OCC is losing its sailing symbol

The Alaska Eagle has proudly displayed the Orange Coast College flag on its stern for 32 years and more than 290,000 miles.

But Tuesday morning, as crew members worked to disassemble the 90-foot mast, OCC's flag had been replaced with the red, white and blue-striped symbol of the Netherlands.

The change represents the School of Sailing & Seamanship's farewell to the 65-foot sloop. The college in Costa Mesa sold the Alaska Eagle earlier this month to Diederik Nolten, a Dutch sailor and businessman, for $350,000.

"It's very bittersweet," said Coast Community College Trustee David Grant. "It choked me up to see the Dutch flag on the stern this morning."

The college decided nearly a year ago to sell the boat after Richard and Sheri Crowe, who have co-skippered Alaska Eagle since it was donated to the college in 1982, announced their retirement.

The Alaska Eagle has a special place in Sheri Crowe's personal history, since she has worked on the boat with her husband since she was 23.

"We built our lives around the boat for 30 years," she said. "I grew up on the boat in a lot of ways."

The School of Sailing & Seamanship is moving away from an emphasis on sailing, instead placing a higher importance on training students in its professional mariner program, said director Brad Avery.

The funds from the boat's sale will go back into the sailing program.

"It's a different world than it was 32 years ago, when we acquired the boat," Avery said. "We've gone from a sailing program to a much more comprehensive naval training program. It requires a different mix of boats."

Alaska Eagle, which has room for 12 people, appears minuscule compared to the luxury yachts it sits next to in Newport Harbor, but it represents a large part of OCC's sailing history.

Alaskan businessman Neil Bergt gave the sloop to OCC following the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race. While Bergt did not win the race that year, the Alaska Eagle had been victorious under different leadership in the 1977-78 race.

After hearing that Bergt was planning to donate the boat to the U. S. Naval Academy, Grant, who was OCC's dean of students at the time, wrote to him in hopes that he would donate Alaska Eagle to the college instead.

"I wrote to him over and over again, and he never said anything back," Grant recalled. "Then one day we got the call that he had decided to give it to us."

The college was intrigued by the boat because of its unique design and sailing capabilities, Grant said.

"It was the perfect vessel to teach people about offshore sailing," he said. "It was an experience you couldn't get anywhere else."

In its 32-year run at the college, the Alaska Eagle has taken more than 3,000 students on dozens of voyages, to Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas, Tahiti, New Zealand, Canada and other locations.

"The miles don't count," Grant said. "It's the people we've met along the way. That's what makes a lasting memory."

Over the years, the School of Sailing & Seamanship has grown to one of the largest public boating education programs in the nation, with 5,000 students enrolled annually in classes, seminars and voyages, said OCC President Dennis Harkins.

OCC is working on buying the property across from the college's boathouse near the Balboa Bay Resort on West Coast Highway in Newport Beach in order to expand the program.

"We anticipate the program will continue to grow for years to come," said Harkins, who stopped by the harbor for a few minutes to watch the mast being removed. "It's a very unique program at community colleges. It's something that can only really be done in a few areas, including Southern California."

The Alaska Eagle will be transported to the Port of Long Beach and then make its way to its homeland in Holland, where it will be repainted, renamed Flyer and prepared for a race in July, said Gerard Schootstra, the boat's new skipper, who traveled from Holland to prepare the boat for its return voyage.

"It's big news that Flyer is returning," he said. "We're planning a welcome home party for her."

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