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SS Catalina Awash in Sea of Acrimony

September 09, 1986|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Its gleaming decks carried three generations to an island hideaway 26 miles out to sea, shuttling presidents, movie stars and 25 million others between San Pedro and Santa Catalina Island for more than 50 years.

The SS Catalina--better known as the Great White Steamer--was one of the last of the nation's fabled steamships, a remnant of Southern California's playful past.

It was designated a state and national historic treasure after its final voyage in 1974, when it steamed into port and slipped into a graceless old age--shuffled from berth to berth, threatened with Coast Guard seizure and, most recently, hauled off to anchor three miles off the coast of Mexico at the mercy of shifting seas and winds.

"It's the only historical landmark in the United States that's been forced out of the country due to non-cooperation by everyone, and I mean everyone," said Gene Webber, a Garden Grove real estate agent with a lease on the ship who has spent more than $1.6 million trying to restore it.

But the Catalina's owner, Canadian-born millionaire Hymie Singer, has launched a new legal battle to bring the ship home and return it to passenger service along the California coast.

Filed $6-Million Lawsuit

In a $6-million lawsuit filed against Webber in Los Angeles Superior Court, Singer claims that it was illegal to take the national monument into foreign waters--where it was quickly confiscated by Mexican officials--and is asking the court to order its immediate return.

"Webber stole it. He kidnaped it. It's the most famous ship in America . . . and everybody that allowed him to take that boat is going to be in a helluva lot of trouble," Singer declared.

But Webber, who only two weeks ago completed negotiations with Mexican officials that allowed the Catalina to be towed to safety in Ensenada's harbor, said Singer's lawsuit could mean the end of any hope of finding a permanent home for the steamer.

"I have visited every city, every port, from San Diego to Vancouver. I've even been to Honolulu, and nobody has a permanent berthing spot for the Catalina," Webber said.

Now, he said, the latest court battle threatens to halt negotiations with Mexican investors aimed at converting the aging steamship into a floating restaurant and discotheque docked permanently at Ensenada--a $1.6-million project that has already received tentative approval from harbor authorities there.

The fight over the Catalina is in many ways a tale of two men's love affair with a ship that has somehow eluded the grasp of both.

Singer bought the steamer in 1977 as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife, and began trying, without success, to interest Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor authorities in converting it into a permanent tourist attraction.

That's when Webber, whose parents had honeymooned on the Catalina, came into the picture. Webber took out a 20-year lease on the vessel with an option to buy it, and he and Singer launched a grand scheme to restore the Catalina to passenger service between San Pedro and Avalon.

Citizenship Question

Webber said he had already spent more than $400,000 restoring the ship when the Coast Guard informed him that it was unlikely that the Catalina could be documented to resume passenger service because of Singer's Canadian citizenship.

Webber said he urged Singer to challenge the Coast Guard's preliminary determination. Singer said the ship belonged in part to his wife, an American citizen, and there should have been no documentation problem.

But the upshot was that the Catalina became a virtual vagrant in Los Angeles Harbor, continually breaking loose from its moorings, threatening other boats, and racking up thousands of dollars in unpaid fees and civil penalties.

Finally, the Coast Guard announced it was seizing the vessel, a process that almost certainly would have meant scrapping it and one that quickly prompted Webber to flee with his ship to Ensenada.

The Coast Guard was happy enough to see the last of the Catalina, Lt. Cmdr. Joe McFaul said. "We could see the options as it remaining in the harbor and the bills not being paid, or it not remaining in the harbor and the bills not being paid. At least it wasn't bouncing around the harbor anymore."

Never Gave Consent

But Singer was enraged, claiming that he never gave consent to the taking of the vessel out of the country and asserting, in his lawsuit, that he wants it back.

"The boat, as it is, is worth nothing," he said. "It's the future of the boat--what it could do. When it's fixed up, it could go back into cruising, and not necessarily to Catalina. The boat is larger than Catalina. I'm talking about Santa Barbara, San Diego, who needs to go to Catalina Island?"

Webber, who has filed a countersuit against Singer, says he has canceled checks for $1.69 million that he and various investors have spent on the Catalina. Webber claims that Singer wants the boat back now that he's restored most of it.

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