VENTURA COUNTY MARITIME MUSEUM : Treasure Trove : The showplace revives seafaring heritage with noted works by marine artists as well as detailed model ships.

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It is one of those Sunday mornings when eggs Benedict and a Bill-and-Ted-type of Excellent Adventure sound, well, excellent.

Ed and Suzanne Vadnais of Camarillo do the brunch, check out the nautical bookstore and investigate the candy shop along Fisherman's Wharf at Channel Islands Harbor. When they discover a maritime museum sharing the courtyard, thar she blows! Or, in the words of Bill and Ted, it's positively awesome.

OK, the museum does not offer the thrill of bungee jumping, but it has folks imagining that they're pirates on a tall ship at the turn of the century, and a storm's headin' yur way, matey. No boring anchors aweighing you down here.

Since it opened in February, 1991, more than 17,700 landlubbers have wandered into the Ventura County Maritime Museum at Channel Islands Harbor, unsure of what they would find.

"I expected to see navigation charts and boat hardware," Ed says.

"I never imagined they would have so many beautiful paintings showing the moods of the sea and ships," Suzanne says.

Ed and Suzanne gaze at "Thermopyle and Arial at Foochow in China," an original oil by marine artist David Thimgen. Hues of yellow and white light beam from the sails of Thimgen's two racing clipper ships.

"This was the Tea Race of 1866, and these two vessels carried tea from China to London," volunteer docent Boyd Larson tells six visitors. "The first boat to reach port would receive the most money. After racing 16,000 miles, the ships arrived two hours apart from one another."

Larson, one of 50 volunteers, is a treasure chest full of sea lore that he enthusiastically shares with museum goers.

For backup, which doesn't seem necessary, Larson maintains a thick notebook he compiled detailing about 65 pieces of marine art and 45 ship models in the museum.

The museum also has two ship hulls on display, and a research library is expected to be completed within the next two months. The museum also displays temporary exhibits. The next one, expected to arrive in late June, will feature navigational instruments and timepieces dating back to 1770.

Permanent museum pieces, outstanding works of 17th- through 20th-Century marine artists, previously belonged to Harry Nelson Jr., a local businessman who owns Anacapa Marina.

"Nelson had one of the finest privately held maritime collections," Curator Richard Cunningham says. "It was his dream to share it with tourists visiting Channel Islands Harbor."

In the past few years, people seem to be more interested in ship portraits. Current marine artists, such as John Stobart, Roy Cross and Thimgen, show history on the high seas by using vivid action scenes as backdrops for their detailed vessels.

Looking at the museum's original Stobart, "San Francisco Waterfront, the Foot of Vallejo Street in 1863," it is difficult to resist oohing and aahing at that moonlight bouncing between tangerine storefront windows and the quiet schooner moored in pre-Pier 39 San Francisco Bay.

"Do you think it really looked like that way back then?" a woman asks Larson.

The Maritime Museum does a good job of reviving seafaring heritage. The glassed-in re-creation of the deceased Edward Marple's workshop, complete with his drawings and books, always sparks visitor interest. Wood strips of teak and black walnut stand ready to be shaped alongside Marple's power drill. The area is so complete, all that's missing is Marple himself.

Marple, an Arizona resident who never went to sea, designed and built finely detailed model ships full time for 30 years. He corresponded with galleries all over the world to research facts about great ships. Nine of his models, including his last work, a miniature of the famous steamboat the Robert E. Lee, are on display.

"Marple even put a tiny calliope with movable keys inside the ship's dining room," Larson says.

"Maybe we could make that, Dad," says a boy on Larson's tour.

Larson leads the group to a ship model that the lad isn't so eager to duplicate. Taken prisoner by the English, French sailors saved their soup bones to construct a miniature of their own beloved ship, the Santissima, in 1790.

Finally, 24 larger-scale, museum-quality boat models, which depict the history of sailing ships from 2000 B.C. to the advent of steam power in the late 1800s, come at the end of the tour.

The dad, clad in shorts and Avias, looks at a two-foot-high barkentine and seems ready to go to work. "If that one were mine, I'd like it with rigging and not sails," he says.

By now everyone, including Bill and Ted, is a maritime expert.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Ventura County Maritime Museum is at Fisherman's Wharf in Channel Islands Harbor and is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays. Informal docent tours are offered free of charge. Admission is $2 adults, $1 children ages 5 to 12 and, on Monday, $1 for senior citizens. Call 984-6260.

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