Old friend leaves for new port

An old adage takes on new meaning for two local shipwrights preparing to watch a piece of Newport Harbor history sail out of port Saturday for the last time: Home is where the hull is.

Newport Beach residents and Vietnam veterans John Matthews, 70, and Robert Payon, 57, spent more than seven years and upward of $45,000 restoring Old No. 9, the harbor's first fireboat, after it was docked more than a decade ago at the Newport Sea Base.

"At first we made cosmetic repairs," Matthews said. "Then we decided to fix her up after the worms and the paint would no longer hold her together."

The 1941 World War II Higgins landing craft, which sat in a Seal Beach Naval yard from 1942 until the Newport Harbor patrol got it in 1947, has a long history with Matthews, almost like family.

After all, they were born just six months apart — with No. 9 being the elder, Matthews said.

"She towed me in a few times as kid," Matthews recalled. "It was fun to see her get a new lease on life; she'll probably be around longer than I will."

Matthews and Payon handed the refurbished ship back over to the Newport Sea Base Sea Scouts in 2010. It was their way of not only preserving history, but also helping out a local youth organization, Matthews said.

His own sons had been Boy Scouts for many years.

Old No. 9 enjoyed her new home for about two years, but Matthews and Payon were asked to look for another safe harbor last year.

The reasons remain unclear, only that a change in administration had occurred and that there was no longer room for Old No. 9, Matthews said.

Sea Scouts Director Shana Aguirre did not return messages left at her office Thursday and Friday.

"They're missing out on a huge chunk of history," Payon said. "It's their first fire boat, and after that, she worked as a tug boat for other yards."

"How often do you get a boat like that?" he continued. "It's not just an old boat, 70 years old. She's wood — she wasn't meant to last, and she did. We put our hearts and souls into her and made sure she'd last another 70 years."

Part of what makes Old No. 9 so special is that she is possibly the last known floating Higgins watercraft, Payon said.

On Saturday, No. 9 leaves for her new home at the Long Beach Aquatics Center Sea Scout Base, where a new crew of youths await.

"This is very unique," said Long Beach Sea Base Executive John Fullerton. "There are not many vessels like this that are in good condition or original condition that are still able to go out on the water."

The Sea Base plans to incorporate No. 9 into its maritime safety programs and use it to attract fresh recruits.

"The Sea Scouts squadrons are all excited about it coming in," Fullerton said. "We can take it out on the water, but just be careful of what we do on it."

Part of the beauty — and concern — is that Matthews and Payon restored Old No. 9 back to her World War II naval glory.

That means no railings and not enough safety for young sailors-in-training.

"We might do something like temporary railings," Fullerton said. "We have some people thinking on it. We do want to be sensitive and keep the historical integrity of the vehicle."

No. 9 will set up in her new home by early December. The Sea Base plans to host an open house to welcome her officially to the community, Fullerton said.

While Matthews and Payon are sorry to see the craft leave the waters where she saved the day — including playing key roles in putting out the Balboa Island fire of 1954 and Mariner's Mile fire of 1975 — there's a sense that she's not so much as leaving home as returning to her roots.

She did, after all, get her West Coast start in Seal Beach.

"She's kind of going home, in a way, which is kind of cool," Payon said. "She got her start at a naval weapons base, just two or three break walls down from where's she's going, … and we did bring her back to Naval white, gray and black."


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