In the days before Fashion Island and high-rises, when The Cannery was still a cannery and there were more Fords in the neighborhood than Mercedes-Benzes, Newport Beach was known primarily as a pretty terrific place to sail a boat.
And it still is, although the city is known today as a center of commerce, business and tourism as well as a home for sailors.
However, for those salty types, armchair and otherwise, who love boats and boating and who have a yen to explore Newport Beach’s nautical past as well as its present, there is the Newport Nautical Museum.
A nonprofit operation housed in a small Cape Cod-style building on the Balboa Peninsula, the museum is a potpourri of information and memorabilia about almost all things that float on the waters of Newport Beach. During the two years of its existence, the museum has collected hundreds of items from Orange County donors, many of which are on display, others of which are contained in archives or housed in an adjacent storeroom.
“Right now,” said the museum’s executive director, Cathie Nash, “we just don’t have enough room to put all the things out on display. For instance, we have a large-scale model of the Eagle, the local boat that was entered in the America’s Cup race in Australia in 1986-87 sitting in the back yard.”
Actually, the model of the Eagle--which is about the size of a one- or two-man sailboat-- would fit in the museum’s display room if it weren’t for the fact that there is another full-size boat already there. It is a lovely anachronism, a 16-foot Sealiner motorboat, powered by a 55-horsepower Mercury outboard. Constructed of oak, cedar and mahogany, it is the sort of two-seat runabout that might have been seen in Newport Harbor 30 or more years ago.
The Sealiner, however, doesn’t crowd the other items in the museum. There are several scale models of ships around the room, as well as models of oceangoing yacht hulls mounted on one wall. Over the museum’s office door is a brass wheel from one of the Balboa Island ferry boats, and another large mahogany ship’s wheel stands in one corner near a display of large aerial photos of the 1957 Newport-to-Ensenada yacht race. That race figures prominently in the museum’s collection, being represented by a grouping of commemorative race plaques, a display of race patches and a collection of programs from several past races.
Mostly, however, the museum is a repository of nautical photographs and paintings, both historical and modern. There are several aerial photos of the Balboa and Lido Island area, as well as the entire harbor, taken several years apart beginning in the 1920s. There are several color photos of oceangoing yachts under full sail, as well as nautical paintings by local artist Ruth Hynds and naval ship specialist Arthur Beaumont.
And, said Nash, the museum expects to acquire two tiny boats for display that are particular to the Newport Beach area and are regularly used to teach children to sail: a Sabot and a Snowbird. Also, she said, the Coast Guard is expected to sponsor an exhibit of its nautical materials and equipment before the end of the year.
For the local yachting historian, the museum offers archives containing copies of yachting magazines that date to 1931 and, said Nash, “we’re trying to interview some of the older yachtsmen in the area to get a collection of their stories of the past.”
The museum isn’t likely to run short of material. Even though Newport Beach may no longer be known primarily as a yacht basin, there probably will be enough sailor and donors to keep the museum full for years.
“People here seem to be more and more interested in Newport’s yachting past,” said Nash. “And we get donations all the time.”
THE NEWPORT NAUTICAL MUSEUM AT A GLANCE
Where: 1714 W. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach.
Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
Tours: Free, by prior arrangement.
Information: (714) 673-3377.