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Duke’s Boat Takes a Bow : John Wayne’s Wild Goose, Refurbished From Rust Bucket, to Pay Call on Newport Harbor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just down the road from the airport that bears his name, the boat that once belonged to John Wayne will dock in Newport Harbor Thursday for a celebratory unveiling among the movie legend’s hometown fans.

The Wild Goose, a 136-foot luxury vessel that Wayne took on fishing trips to Mexico, Alaska and through the Panama Canal, is back in the water after almost sinking from neglect a few years ago. After 18 months and more than $2.5 million in refurbishing, things are back the way they were when Duke was steering the ship, and the Wild Goose is coming home.

“This is a sentimental journey,” said 69-year-old Bob Simley of Newport Beach, who owned a sister ship to the Wild Goose and spent many a day aboard the boat with Wayne. “There’ll be lots of wet eyes, and mine might be among them.”

Stocked with Wayne videotapes, movie posters, coffee-table books and photographs, the vessel is a shrine to its former owner. “If you’re not a John Wayne buff, they throw you overboard,” Simley joked as he toured the rebuilt boat Tuesday.

The Wild Goose’s voyage to Orange County will be brief. After a press luncheon, VIP dinner and Friday evening birthday party for a Newport Beach resident, the Goose will return to its new home behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey, where it is available for posh parties and charity cruises.

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“It’s a tribute, it’s not a tourist attraction,” insisted Kate Conway, who manages the boat, noting the weekend rental rate of $1,200 an hour, with a four-hour minimum. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how rich or how poor, you come aboard and you’re like a kid. You want to see everything.”

Built half a century ago as a minesweeping ship for the U.S. Navy, the Wild Goose served that role for six months in World War II. After a brief stint in Canada, the boat became Wayne’s in 1962 for $116,000.

Wayne spent more than $1 million remodeling the boat, lifting all the ceilings to accommodate his 6-foot-4 frame (even taller with his trademark platform shoes and 10-gallon hat). Docked behind his house in Newport Harbor, the boat spent winters in Mexico and summers in Seattle, with hundreds of trips to Catalina and a two-year tour of Europe in between.

“His boat was really a sanctuary. It was a place he could go to relax; it was something he needed,” Michael Wayne, Duke’s oldest son, said in an interview. “It was really like a vacation home, but he could go anywhere he wanted. It gave him tremendous freedom.”

On the Wild Goose, Wayne played endless games of cards, chess and backgammon, with an ever-present bottle of Wild Turkey, friends recalled. He loved to fish and always included children and grandchildren in his excursions, they said.

Books about the star include anecdotes about the boat. In “Duke: A Love Story,” Wayne’s secretary Pat Stacy says her boss was jealous that she could lie in the sun for hours--he had to stay under cover because his scalp was susceptible to sunburn without his toupee. In her memoir, Aissa Wayne says she never saw her father more drunk than the time aboard ship that he responded to a friend’s teasing by urinating on his shoes.

“The moment you walked aboard the Wild Goose, you knew it was John Wayne,” said Chick Iverson of Newport Beach, a close friend. “It was his very, very favorite place in the whole world.”

A few days before he died in 1979, the movie star sold the boat to attorney Lynn Hutchins for $750,000.

Hutchins tried in vain to sell the boat in the early 1980s, and the Goose spent much of the last decade rotting away, according to Don Nugent, chief engineer of the refurbishing project. Two years ago, Simley found his friend’s former boat in a ship “graveyard” in Long Beach and decided to try to save it.

Now the vessel belongs to the Wild Goose Yacht Corp., whose president is a Midwestern businessman who asked that his name not be used. The boat is supposed to be just like it was in Duke’s day; in truth, friends say, it’s a tad fancier now.

The galley has state-of-the-art equipment, including microwave, dishwasher and trash compactor, designed to serve a crowd. Ten burgundy leather chairs, each with a $1,100 price tag, surround an antique round wooden table on the main deck. And more than a dozen 18-inch wood carvings of playful Dickens characters adorn doors and cabinets.

Portraits of Wayne, commissioned from Orange County artist Frank Turiello, hang in nearly every room, and there are glass cases filled with magazine articles about Duke and his nautical dream.

Wayne’s chair remains in the Wheel House, where he loved to watch skipper Burt Minshall steer. In the Duke’s stateroom, all that has been changed is the linen and the rugs.

“We have no intentions of refinishing or stripping down or making pretty,” Conway said as she fingered the rough wood of a night table in the modest square room. “This is John Wayne.”


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