out and support us and kind of carried us through the very end of that last year.”

Robert Wagner (left) and his father Bob (right) dock their boat behind the Huntington Beach Yacht Club on Oct. 7, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Then last Saturday, the Wagner’s got an up close view of Orange County’s latest disaster, with nearly 150,000 gallons of oil impacting local shores from a ruptured offshore oil pipeline.

It’s a front row view that isn’t likely to fade anytime soon for the Wagner’s or a host of other businesses along the coast. 

“We instantly lost reservations. We had emails coming in. We probably lost three or four right away due to the oil spill on Sunday,” Robert said. “I cancelled the charters for all of the week but then even this weekend coming up people were emailing to cancel theirs and possibly reschedule in the future.”

The Wagners were out on their 27-foot Edgewater Express boat about 12 miles offshore Saturday morning near the Elly oil platform  where the pipeline that caused the leak goes with four clients fishing when the first reports of the spill started coming out.

“We were about two miles south of the guy that called it in about nine o’clock in the morning on Saturday,” Bob said. “We were very close.”

Robert said they heard radio calls coming in over and over warning the Coast Guard about the oil.

“They were just pretty much at that point saying that we know about it but we couldn’t really see anything to go out and contain it,” he said.

Bob said they tried to avoid the oil slick area but went right through it when they came back in. 

Robert told the Voice of OC they saw oil in the water on the way back to Huntington Harbor and said in a text message that it “looked like a river of black mud moving southeast.”

Bob also said when they resume their operation, they won’t be fishing near the shoreline, noting that it’s important to protect the local fish habitat.

“There’s a lot of people that go out, that fish recreationally and commercially too and if the fishery is devastated, I mean, it’s going to kill off a lot of the economy,” Bob said. “It’s not just people who want to fish, it’s the sport shops, the bait barges in Long Beach — they all make their livelihood off  the fishery too so it’s going to affect a lot of people.”

With local beaches closed and no real indication when they might reopen, there’s a lot of people in the same boat as the Wagners. 

Huntington Beach — a city that depends heavily on its tourism and recreation — has had to close their beaches due to the spill.  It also cancelled the airshow.

“From a hospitality and tourism aspect, clearly when it shuts down the third day of a major coast event like the airshow, it’s tough on businesses,” said Lucy Dunn, President and CEO of the Orange County Business Council in a phone interview Wednesday.

She expects the oil spill will hit the tourism and hospitality industry along the coast particularly hard, adding that many of those businesses were already hit hard by the pandemic.

Dunn notes that the oil spill is reinforcing the economic value of habitat.

“A good economy values a healthy environment,” Dunn said. “It’s why people come to our beaches, it’s why they come to visit our wetlands and it’s the whole tourist package in addition to visiting restaurants.”

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In Newport Beach, myriad businesses are also feeling the impacts of the spill after officials announced Monday morning they were shutting down the city harbor to prevent any contamination from the oil spill. Vessels can continue to move in the harbor, but cannot enter or exit.  

In a phone interview Wednesday, Newport Beach Mayor Brad Avery said he’s working to get flexibility in opening and closing the harbors to allow boats to come and go as long as there is no threat of bringing the oil in.

He also said he is concerned for all the businesses in his city.

“Especially the ones that depend on access to the ocean, such as our sport fishing operations, and our whale watching operations, other tourist oriented operations and then our hotel business, restaurant business, tourism is down,” he said.

Captain Matthew Bott, owner of Newport Harbour Tours, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he hasn’t been out in the water since Friday so his business hasn’t been really impacted by the spill at this point. His boat was hauled out last week for repairs.

He did however, acknowledge the impacts the spill is having on the county’s beaches and wildlife as well as the economic impacts tour operators could face.

“Orange County beaches bring thousands and thousands of visitors. When things like this occur it certainly hurts the public, it hurts the people that want to go enjoy it, it hurts wildlife,” Bott said. “It’s very impactful.”

Bott said the spill will impact tour operators quite a bit depending on how long their boats can’t leave the harbor.

“There’s a lot of people that spend their lives on the water and make it their livelihood so not being able to exit the harbor makes life quite a bit challenging,” he said.

Bott started his business in July of 2020 during the pandemic with his wife. He said business has been slow and that he has been providing tours for small groups  and single family households.

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Meanwhile, Robert Wagner from Wagner Charters said he has anxiety about what an oil spill will mean for the future of everyone’s business.

“This will impact tourism. Generally, people want to go in the ocean, whether it be fishing tours, whale watching, dolphin sightings, scenic tours. A lot of people are just seeing oil on the coast of Huntington and oil here along the southern California coast, which is definitely going to change someone’s opinion on their activity that they’re going to do for the day,” he said.

Robert added he is unsure of what this will mean for bookings for the boat but said they are lucky to have the support of the local community.

They’re supporting the community too.

The Wagners have partnered with local business Johnny’s Saloon to take local veterans out for a day of fishing free of charge with the Huntington Beach community donating money to help them. Bob himself is a U.S. Air Force veteran.

“At this point, I think we’ve taken out probably close to 150 veterans over the course of a couple of years,” Robert said, adding that one veteran even got a tattoo of their business logo on his leg.

Bob Wagner (left) and his son Robert (right) have had to cancel their charters for this week because of the oil spill. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

No matter what, the Wagners plan to keep their business going for a long time.

“I’ll do it as long as I’m still standing,” Bob said. 

Proudly looking at his son, he adds “He’ll keep up with the business after I stop and can’t do it anymore.”

Another fisherman may soon be joining the family business with Robert expecting to have a child of his own in December.

“We’re going to put a bassinet on the boat,” Bob said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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