ON THE WATER -- When the ‘snowbirds’ ruled the Harbor
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Blaich is a Corona del Mar resident who, about
once a month, will write histories of interesting boats that graced
In 1923, Jim Webster of Newport Harbor Yacht Club read of a plan for a
new sailboat called a snowbird in the Rudder Yachting Magazine. He felt
this sailboat would be an ideal boat for children to sail in the shallow
waters of Newport Harbor. So Webster hired Tom Broadway, a local boat
builder, to build four snowbirds for a price of $200 each. By 1960, there
were more than 500 snowbirds sailing.
Originally, the fleet insignia on the sails was a bird. It was soon
changed to a red “S.”
G.Y. Johnson Boat Works of Newport built many of the early snowbirds.
They could be identified by a solid oak, steam bent, curved coaming at
the front of the cockpit.
In 1928, Donald Douglas of Douglas Boat and Canoe Company in Newport
started to build snowbirds, as well. They were somewhat lighter in weight
and had a V-shaped coaming at the front of the cockpit. The Douglas
snowbirds were fast boats. They won many races for the young skippers.
About 1939, South Coast Boat Works made a few snowbirds, too.
In early 1934, C.B. “Bernie” McNally of Balboa hired A.E. Hansen, a
Newport Beach boat builder, to build a fleet of 10 snowbirds for rental
service at Balboa. These were made with heavy scantlings and were planked
with Philippine mahogany. The boats were varnished and were handsome
sailboats. A black “Mc” was placed on the sail rather than the red “S”
designation of the standard racing snowbirds.
A year or so later, Roland Vallely had a similar fleet of snowbirds
built for rental service. The insignia on its sail was a turquoise
Both of the rental fleets were phased out about 1953 due to old age.
Some of the better boats were sold to individuals and were still sailing
as late as 1960.
In 1956, Bill Schock of the W.B. Schock Company started building
fiberglass snowbirds. These were fast boats and were warmly received.
They eliminated the need for sanding and painting the bottom of the
wooden snowbirds every spring.
As of this year, all of the wooden snowbirds have passed on. We know
of only one fiberglass snowbird still sailing upon the waters of Newport
An impressive history
By then, the boats had had a colorful history. In 1932, the Los
Angeles Olympic Games Committee picked the snowbird as the official
monotype sailing dingy for the Olympic Games.
However, the rig was changed. The boom was shortened and the mast
extended. The insignia “S” on the sail was changed to a red “O.” It was
felt that this would be a better rig for the windy area of Cabrillo Beach
in Los Angeles Harbor where the races were held.
Snowbird owners were asked to lend their boats for the event. The
snowbirds would be returned in good condition with this new rig and with
new sails. When these modified snowbirds were returned to their owners,
it was found that the “S” rig was faster and better suited to Newport
Harbor sailing. No new “O” rigs were built after the Olympic Games.
Several fleets grew up around the boats. By 1939, there were two very
active snowbird fleets. One was at Newport Harbor Yacht Club and the
other at Balboa Yacht Club. Following the war, when Lido Yacht Club
became active, there was a third fleet at Lido Isle and the fleets
engaged in inter club regattas during the summer season.
Still, there were many snowbirds in the harbor whose owners were not
members of a yacht club. In the interest of getting all of the snowbirds
out for a race, the chamber of commerce sponsored the First Flight of the
Snowbirds in 1936. This became an annual August event peaking with 163
entrees in 1957. The event is still held every August and is now known as
the Flight of the Lazers.
Sailors get their start
Many well-known local sailors got their start sailing snowbirds.
During the summer of 1941, there were 18 snowbirds actually sailing and
racing at Newport Harbor Yacht Club. These were owned and skippered by
boys and girls under 16. They were: Ben Younglove - S33; Barbara Cundiff
- O35; Norton Younglove - S34; Janet Young - S82; Linda Lewis - S151;
David Heyler - S164; Florence Fussel - S184; Ted Mertz - S192; Weldon
Dorris - S163; Bill McDowell - S202; Carol Howard - S211; Bob Burges - S238; Donald Young - S246; Nancy Newport - S248; Henry Grandin - S258;
Nancy Beardslee - S271; Toodie Christensen - S280; and Bob Millikan -
Balboa Yacht Club also had an active snowbird fleet in 1941. We don’t
have the names of the children sailing that year. However, some of the
well-known sailors who got their start in the Balboa Yacht Club snowbird
fleet are Jack Axelson, Bart Henderson, Drew Glassell, Drew Pallete, Bill
Lyon, Carl Long, Phil Greene and Sheldon Kinney.
The snowbirds supplied a need for a children’s sailboat for more than
35 years. However, there were two problems with the boat. They were heavy
and difficult for children to pull out of the water, and they also
required a crew for racing.
The present popular children’s sailboat, “The Sabot,” does not have
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