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Prime of the Ancient Mariner : At 101, Tom Beston Says He Couldn’t Wish for More Than Life on the 28-Foot Wiki-Wiki

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is a story about an old man and the sea--a really old man and the sea.

Tom Beston, who is 101 years old, has lived on a boat in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor Marina for two decades. By all accounts, he is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, full-time “live aboard” in America.

“It’s a wonderful way to live,” said Beston, a small man with a shock of white hair and a trace of an Irish accent, as he stood on the dock beside his home, the 28-foot Wiki-Wiki.

“I’ve got everything you’d need in there: telephone, TV, a brand-new stereo. It’s nice and quiet around here. You couldn’t wish for a better way of living.”

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“Wiki-Wiki” means “fast” in Polynesian. The boat may have once been aptly named, but in the two decades since Beston bought it, the twin-engine wooden boat of indeterminate age has slowed considerably. The Wiki-Wiki last left the slip about 10 years ago, Beston said; now it probably could not get under way unless it was being towed. And because of the recent rains, Beston has had to cover the boat with blue tarps to keep the cabin from leaking.

Nevertheless, Beston said: “It’s a good home to me. I’ve had many good years here.”

But isn’t it a little tough for a gentleman of 101--or even 91--to get around in the cramped confines of a boat cabin? Isn’t it an effort just climbing onto the deck?

“No, it’s no bother, no trouble at all,” Beston said. As if to prove it, he climbs from the dock to the Wiki-Wiki’s gently bobbing foredeck; his progress is slow but steady. “I just thank the Lord I’m still active.”

“He’s probably as old as he is because he does live on a boat,” said one of Beston’s marina neighbors, Harley Osborne, 69, who has lived on his boat, Jocko, for 17 years. “It’s a lot less stress.”

“He’s just so active, it’s really amazing,” said Ann Irwin, 39, a member of the marina’s Port Royal Yacht Club, of which Beston is an honorary member. “He walks everywhere and he’s still so sharp.”

Beston attributes his long life to “living clean,” which he defines as eating a lot of fresh vegetables and avoiding junk food. As for smoking and drinking, Beston does both. Although he took the Anti-Cigarette League’s no-smoking pledge at the turn of the century, when he was just 10, it didn’t hold. He soon started smoking and has been doing so ever since, although in recent years he has switched from cigarettes and cigars to a pipe. Beston also enjoys an occasional beer in the Port Royal Yacht Club clubhouse.

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Beston came to boat living comparatively late in life--in his early 80s. Before that, he spent most of his life ashore. He was born in Ireland in 1891 and his family moved to England, where he hawked newspapers and worked as a bellhop. The family emigrated to Canada when Beston was a boy. Later, he worked as a ranch hand in Montana. Eventually, Beston wound up in Detroit, where in 1912 he found work at the budding Ford Motor Co., installing running boards on Model Ts. Married in 1918, he and his wife, Alice Josephine, had four children, only one of whom, a daughter, is living.

Beston worked in the automotive business in Detroit until retiring in 1958. He and his wife were planning to move to Southern California when she died in 1972; Beston came out here alone and lived with his daughter and son-in-law in the Palos Verdes area for a time. Then he found an alternative living arrangement: the Wiki-Wiki.

“I’d never really been on boats too much before, except to go fishing a few times,” Beston said. “But when you’re on Social Security you can’t afford to buy a house out here. So I bought the boat to live on. I paid about $6,000 for her.”

He’s been living aboard the boat ever since. When severe storms blow in, he takes refuge in the yacht club, but otherwise the Wiki-Wiki is his home.

Beston has become something of a local character over the years. Everyone at the marina seems to know him. Last month he served as grand marshal of the yacht club’s Christmas boat parade. Until a few years ago, he used to go dancing at a local Red Onion restaurant and bar; now, he said, “I’ve been getting an urge to start (dancing) again.” His current music of choice, he says, is “classic rock.”

“I guess I’ll probably stay (on the Wiki-Wiki) until I’m gone,” Beston said. “ ‘Course, when you get to be a hundred, after that you’re living on borrowed time. But I hope it’ll be a while yet.”

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