CELEBRATE! VOLUME II : ORANGE COUNTY'S FIRST 100 YEARS : LURE OF THE COASTLINE : SAILOR'S DELIGHT

Duke is a Newport Beach free-lance writer and sailor.

The county's first yacht club was founded in 1909. By 1911, 30 pleasure boats were moored in Newport Harbor. By 1932, the number had grown to 900. By 1941, there were nearly 3,000. Yachting really took off in 1948 with the first Newport to Ensenada race. In the '50s and '60s, the harbor attracted more boats and produced more and more champion sailors in Sabots, Snipes, Lido 14s and Thistles. In 1950, Newport Beach hosted the first national collegiate championship. But it was in 1970 that the town attracted worldwide attention as a yachting center. That year Bill Ficker skippered Intrepid to victory in the America's Cup. Today, Orange County is home to more than 60,000 boats.

Early settlers knew it as San Joaquin Bay, but once the flat-bottomed stern-wheeler Vaquero in 1870 navigated the treacherous surf off what is now Corona del Mar, word spread fast of a "new port" between San Pedro and San Diego.

Soon other commercial ships were passing through the shallow and dangerous entrance to reach the natural, landlocked harbor and unload their cargoes of hay, grain, lumber and other supplies. No longer did Orange County's early settlers have to rely on goods reaching them via nearly impassable roads from San Pedro.

It was Newport Beach's natural, but hard-to-reach harbor that literally put it on the map more than 100 years ago, first as Newport Landing, then as the proposed town site of Newport. For Orange County, it was the beginning of a chapter of boating history that still is being written along the coast from Huntington Harbour toDana Point.

Although the first boats to ply the waters of the county's first harbor were commercial vessels such as the Vaquero, it wasn't long before men like Albert Soiland, the "father of yachting" in Orange County, began to sail small pleasure craft across Newport Bay. In 1909, Soiland founded the county's first yacht club, called simply Station A. It was a chapter of the South Coast Yacht Club in San Pedro and a forerunner of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, which opened in 1916.

In 1911, about 30 pleasure boats were moored in the harbor. By 1932, that number had grown to 900. By 1941, there were nearly 3,000, according to the Newport Times.

Today, Orange County is home to more than 60,000 boats. Boat slips have become as pricey and hard to get as prime real estate. Some marinas have two- to five-year waiting lists. And although slip rents range from $8 to $11 a foot per month countywide, some Newport Beach boat owners pay as much as $18. The average monthly slip fee for a 40-foot boat--which costs anywhere from $75,000 to $200,000--is $440.

Boat prices have climbed as dramatically as slip space has dwindled. For example, in 1936, an average, locally built 24-foot powerboat cost $1,345, and a 55-foot sailboat cost $12,500. Comparable boats today cost $33,000 and $335,000, respectively.

Despite those costs, Orange County has earned an international reputation as a yachting center and is home to many world-champion sailors, according to Newport Beach boating enthusiast Bill Ficker, who, in 1970, became the first West Coast skipper to defend the America's Cup.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF yachting in Orange County is tied to the development of the county's oldest and largest harbor--Newport Harbor, which opened in 1936. (The county's two other harbors opened much later: Huntington Harbour in 1962 and Dana Point Harbor in 1971.)

As early as 1906, when the three small communities of Balboa, East Newport and Newport voted to incorporate as the city of Newport Beach, there was talk of developing the area's principal asset: Newport Bay. The difficulty of getting through the surf, across the sand bar and safely into the bay drove brothers James and Robert McFadden in 1888 to build a commercial wharf (site of today's Newport Pier) outside the harbor so that ships could load and unload their cargoes.

Even though several people were killed and boats were swamped and often went aground trying to enter the harbor, early sailors such as Soiland continued to cross the shallow inlet. In a booklet titled "The Saga of Newport Bay," Soiland--who not only sailed here but bought two bay-front lots in Newport for a total of $1,500 in 1903--wrote: "We had to enter the harbor by lying outside until the big breakers subsided and then run in bumping over the sand bars with an incoming tide . . . it was not safe to get into and out of the bay."

Because the entrance was so dangerous, the harbor's first jetty was built in 1917, when the city began dredging a channel along the inner shore of the peninsula.

Lyman H. Farwell, who was 11 years old when the jetty was built, remembers "going down to the end of the peninsula" and watching as the first jetty rocks were dropped into place. Farwell, an ardent yachtsman who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday by going sailing, is one of two remaining "lifetime members" of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, the oldest of the county's 11 yacht clubs. (Farwell's brother, Felix, is the other.)

Farwell also remembers walking across swampy portions of Newport Bay that now are navigable channels and rowing across a completely submerged Balboa Island.

"I remember when I was about 6, the tide was exceptionally high. So I said to my younger brother, Byron, who was 4, 'Why don't we take the boat across to Balboa Island and see if we can row across it?' And we did. We didn't hit bottom. We had water up to our knees."

Despite the mud flats and other sailing hazards, yachting flourished during the 1920s. It was during this decade that the Star racing class--a competition featuring a popular 22-foot sailboat--was organized.

In 1922, Ben Weston became the first Newport Beach sailor to compete in a world championship. In 1927, Walton Hubbard and Dick Edwards became the first world champions from the West Coast. And in 1928, Newport Harbor was host to the first of the World Star championships. By 1931, Newport's Star Fleet, which consisted of 41 boats, was one of the largest in the world.

