For 25 years, Santa Monica restaurateur Jay Fiondella dreamed of finishing his homemade 65-foot pirate ship and setting sail for the South Seas.
Instead, he ended up Monday with a shipwreck on Culver Boulevard.
The flamboyant Fiondella's 26-ton galleon, the Bridgette Smith, capsized on concrete about 12:45 a.m. as it was being hauled by trailer from a Culver City boat storage yard to a similar facility in Marina del Rey.
Cracked nearly in half, the boat lay sprawled like a beached whale across the roadway, causing a massive morning rush-hour traffic jam as two boat movers and a crane operator worked feverishly to lift and remove it. During the afternoon rush hour, the stricken boat was still blocking the boulevard, forcing Los Angeles police to issue their second SigAlert of the day and rerouting traffic to and from Playa del Rey onto Jefferson Boulevard.
Meanwhile, Fiondella, who has operated Chez Jay on Ocean Avenue for 30 years, sat in a beach chair and looked on glumly as the cleanup crew sought to complete what would prove to be a futile salvage operation.
By late Monday, after an attempt to move the ship had failed, city maintenance workers were calling bulldozers to remove the Bridgette Smith from Culver Boulevard piece by piece.
"This was my shrink, my guru, my Shangri-La. I could go on it and drink a beer and think I was in Tahiti," the gray-bearded Fiondella, 63, said. "Now it's history. Her back is broken. . . . It's the USS Never Sail."
Over the last 20 years, the Bridgette Smith had been used primarily as an apartment by a shipwright hired by Fiondella to make it seaworthy. The vessel contained a fireplace, a whirlpool bath, a bar and a 20-by-22-foot cabin in which 18 couples could dance comfortably, according to the shipwright, Jerry Lechich.
"It's a boat I've been building 25 years," Fiondella said. "It's one of those back-yard dreams you always hear about."
Although it had never been placed in the water, Fiondella claimed that he was planning to finally finish work on it in Marina del Rey and launch it early next year.
Fiondella, who had been following the vessel in his car when it tipped over, blamed the accident on a collapsed metal support on the trailer that was hauling it.
But Art Cooper, operator of the boat moving company, said that dry rot in the ship's plywood frame also played a part. "The boat collapsed," said Cooper, who was at the wheel of the trailer when the boat fell off. "It's soft all over. A soft spot gave."
Cooper contended that the boat could never have been made seaworthy.
Fiondella, however, maintained that the dry rot was limited to a small section of the frame near the whirlpool bath.
The accident occurred, witnesses said, as the trailer carrying the fiberglass-coated galleon rounded a steeply banked curve at less than 5 m.p.h. in the Ballona Creek section of Culver Boulevard, east of Lincoln Boulevard.
"It looked like slow motion--she just tipped over," Fiondella said. "Then there was a loud squish."
Cooper contacted a crane rental company, which had a 65-ton vehicle in place by 7 a.m. Unfortunately, the firm was not apprised of the ship's weight and dispatched a crane that could lift only the stern with its nylon sling. Cooper and a fellow boat mover proceeded to spend much of the day jacking up the front of the perilously perched boat in order to place it on a new trailer and remove it.
Through the morning, Los Angeles Police Sgt. George Aitchison, who was monitoring the situation, warned Fiondella that the boat would have to be bulldozed out of the roadway if it could not be removed promptly.
After 19 hours, the work crews succeeded in raising the Bridgette Smith back onto the trailer. And, with Cooper back at the wheel of the trailer, the salvage effort seemed to reach a climax about 8 p.m. as the ship advanced a few hundred yards along Culver Boulevard. But suddenly the ship began to creak and list to port until it once again fell crashing to the pavement.
"We're just going to trash it now," said a frustrated Aitchison as a bulldozer was summoned to remove the ship from the roadway.
But Aitchison said that Culver Boulevard might remain closed to morning rush hour traffic because it could take hours for the bulldozer to remove the ship's six tons of concrete ballast.
The wreck of the Bridgette Smith was only the latest adventure for the colorful Fiondella, who through the years has helped finance a search for the Andrea Doria's booty and searched the Arctic for a squadron of airplanes that were lost in Greenland in 1942.
At one point in the morning, Fiondella's mother, Alice, came out to look at the hulk. Shaking her head, she said, "With my son, anything is possible." Fiondella proceeded to have her pose with him for pictures in front of the stricken ship.
Later, the restaurant owner announced his plans for salvaging the remains.
"I'll try to make coffee tables out of it for my new restaurant."
Times staff writers John H. Lee and Hector Tobar contributed to this story.