There's no one like him

Bring it to Tony.

That's what parents and coaches have been telling young sailors for more than 30 years.

Tony Burica repairs Naples sabots — the 8-foot boats popular in Newport Harbor — with unrivaled care and craftsmanship. As the summer racing season winds up, Burica, 83, begins another year of patching, sanding and painting.

But this may be his last.

As soon as he can find someone to take over his Victoria Avenue shop, which Burica built by hand, he'll retire to spend more time with his wife, Tereza. But local sailors say nobody can replace him.

"He's like old-world craftsman, and that's very difficult to find these days," said champion sailor Mark Gaudio, 54, who brought his sabot to Tony when he was a kid and whose son does the same.

Burica immigrated to the U.S. in a five-year odyssey from Croatia, his homeland. At one point, he and a friend sailed across the Atlantic in an 18-foot wooden boat they built from scratch.

It was those skills that made Burica so valuable to William "Bill" Schock, the legendary boat builder who operated out of Cannery Village for decades. Schock hired Burica and ultimately helped him get a green card in 1967.

This corrects the spelling of William "Bill" Schock's last name.

After soaking up enough knowledge of fiberglass repair, Burica set out on his own. In 1979, he opened Tony's Boat Shop in a building on the Westside of Costa Mesa, near the Santa Ana River. Burica laid half of the bricks in the 15,000-square-foot, two-story space.

Today the interior is coated with the fiberglass dust that has accumulated over the decades. Corners of its main room are filled with masts, planks and booms stacked vertically in wood and metal heaps. Dinghies — Lido 14s, Sabots, Lasers and other mainstays of Newport Harbor — sit on hand-made dollies or trailers.

Burica knows the intricacies of each manufacturer's design, and probably the original boat builder behind each. He describes how one type of sabot's walls are made like a sandwich of materials.

"He's so knowledgeable. It's like he has an encyclopedia," said Lily Hou, a Lido Isle mother who was dropping off her child's sabot this summer.

Burica may keep a boat for a week, fixing all its small problems, even those the owner didn't notice. He makes small repairs, takes his time to do them properly, and doesn't charge much, so Burica isn't swimming in cash. The building is paid off, he says, and he rents out some small homes.

"It's not really for the money here," he said in a thick accent, spreading his arms out and smiling broadly. "I don't feel like I'm working."

The math makes it hard to find a replacement. Others in the boat repair industry have approached him to possibly rent out space and at one point, Burica said he had a deal to sell the building, but it fell through.

"It's hard to find a guy who would know how to do all this," he said.

People in the local sailing community agree. The International Naples Sabot Assn., which is based in Southern California, awarded him its annual appreciation award in 2009, when he began to talk about retirement.

"He's just extremely friendly, very talented," said Debbie Benedict, a director of the local sabot fleet and Lido Isle resident. "You feel very comfortable with him."

Burica works alone. In his paint-splattered khaki pants, he drinks water from a thermos and eats lunch from a black lunch pail, its grooved coated with dust.

His brother helped at the shop for 15 years, until he retired because of back problems about two years ago. Burica has a grandson and two grown sons — one lives in Irvine and works in software, and the other works in warehousing in Sparks, Nev.

Generations of sailors come to Burica's shop, like Gaudio and his son.

"You don't see them for a couple years, and they're about 2 feet higher," Burica said.

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