A young staffer named Ethan runs through the instructions. I kind of expect a foot pedal like in a golf cart, but there’s no brake and only a handle with three gears: forward, neutral and reverse. To go faster or slower, you simply go more forward or less forward. With neutral, you just float. “Some folks went out in a Duffy, and after two, three hours, they didn’t come back,” Ethan recalls. “When we finally caught up with them, they told us their battery had died. I was like, ‘No, it didn’t. You’re in neutral.’ ”
And off I go, taking a hard left and heading west toward Lido Isle. As I near the west end of Balboa Island, a seagull lands right on the edge of the prow and remains absolutely still — a living figurehead with its red beak glowing in the sunshine. I take in the hilarious diversity of SoCal architecture that Woody Allen joked about in Annie Hall: Mediterranean palazzi next to Cape Cods next to stark modern constructions that are mostly glass, next to straight-laced Colonials with their tiny, reserved windows — an odd choice given the million-dollar views to be beheld on Newport Harbor.
It’s a half mile to Lido Isle, and a half dozen sailboats are scattered in front of me; I continue straight, and they crisscross before me, as if choreographed, as if I’ve indeed parted the waters. Lido announces itself with moored yachts and tricked-out fishing boats that give the little Duffy an inferiority complex; there’s Seahorse and Vahine and Relentless and No Bad Days and Knot Exactly; a three-level yacht called Wanderlust; and another luxury craft (at 163 feet long, one of America’s 100 largest yachts) named Vango, a reference to Vincent Van Gogh. It has a helicopter on its top deck. Then, finally, I see another cute little Duffy with an equally cute name: Watts Your Fantasea.
I pass the villas with their mansard roofs, Japanese gardens, and rows of gables, and love that all that conspicuous real estate is subtly punctuated by secret grassy waterfront parks, swing sets, benches for quiet reflection and miniscule pocket beaches. Bay Island, a tiny, heart-shaped treasure, boasts a pair of Adirondack chairs set on an emerald lawn, under the shade of eucalyptus trees. I see the best bayside eateries, like Woody’s Wharf; and there are some festivities going on at the American Legion (I note, with irony, that a boat with the hippy name of Aquarius is moored nearby). And as I make my way back to the dock, a Pacific brown pelican dives into the bay in front of me. That’s a view one can only get from the water.