The Harbor Report: The 'Wild West' days of the boating industry

The year was 1979. I was 19 years old, and would drive to the ARCO station on the corner 18th Street and Placentia Avenue to avoid the long lines elsewhere because of the 1970s gas shortage.

By smelling the fiberglass resins in the air, I knew that this area of Costa Mesa was the boat-building capital of the United States.

What I did not know was that people in the boating industry referred to Costa Mesa as "Costa Mecca." Its boat-building companies produced about 90% of the 40,000 sailboats built each year in the U.S.

Roger MacGregor can remember the days when the roads would be jammed with trucks hauling out sailboats to all parts of the world.

"You couldn't drive down the Placentia without getting stuck behind a truck with a 'wide load' sign on the back," MacGregor recalled.

Turns out 1979 was the industry's last good year. Things started to go downhill afterward. So let's talk about the years 1968-1979, which Roger called "The Wild West."

From my count, there were 27 boat builders during that period, and more than 20 companies that supported the industry.

"On Friday night, everyone would meet at Zubies after work for a beer," Roger said.

This was around when the Punk Rock group The Vandals came out with the hit song "I Want To Be a Cowboy." How many cowboy boatbuilders, do you think, used to beat up on the punks at The Cuckoo's Nest?

Anyway, I do recall those good times. Roger also told the story of a large beach party in Dana Point that MacGregor Yachts and Hobie Alter, of Hobie Cat fame, threw for the marine industry.

"Things got out of hand real fast. The band was on a trailer and ended up rolling down a cliff," Roger recalled, rubbing his face.

More than 3,000 industry people attended the party where a number of pigs were roasted.

Good times.

"How in the heck did we ever live to today?" I asked Roger.

"Oh, that was nothing, Len. You should have seen the fires in these boatbuilding factories," he replied.

In fact, one boat builder had so much fiberglass resin on the floor that they refused to allow the Fire Department to inspect their site.

"I remember seeing the Fire Department opening a window and running the ladder inside through the building so that they could inspect the place," Roger said.

During the good times we had all types of people building boats — surfers building catamarans and hippies in VW buses. One time the Teamsters showed up at the gate to unionize the workforce.

That was an interesting time, Roger recalled.

"Once the workforce was informed they would have to cut their hair and leave their surfboards and hemp at home, that idea was voted down rather quickly," Roger said.

Another funny story was how Roger's mold shop foreman would ride a large white horse to work every day, and would run the shop from the saddle. The soundtrack to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" played in my head while Roger told me this part of the story, and I could not help but smile.

Follow me on Twitter @Boseyachts for daily Newport Harbor observations. I will inform followers if I see the Coast Guard doing safety inspections, or if there is a new yacht in town.

Maybe just if the left or the right side of the course is favorite during twilights or beercans. It's time to grab my sea bag and sail in this year's Newport to Ensenada race.

Sea ya!

LEN BOSE is an experienced boater, yacht broker and boating columnist.

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