During the '20s, harbor improvements--including channel dredging and the filling of mud flats that later became such high-priced residential islands as Lido Isle and Balboa Island--continued. The process began in 1907 with the creation of the "Harbor Boosters," a group of influential men who wanted to create a deep, safe harbor, and continued until the final dredging was completed in 1936 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Leaders such as C.A. Barton, Lew Wallace, Joseph A. Beek (who owned the Balboa Island Ferry and was Newport's first harbor master), Harry Welch, George Rogers, Richard Patterson and A.B. Rousselle were among the many who worked to develop the recreational harbor as we know it today.

Joseph Beek's son, Seymour, 54, whose family still runs the ferry business at Balboa, remembers as a child in 1940 learning to sail in the bay. "The harbor was about the way it is now. We never had to jump overboard (to dislodge a dinghy from the mud) the way the earlier sailors did."

NOT LONG AFTER Seymour Beek started sailing, the United States entered World War II and Newport Harbor was closed. Pleasure boats were not permitted to enter or leave without permission.

Yachting was put on hold, but Newport's boat builders, who numbered six in 1932, began to multiply. By 1943, there were 30 boat-building plants in the area. Lido Shipyard alone built $4 million worth of boats for the U.S. wartime fleet.

It was during the war that Pat Dougan, the first West Coast sailor to enter a boat in an America's Cup race (in 1964), joined the Navy and began a lifelong love affair with the sea. "I was in the coastal lookout," says Dougan, now 73. "We'd take a large, 120-foot yacht out from San Pedro to Santa Rosa to San Clemente and back. You reported everything that moved on the ocean or in the air. That was my real introduction to sailing."

Dougan later bought the yacht Columbia, the 1958 Cup defender, and entered it in the '64 Cup trials. Although Columbia never earned a chance to defend the Cup, many regard Dougan as "the father of West Coast America's Cup sailing."

"It was after the war that yachting really started to take off in Newport," Dougan recalls.

Take off it did in 1948 with the start of the first Newport to Ensenada race. The Newport Harbor Yacht Club, which staged the competition, expected about 30 entries. More than 100 signed up for the 125-mile race; 97 boats started and 65 crossed the finish line.

First to finish was the 87-foot sloop Pursuit, sailed by movie producer Milton Bren, father of Irvine Co. owner and chairman Donald Bren. The winner on corrected time was Dorothy (Dennie) Barr in her 46-foot sloop, Mickey, according to officials at the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., sponsor of the annual race. The race has become the world's largest international sailing competition, attracting hundreds of boats each year.

Ground breaking for the Balboa Bay Club took place in the late 1940s. Technically not a yacht club, the club is centered around yachting and today boasts a 140-slip marina that is home port to some of the world's most luxurious yachts; a few are valued at more than $3 million.

During the 1950s, with Orange County farmland giving way to industrial parks and housing tracts and with the completion of the Santa Ana Freeway, Newport Beach became a year-round attraction, renowned for its well-protected harbor.

"This was a tiny place until the '50s," recalls longtime sailor Seymour Beek. "The big difference in those days (prior to the '50s) was that sailboat racing was limited to summer. In winter, you might go all day and not see a boat on the bay."

That began to change. Throughout the '50s and '60s, the harbor attracted more boats and produced more and more champion sailors in Sabots, Snipes, Lido 14s and Thistles. In the early '50s, Newport Beach hosted the first national collegiate championship held on the West Coast.

"In college sailing, they are still talking about that as a turnaround," says Bob Allan, former commodore of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and member of the Sailing Hall of Fame at the U.S. Naval Academy. "Bill (Ficker) sailed the fellows from the East Coast down to the last race in a dead tie against Yale, who had never been beaten."

Although Ficker did not win, Allan, who went on to help found UC Irvine's sailing program, believes that was a turning point. "One reason I am so proud (of being associated with college sailing) is that UC Irvine just won the national championship. The one they defeated in the final race, who for five straight years was national champion, was the U.S. Naval Academy," says Allan, whose son Scott is an instructor at the academy.

But it was not until 1970 that Newport Beach--and Orange County--attracted worldwide attention as a yachting center. That was the year Bill Ficker skippered Intrepid to victory in the America's Cup.

"There is no question that the America's Cup gets an undue amount of publicity that goes far beyond the competitive sailing crowd," Ficker says. "And it did change some of the attitude toward sailing on the West Coast because a lot of people who were raised around New York and the East Coast always thought that the only sailing took place on Long Island Sound."

When Ficker returned to Newport Beach after his victory, he was saluted by a parade on the bay "that you could walk across," he recalls. "I sent a picture taken from somewhere up on the bluff to some friends back East and said, 'Here's how they greet the America's Cup winner when he comes back to California.' " Other world-class Orange County sailors in the '70s and '80s include Dave Ullman, champion in several national fleets and 1980 Mallory Cup (senior U.S. men's championship) winner, and Randy Smyth, who won a silver medal in sailing in the 1984 Olympics.

In the 118 years since the Vaquero nosed its way into Newport Bay, boats have become a large part of the Orange County life style. And yachting has become a year-round pastime. Despite the scarcity of slips and dry-storage facilities, Orange Countians continue to accumulate all types of seagoing craft, from sail boards and canoes to sleek ocean-going yachts.

"Once you get boating fever, it's hard to get rid of it," says Don New, who has run Basin Marine Boatyard since 1946. "Even more boats could be sold here--if you had somewhere to put them."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°