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Wayne Haunting His Old Yacht? Perhaps, Pilgrim

Times Staff Writer

There’s a place aboard the Wild Goose where, if you squint your eyes just right, you might feel that John Wayne is staring you down.

It’s at the top of a stairway connecting the wood-paneled dining room to the dark decks below. Tiptoeing down those stairs at night, you find yourself gazing directly into a dim portrait of the late actor and America icon -- a ghostly face that could give even the most stout-hearted visitor the shivers.

Wayne once owned this yacht. The star of such films as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Longest Day” and “True Grit” is said to have viewed it as a home away from home.

It is here that “the Duke” drank and partied his way to destinations including Alaska, Mexico and Avalon. Wayne’s on-board poker fests with buddies Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Gleason were legendary. And it is this ship’s decks that the Newport Beach resident -- whose name Orange County’s major airport bears -- is said to have paced late at night.

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Some say they believe he still does.

“Some of our employees have heard their names being called,” said Josh Reeves, an event manager for Hornblower Cruises and Events, which operates the ship as a charter based in Newport Harbor. Aboard the ship alone in the wee hours, Reeves acknowledged, “I’ve never seen anything, but I’ve felt something.”

Commissioned in 1942 as U.S. Navy minesweeper YMS 328, the 136-foot wooden-hulled Wild Goose saw action during World War II. She was sold into civilian life 13 years later, eventually coming under the ownership of a Seattle lumber tycoon who came up with the name. Wayne paid $116,000 for the Goose in 1962. And from then until shortly before his death from cancer 17 years later, the actor used it as his getaway and playground for family and friends.

It was later that the ghost stories began.

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They started with Lynn Hutchins, the Santa Monica attorney to whom Wayne sold the boat just weeks before his death. Within four months, Hutchins said, he began experiencing an “apparitional presence” he believed to be Wayne’s spirit. Among other things, the lawyer said, the Duke’s ghost was rattling beer glasses, blocking doorways, shuffling loudly across decks, and appearing in mirrors and portholes.

Patricia Hayes, an Atlanta-based psychic who organized a seance on the ship in 1983, told the author of “The Ghostly Register” that the actor’s ghost had indeed come aboard.

“What I found,” she said, “was that one of the reasons he was there on the boat was because ... it still is one of his favorite places to be. He knows he’s dead.... He just chooses to hang out there. In other words, that’s not the only thing he does; when he has some time available he goes to the boat.”

Sightings and paranormal occurrences continued to be reported after Hutchins sold the Wild Goose in 1991. Passengers -- mostly women -- said the doors on bathrooms were locked even though no one was around. One night a captain piloting another Hornblower craft reported seeing the lights blazing in the Goose’s stateroom, despite the ship’s being docked and empty. The next morning, maintenance crews arrived to find everything normal; the lights were off and the dock gates still locked.

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And, in one of the more bizarre stories, the ship is said to have once inexplicably slipped its lines in the middle of the night after a Newport Bay fundraiser and drifted across the water, landing at its old dock in front of Wayne’s former home. The next morning, the Goose was found still locked up: Apparently, neither the pilot house nor engine room had been entered, and the ropes tying it to the dock were not broken or cut.

Little of this seemed known -- or, for that matter, important -- to most passengers aboard the ship on a recent Friday night as she motored into the harbor for a chartered three-hour cruise. Guests of Kern Ridge Growers LLC -- a carrot-processing plant near Bakersfield -- they were mostly agriculturists taking a break from the annual Produce Marketing Assn.'s convention in Anaheim.

The ghost stories “don’t bother me a bit,” said Bob Giragosian, a Kern managing partner who had helped plan the cruise. “None of our guests have mentioned talking to any ghosts yet -- perhaps later in the evening.”

Steve and Peg Berlin said they hadn’t even heard of the Wild Goose before this night. “I heard that it was owned by John Wayne,” Peg Berlin said. “I love it -- that’s very intriguing.”

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And what of the old actor’s supposed ghost?

“Actually, I’d love to see the manifestation of a ghost tonight -- but I’ve only had two glasses of wine,” said Steve Berlin, produce manager of a Minneapolis/St. Paul-based grocery-store chain.

Yet the strong presence of the Duke could be felt everywhere, from the dozens of mementos and portraits on the walls of the “fireplace room” where he once entertained, to the large wood-framed bed in the master stateroom where he slept.

As the nearly 100 carefree guests caroused unawares on the upper decks, stories from Hornblower and Wild Goose personnel were being exchanged in the galley two levels below.

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“Sometimes we hear something down here that sounds like an ice machine,” said Reeves, the event’s manager and maitre d’. “Sometimes looking through a porthole,” he added, “you’d almost swear you see a face.”

The ship’s chef, Said Lassila, recalled seeing a light flashing one night -- “like a little candle” -- in the main salon.

“It scared me,” he said, so “I had to leave.”

And Elser Morales, Wild Goose’s engineer for 13 years, recalled the story a former captain often told of being rudely awakened once when he was “thrown out” of Wayne’s bed.

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The strange part was that no one else was there, Morales said.

“The guy didn’t want to come back to the boat,” he recalled. Though the captain did eventually resume his duties, Morales said, he “never came back alone.”

*

Times correspondent Courtney Baird contributed to this report.

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