Three boats for Tom Sawyer

By DUNCAN FORGEY

Newport Beach has always been a small city with a big history.  Nowhere near the size of San Francisco, San Diego or Los Angeles, Newport Beach was and still is a major influencer in California. In its evolution from a 19th century fishing hamlet, to a proposed World War I naval base, to a weekend resort for L.A., to a business center of retail, aerospace and new technologies, residents have always been most proud of its beauty and fun-loving lifestyle. Add to this, a burgeoning post-World War II population, the introduction and dominance of baby boomers and now subsequent generations, today’s Newport Beach is destined for still greater things.

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Courtesy of Paulette Donald

Peninsula Point’s “Our Gang”

With great pleasure, I often drift back to the “Tom Sawyerian days” of Newport when barefoot kids lived in the harbor area with characters not that different from Aunt Polly, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe. Whether on foot or in the water, adventures loomed everywhere. In the bay, the size of the boat didn’t matter, nor did we care if it was rowed, wind-driven or motored. Our reward was just being on the water. This gave us an opportunity to stick our faces into a world of sand sharks, sting rays, buttermouth perch, halibut and grunion, which were all around us. Whether swimming across channels or dancing on the beach during sunset, local youth had access to all corners of the town. Eventually, we knew intimately everything from the river jetty to Little Corona, and the oceanfront to the depths of the Back Bay. All of it was open territory for freedom and fun. Our rite of passage was to explore every inch of Newport’s varying landscape whether in a boat, barefoot or on a bicycle. Our reward was witnessing everything from exotic wildlife to Native American artifacts.

We were offered secretive eagles and hawks, hordes of swallows and millions of migrating Monarch butterflies from Mexico. Skies were full of soft songs of meadowlarks contrasting the harsh cries emanating from massive flocks of seagulls escaping incoming storms. We became intimate with sea creatures of all sizes and shapes in great abundance, brought to us by ocean waters that have traveled the globe for millions of years. We sailed the Pacific, we fished the ocean and we surfed its waves. Most importantly, we gathered in as much of the mild California sun as we could tolerate.

Early lessons we were taught were to get fresh air if we felt seasick, and the boat’s bumpers must be brought up the moment we left the dock. We were shown the difference between cleaning up and making something ship shape. Before we left the harbor, everything was inventoried and stacked appropriately. Daily boat rides or weekends in Catalina were common. Ports of call were sophisticated yacht clubs, the Balboa Bay Club, the revered American Legion or isolated coves and buffalo burgers in Avalon. Other stopovers were waterfront eateries like Berkshires, Ancient Mariner and later Hooters. Boats were our expensive cars.

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Courtesy of OC Archives

Schooners “Goodwill,” “Pioneer,” “Enchantress,” “Verona,” “Vega” and “Gloria Dalton”

At 5 mph, it was impossible to be in a hurry. An overall favorite was stopping at the dock of a bayfront friend for a visit. Each island, every bridge and the endless sandy beaches to this day reflect individual memories of those quiet years. Many houses were made of wood and sat like cells in a honeycomb, reflecting a history that was truly old Newport Harbor. Larger homes came as did wealth and status. The China house, the Irvine Family’s blue-layered home, the Gillette Brothers’ homes, John Wayne’s sprawling front yard and the Bartholomew mansion created fantasies of the rich and famous. By far the greatest property in my mind was the 11,000-square-foot mansion of Howard Ahmanson on Harbor Island. Sitting upon a gigantic bayfront lot like a king on his throne, the home was accentuated with tasteful architecture and looked straight down Lido’s north channel into the year-round setting sun. Its expansive grassy yard and a single dock punctuated with the racing yacht Sirius created a postcard image within a city full of magical residences.

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Today, there is an estimated 9,000 boats in the harbor. Over the years, Newport Harbor has been home to innumerable famous and classic boats, yachts and various watercraft. Thousands of transoms surrounding the bay display quirky names, dedications, or   environmentally sensitive monikers. Some boats honor wives or lovers, represent creative colors and moods, or tell of nautical and South Pacific lore. Even street names celebrate the glorious lives of past racing yachts that have blessed Newport Harbor. In a blink of an eye, residents witnessed the all-wood fleet turn to fiberglass, steel or carbon fiber. A 50-footer was once considered a “status boat,” but today that number has doubled or tripled in size. Family boats as small as a sabot (8 ft.) or as large as a 100+ footer remain a center of enjoyment for Newporters to this day.

“How can this many people own boats,” has been the standard inquiry for decades as most boats sit quietly without steady use? It is common knowledge that “…a boat is nothing more than a hole in the water that you pour money into.” Newport Harbor has had a lot of holes over the years with tons of money to fill them.

A lifetime of legendary luxury boats has graced Newport Harbor.  Newer residents need to understand that long before Fashion Island, Big Canyon, Harbor View Homes and Newport Coast, Newport’s harbor was the heart and soul of the city. It was the magnet that brought citizens and tourists together. It was the majesty of the bay that made everyone smile and want to live here.

Each boat had its own story. Whether a 12-foot sloop named Too Blue, a L-36 named after the west wind Zephyrus, or one of the all-time beauties – a 90-foot motor sailor christened Sea Diamond – every single vessel played a part in Newport’s history.

Post-World War II, youngsters raced around playing army in a plethora of vacant lots and open spaces. Donning military helmets, carrying canteens and plastic guns, they hid behind walls, trees or sand dunes. Brigades of mini-soldiers shot imaginary enemies from Japan or Germany. Pre-Vietnam, everything military was honored in the U.S., because fathers had died or carried scars and memories of battle.

