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‘Auto Club of the Sea’ Expected to Fill a Gap

Times Staff Writer

One day last fall, a dense gray fog rolled against the south Orange County coast and in a matter of minutes cut visibility to less than 50 yards. The skippers of several yachts off Dana Point were caught with their seamanship down.

“One of them got me on the radio,” said Reggie Doll, who operates both the fuel dock in Dana Point Harbor and a small outboard-powered boat equipped with electronic navigation and other emergency gear. “The guy told me he was lost in the fog and asked me to please help him, so I took my little vessel just outside the harbor entrance,” Doll said.

He contacted the lost yacht by radio again and, using his radio direction finder, Doll got a bearing on the boat and gave the skipper a compass heading that pointed him toward the harbor entrance.

“About an hour later, I saw him coming out of the mist,” Doll recalled. “There were three other boats tagging along behind and he was yelling at them: ‘Follow me; I know where I’m going.’ ”

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Seeing an obvious need for rescue services, Doll now has two boats rigged out with radar, depth finders and marine radios, as well as heavy-duty towing gear, spare gas and diesel fuel, pumps and some firefighting equipment.

Operating under the name Skippers Safety and Service Co. (SSS), Doll is trying to profitably fill some of the gaps left since the U.S. Coast Guard--under directions from President Reagan and Congress two years ago--adopted a new policy on so-called non-emergency search and rescue missions.

The policy gives more leeway to private enterprise in responding to strictly non-emergency situations such as boats needing a tow in calm weather or boats out of fuel. It also leaves the Coast Guard free to respond to life-threatening emergencies and gives it more time to patrol for drug smuggling.

SSS, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Jimi Chiumate, is the only service of its kind in Orange County and one of only about a dozen on the Southern California coast. Rescues can cost upwards of several hundred dollars, depending on the distance.

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But if everything comes together, Doll says SSS will “have something that nobody else, maybe in the world, can offer.”

With several partners, including Mark Howard, who is developing a block of property at Newport Harbor with docks, a restaurant and shops, Doll is putting together what he calls the “auto club of the sea.”

He said he hopes to be able to start selling memberships sometime next year to the SSS Club, “sort of like the AAA Club.”

Doll’s plans call for the club--with its two boats capable of responding to calls from as far away as Malibu Beach to the north, Oceanside to the south and about 60 miles offshore--to offer members towing service, marine insurance, help in getting financing and licensing, reduced prices on many services and materials, and “a special legislative voice” in the protection of private boating interests. Some of the services, such as towing, would be free for members and other services will be offered at minimal costs.

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The present rescue fleet includes a 20-foot vessel called Triple S Rescue II, stationed at Dana Point, and a 25-footer, Triple S Rescue I, at Howard’s dock in Newport Harbor on the site of the old Art’s Landing sportfishing wharf.

Depending on sea conditions, Triple S II can move along at a top speed of about 45 m.p.h., Doll said, and the larger vessel at more than 35 m.p.h. Among its other gear, Triple S I has a pump capable of sucking 300 gallons of water a minute from the bilges of a leaking boat.

Doll said he and Howard hope to add two more boats to the service “while we’re in the process of activating the SSS Club.”

In the meantime, he said, memberships will be sold “only when we have reached the point where we can provide everything we promise, which probably will be next year.”

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