Historic Steamer Wears Out Welcome

Times Staff Writer

The Catalina sits abandoned and half-submerged in the harbor, its rusted bow home to dozens of seals, its wood rotting away and a hole in a side.

Local residents and city leaders don't see it as the Great White Steamship or as a historical monument that once ferried movie stars, politicians and millions of others from Wilmington to and from Santa Catalina Island.

They don't care about the seafaring tale of the ship's celebrated life along the Pacific Coast or how it transported 820,199 troops across San Francisco Bay during World War II.

To them, the Catalina is a gigantic eyesore that has brought only disappointment to this coastal town for the last 18 years. Now the ship threatens to delay construction of a proposed hotel and marina project designed to boost tourism in Ensenada. With sand dredging scheduled to begin in May, city leaders are eager for the ship to be hauled out of the harbor -- or buried at sea.

"The ship is more historical for [Californians] than for us," said Carlos Ponce de Leon, a commander with the Mexican navy stationed in Ensenada. "One way or another, that ship has to be taken out of the port."

The navy has jurisdiction over the 301-foot ship, but it has pledged to donate it to the S.S. Catalina Preservation Assn. if the nonprofit group removes the steamer.

The association is trying to raise money to lift, stabilize and tow the ship to the United States. Leaders traveled to Ensenada with a group of potential donors earlier this month, and said they might know within a few weeks whether they have the funds. The entire effort, including dry docking and covering the ship, could cost as much as $1.5 million, organizers said.

"It's the best hope we've had yet," said Phil Dockery, president of the Irvine-based group.

Ensenada Port Director Carlos Jauregui said he has heard the association's promises before, watched it miss deadline after deadline, and seen its failed attempts to raise the ship. Now there is little time left, he said.

"We have barely two months left to remove the vessel," Jauregui said. "It's starting to become a crisis. These guys will lose a landmark if they don't pick it up."

Commissioned by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, the ship made its maiden voyage in 1924. Over the next five decades, the custom-built steamer shuttled more than 20 million passengers to and from Catalina Island. Big bands played for the adults, while magicians and clowns entertained the children.

As the Catalina glided into Avalon's bay, it let out a deep-throated blast and was greeted by circling speedboats and singers. The ship took its last trip in 1975, and soon after was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also was registered as a state historical landmark and a Los Angeles cultural monument.

Beverly Hills real estate developer Hymie Singer bought the ship in 1977 as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife. The Catalina arrived in Ensenada in 1985, and three years later Singer gave the ship a face lift and opened the floating Catalina Bar & Grill.

Local residents remember attending weddings, birthday celebrations and dance parties on the ship before a business dispute and financial problems forced its closure after just one summer.

The Catalina began to sink just before Christmas 1997 in the Ensenada harbor, where it now leans at a 15-degree angle on a sand bank. Its owners abandoned it. Preservationists believe loose packing around the propeller shaft allowed water to seep into the ship, eventually causing a water buildup.

Local residents have gotten so used to the ship that they call the adjacent landfill Catalina beach. But that doesn't mean they like it.

"It's not worth anything," said Antonio Rangel, a waiter at the popular El Cid restaurant a few blocks from the water. "It's like trash out there now."

When the city wanted to build a new cruise ship terminal, the steamer had to be moved to the sand bank on the other side of the planned project. Even though it was moved, the Catalina still presents a danger to any boats navigating into the harbor, navy officials said.

If the preservation association cannot tow it, Ensenada authorities say, they will scrap or sink the Catalina so it can be used as an artificial reef for visiting scuba divers. State tourism delegate Felizardo Palacios prefers the latter option, saying it would be "great to have the Catalina as a tourist attraction."

Though Ensenada is a popular tourist location in Baja California, most visitors stay just a few days, Palacios said. The planned development at the port -- complete with a spa, shops, hotels and condos -- is expected to be completed in 2006 and aims to keep tourists in town longer. The project also will include a 380-slip marina, which developers hope will lure yachts and sailboats from California.

"This is going to change the waterfront image," Jauregui said.

But the city has to deliver the land -- and the water -- to a developer free from obstacles, Jauregui said. And the Catalina definitely is an obstacle.

Years of neglect, paired with the storms and seas along the Mexican coast, have taken a toll on the Catalina. All but one of its teak benches are gone. Seagulls rest on cracked railings, a door hangs on by a single cord, torn ladders sway from side to side and most of the windows are broken or missing. The carved name is nearly washed away.

At the waterfront, small-boat captain Rene Cardona takes visitors on whale-watching trips and occasionally on rides out to see the remnants of the Catalina. There was the tourist who remembered traveling on the ship as a child and the former Catalina captain who brought along photographs of the ship in its heyday. Cardona said he's heard about its past, but he believes the ship is more haunted than historical.

Nostalgia is strong among the ship's supporters. David Engholm, who rode the steamer as a child and got married aboard in 1989, said the ship holds a lifetime of memories for him and many others.

Engholm, who has worked with the preservation association, said the ship is a shambles now but could be restored with some effort. He insists that despite its decrepit appearance, the ship's steel hull is in good condition and the Catalina is structurally sound.

"There has never been anything like her and there never will be anything like her again," he said. "To just let something go like that is horrible."

If the preservationists succeed in raising, renovating and rescuing the ship, group leader Dockery said, they may house it at the Los Angeles Harbor and convert it into a community and cultural center.

Dockery said he knows Ensenada authorities are ready to start building the new marina and are becoming impatient. "We are really in a race against time," he said.

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