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Loss of old tugboat in fire is painful to fans of wooden watercraft

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The William B, a 76-foot wooden tugboat built in 1942, was destroyed by fire Saturday morning in Newport Harbor.
(Mary Longpre)

Andrew Carnegie wouldn’t approve of the reason wooden boats have declined in popularity.

The Scottish-American industrialist, who in the late 19th century led the expansion of the American steel industry, was no stranger to hard work. But Carnegie, who at one point earned the title of world’s richest man while working an average of four hours each day, emphasized the importance of leisure.

In the old days, a giant railroad set, model airplanes or a wooden boat would provide hours of entertainment and an escape from a hard day’s work for those who enjoyed them.

But in recent decades, leisure time has diminished for many, and as a result, people’s ability to own and care for wooden vessels also has declined.

“The time people have for hobbies is going by the wayside,” said Newport Beach Harbor Commissioner Brad Avery, a wooden-boat owner. “A serious hobby is very time-consuming, and that’s what a wooden boat is.”

To care for a wooden vessel — adding varnish and repairing damage with custom parts — requires not only a significant amount of time but also money and dedication, Avery said.

Newport Harbor has sailed with the trend of rapidly diminishing numbers of wooden boats, both because of people’s lack of free time to spend on the docks and the local decline of commercial fishing, an industry that often uses wooden boats.

The scarcity of wooden boats made the loss Saturday of what many considered Newport Harbor’s most recognizable wooden vessel — the tugboat William B — even more troubling for those who love handmade watercraft. William B, which was built in 1942 to pull ships in World War II, was destroyed in an early morning fire while docked at its regular mooring.

“Wood boats have lives of their own,” Avery said. “There’s a soul there. That’s how people felt about the William B. It’s a horrible loss for our harbor.”

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Fiberglass wins out

When commercial fishing was big business in Newport Beach before the 1960s, wooden boats — with their sleek varnish and distinctive style — were the vessels to own, harbor experts say. And with their nearly constant maintenance and handmade custom parts, they weren’t cheap.

“Prior to the 1960s, yachts were owned by the few and the wealthy because they were built one at a time,” said David La Montagne, chairman of the Newport Beach Wooden Boat Festival, an annual event created nearly three years ago with the aim of fostering an appreciation for wooden vessels.

But as boat aficionados would come to realize, the future was in fiberglass.

With the new technology, boats could be built and maintained for a fraction of the cost, making them more affordable for the average enthusiast, La Montagne said. With an increase in boats bearing the inexpensive technology, wooden boats became vintage watercraft.

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William B is remembered

But not all boaters have lost their penchant for wooden vessels.

In the 1980s, Gary Hill, who owns Hill’s Boat Service in Balboa Village, bought the 76-foot William B, his friends say. Hill did not return messages seeking comment.

“Gary bought it in a state of distress and restored it to be a classic family yacht that his friends and family could enjoy,” Avery said.

Crews fought the fire that engulfed the William B for about five hours Saturday, according to Orange County sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock.

“They would get the fire out and it would immediately reignite,” he said. “It was stubborn.”

The cause of the fire is under investigation. No one was injured, but the boat was considered a total loss, according to authorities.

Those who frequent the harbor mourned the vessel, which now rests just below the water’s surface as crews drain what’s left of its fuel and prepare it to be towed away.

Bill Moses, a member of the Newport Beach Mooring Assn. and the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, said the William B often was the focal point of activities in the harbor.

Newport Harbor is still home to wood boats, many of which are celebrated during the Wooden Boat Festival in June. However, Moses said he can’t think of any vessel that compares to Hill’s 1942 tugboat.

“Its profile is unmistakable to any other boat in Newport,” he said. “It harks back to the day when wood vessels were something that were more common and had more soul to them than the fiberglass monstrosities we see today.”