NEWPORT BEACH — From their perch on a buoy bobbing by the entrance to Newport Harbor, a party of California sea lions welcomed the Irving Johnson with a cacophony of honks.
On Monday's voyage up the Orange Coast from Dana Point, the crew of the tall ship had unfurled its sails, which gleamed in the late morning sunlight. The brigantine's deckhands could be seen changing tack on the jib sails out front to catch a wind blowing in from Catalina. They were preparing the 100-foot, 100-ton boat for its approach into the harbor.
"That is so cool," exclaimed Paul DeCapua, Race Committee chairman for the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club.
DeCapua was among those watching the goings-on aboard the Irving Johnson from behind the wheel of the BCYC's 34-foot Baja Cat, which idled nearby.
On Saturday, the Irving Johnson will go on public display with other boats taking part in Newport Beach's third annual Wooden Boat Festival, put on by American Legion Post 291. Then, on Sunday, the wooden ship will join its twin sister in a race against the Exy Johnson in the waters off Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Billed as the Great Brigantine Race, the 1 p.m. contest will pit teams of sailors drawn from the ranks of the Bahia Corinthian and Balboa Yacht clubs against one another. They will race under the supervision and guidance of the ships' full-time captains and crews. Bahia Corinthian members will work the sails of the Irving Johnson, while their counterparts from the BYC will do the same aboard the Exy Johnson.
The triangular course will start and end at the Balboa Pier, and the racing ships — winds and weather permitting — are to make a final turn off the Huntington Beach Pier before the homeward dash, organizers said.
"The challenge will be for people who have never raced on these boats before to make them go," said DeCapua, a Newport Coast resident.
Afterward, the Irving Johnson will stay behind in Newport Beach to take part in the Lido Yacht Expo, happening from Sept. 22 to 25 at the Lido Marina Village docks, where the ship is moored.
"This is a very splendid thing that's going on," said Mark Kovaletz, co-chairman of the Wooden Boat Festival, praising the charitable spirit shown by the competing Newport sailing clubs during hard economic times.
The Bahia Corinthian and Balboa yacht clubs will be racing for a good cause, raising money to help pay for a program of sea-going lessons aboard the two ships offered to inner-city children by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute.
The yacht clubs are each donating $3,500 to effectively charter the ships for the race that is unprecedented in Orange County waters, organizers said.
All of the proceeds will go directly from the two clubs to the institute, a San Pedro-based nonprofit that owns and operates the sisters.
Some 60 vessels are expected to take part in Saturday's Wooden Boat Festival. Proceeds will go toward supporting programs for veterans nationwide, said Kovaletz, a Yorba Linda resident who flew Army choppers during the Vietnam War.
Except for the Irving Johnson, the other wooden boats will be on display at American Legion Post 291 on 15th Street on the Balboa Peninsula. The post is the only one in the country that has its own yacht club, Kovaletz noted.
Included in the $10 ticket, the post will offer festivalgoers shuttle boat service between the post and the Irving Johnson, which will be open to the public.
While at the helm of the BCYC's racing committee boat on Monday, DeCapua communicated by radio with the Irving Johnson's crew. Using his depth finder to relay readings, and piloting his boat ahead of the larger vessel, he was helping them maneuver the ship through the harbor's depths as it made its way toward the docks.
The skipper had elected to make for Newport waters late in the morning in order to take advantage of a higher tide, which would cushion his ship from any risk of scraping the harbor floor.
The Irving Johnson, which was commissioned in 2003, and its twin are full-keeled vessels made mostly of wood. Yet each of the keels, 11.5-feet deep, runs the length of the hulls. Made of lead, the keel takes up 40% of the ship's weight — or 40 tons, said Ed Steiner, a volunteer with the Maritime Institute.
The ships were modeled on old brigantine ships, two-masted cargo vessels whose origins date back centuries. The institute christened the ships the Irving Johnson and the Exy Johnson, in honor of the late couple who took poor youths on as deckhands for ocean-going trips around the globe.
Through the institute's Top Sail instructional program, the sister ships take groups of mostly underprivileged young people on sailing excursions in Southland waters throughout the year. The Port of Los Angeles contracts with the institute to take students from 20 inner-city schools in L.A. on nine-day sailing programs, and subsidizes the operational costs for those 180 sailing days, Steiner said.
Many of these students attend schools with high dropout rates and some of these children, he added, "although they live 12 miles from the ocean, have never even seen it."
What: Third annual Wooden Boat Festival
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: American Legion Post 291 Yacht Club, 215 E. 15th St., Newport Beach
Cost: $10, includes free shuttle boat service to the Irving Johnson, moored at the Lido Marina Village docks
IF YOU GO
What: Great Brigantine Race
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Prime viewing point is from the Balboa Pier