PT 695 (PT Joe) was the favorite boat in the bay for many. It was moored on the peninsula, and at one time was rumored to be owned by Roy Rogers. In the eyes of kids, PT Joe stuck out like a colorful flower sitting atop a leafless stem, despite its Navy design and boring white paint.

Built in an Annapolis yard in 1945, PT Joe was “big” (72 feet long) with a 19-foot, two-inch beam and a draft of five feet. Powered by three Packard gasoline engines of about 1200 horsepower each, Joe’s top end was in excess of 40 knots. PT Joe carried 3,000 gallons of high-octane aviation fuel and was armed with four torpedo tubes, two twin 50-caliber machine guns, a 20-millimeter gun, depth charges and a smoke screen generator. It was stripped of her armament, and her new owner Judge Joseph Marchetti painted out the naval grey color. Joe was anchored between Fernando and Cypress streets where patrons of Christian’s Hut got a glance of this impressive looking war machine, while eating some of the best food in town.

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Courtesy of UCI Collections and Archives

Christian’s Hut, a popular dining spot among the locals

This scuttlebutt cost $1,000 to run to Catalina and back, which probably explains why it rarely left its dock. PT Joe was eventually bought by an accused smuggler and was moved to San Diego where it sank. The Rio Vista Sea Scouts in San Francisco obtained it and rebuilt her as a training vessel.

In the earliest days of the harbor; schooners ruled the bay. They congregated near the Pavilion and later along empty lands that would become the Balboa Bay Club and west end turning basin. Images of these gorgeous ships dressed up the bay like grandmother’s decorations on a bare Christmas tree. They would slowly leave, as new technology made them obsolete.

Growing up on Lido Isle, the mere mention of the racing yacht Kialoa gave all Lidoites great pride. Designed by Sparkman and Stephens and built by Lester Stone, this sleek sailing machine was originally the Tasco I and raced out of San Francisco.

John B. (Jim) Kilroy, a top real estate developer of the era, bought it making it the first of seven Kialoa racing yachts. Kialoa I was a classroom for the aggressive Kilroy. There were several transformations in sail rigging – each improving her performance. Designed as a 7/8-rig yawl, she was converted to a masthead yawl in 1959 under specifications by naval architect C. William Lapworth. In 1961, she was changed again to a masthead sloop by removing the mizzen. Kialoa I competed in eight Honolulu racesand four Acapulco races, as well as many other local and long-distance sailing competitions.

As adolescents, it was a great honor to crew aboard a Kialoa.   Kilroy was famous for running a “tight ship,” with an incredible work ethic. He is quoted as saying, “Any crew member can disagree and take command as long as he pays the last three months maintenance costs, otherwise the skipper and watch captain RUN this boat.” This first Kialoa inaugurated the beginning of what has been called the “Kialoa Yachting Campaign,” which spanned decades.

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Courtesy of OC Archives

Newport Balboa Savings and Loan building

A favorite of many was Ralph Larrabee’s 161-foot, 299-ton schooner Goodwill. Anchored in front of the oddly beautiful and contemporary Newport-Balboa Savings and Loan building, Goodwill was moored alongside another bookend schooner also honoring a dying era, The Pioneer. These two gracious yachts gave residents pleasure by their mere presence.

Unlike the Pioneer which rarely moved, Goodwill came and went.  Larrabee is said to have had a 19-year romance with the boat. He purchased it from A.G. Spaulding of the sporting goods fame for $35,000. Larrabee refitted the schooner to race, and race he did. Enjoying the challenges of competitive sailing, he skippered it to victory in the L.A. to Honolulu race in 1953 and 1959.

However, mid-20th century travels anywhere in Baja Mexico came with the dangers of a third-world country. Roads, harbors and the bare essentials were rare south of the border. As all fishermen, sailors and surfers knew, “…an excursion into Baja Mexico was either the greatest adventure or a disastrous nightmare.” Goodwill’s last voyage was the latter.

In May 1959, Larrabee and eight others left the tiny fishing village of Cabo San Lucas for Ensenada. They never made it. Wreckage was found strewn across the Sacramento Reef with no survivors. The Sacramento Reef juts out to sea near Bahia Rosario, creating a beautiful and plentiful fishing area. The reef also creates great danger to those unaware of its presence.

Ten years later, in another post-race delivery back to Newport, I crewed aboard Robert Beauchamp’s Columbia 57 – the Dorothy O. We left Cabo and turned up-coast and were immediately hit with rough weather. This light downwind racer took a pounding. George Adams, a childhood friend and knowledgeable skipper, used “dead reckoning” to take us home, due to lack of technology in 1969. Midway up the peninsula, Adams took us miles out to sea and off our established course. When questioned about this turn to deeper water, he told us the story of Larrabee’s mistake and the nine fatalities. “Sacramento Reef is a gathering spot for unlucky boats and a graveyard for lazy skippers,” he said, as he went below to sleep.

The watch that night was one of the scariest of the trip.

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Duncan Forgey, long-time resident, photographer and historian of Newport Beach, makes his home on Kaua’i and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport. His first novel “Flyin’ Kai: A Pelican’s Tale,” which received a recommendation by Kirkus Reviews, is available through his website – www.duncanforgey.com. He would love to hear from you.

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