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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Lure Of The Coastline : Sailor's Delight

October 16, 1988|SHEARLEAN DUKE | Duke is a Newport Beach free-lance writer and sailor.

The county's first yacht club was founded in 1909. By 1911, 30 pleasure boats were moored in Newport Harbor. By 1932, the number had grown to 900. By 1941, there were nearly 3,000. Yachting really took off in 1948 with the first Newport to Ensenada race. In the '50s and '60s, the harbor attracted more boats and produced more and more champion sailors in Sabots, Snipes, Lido 14s and Thistles. In 1950, Newport Beach hosted the first national collegiate championship. But it was in 1970 that the town attracted worldwide attention as a yachting center. That year Bill Ficker skippered Intrepid to victory in the America's Cup. Today, Orange County is home to more than 60,000 boats.

Early settlers knew it as San Joaquin Bay, but once the flat-bottomed stern-wheeler Vaquero in 1870 navigated the treacherous surf off what is now Corona del Mar, word spread fast of a "new port" between San Pedro and San Diego.

Soon other commercial ships were passing through the shallow and dangerous entrance to reach the natural, landlocked harbor and unload their cargoes of hay, grain, lumber and other supplies. No longer did Orange County's early settlers have to rely on goods reaching them via nearly impassable roads from San Pedro.

It was Newport Beach's natural, but hard-to-reach harbor that literally put it on the map more than 100 years ago, first as Newport Landing, then as the proposed town site of Newport. For Orange County, it was the beginning of a chapter of boating history that still is being written along the coast from Huntington Harbour toDana Point.

Although the first boats to ply the waters of the county's first harbor were commercial vessels such as the Vaquero, it wasn't long before men like Albert Soiland, the "father of yachting" in Orange County, began to sail small pleasure craft across Newport Bay. In 1909, Soiland founded the county's first yacht club, called simply Station A. It was a chapter of the South Coast Yacht Club in San Pedro and a forerunner of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, which opened in 1916.

In 1911, about 30 pleasure boats were moored in the harbor. By 1932, that number had grown to 900. By 1941, there were nearly 3,000, according to the Newport Times.

Today, Orange County is home to more than 60,000 boats. Boat slips have become as pricey and hard to get as prime real estate. Some marinas have two- to five-year waiting lists. And although slip rents range from $8 to $11 a foot per month countywide, some Newport Beach boat owners pay as much as $18. The average monthly slip fee for a 40-foot boat--which costs anywhere from $75,000 to $200,000--is $440.

Boat prices have climbed as dramatically as slip space has dwindled. For example, in 1936, an average, locally built 24-foot powerboat cost $1,345, and a 55-foot sailboat cost $12,500. Comparable boats today cost $33,000 and $335,000, respectively.

Despite those costs, Orange County has earned an international reputation as a yachting center and is home to many world-champion sailors, according to Newport Beach boating enthusiast Bill Ficker, who, in 1970, became the first West Coast skipper to defend the America's Cup.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF yachting in Orange County is tied to the development of the county's oldest and largest harbor--Newport Harbor, which opened in 1936. (The county's two other harbors opened much later: Huntington Harbour in 1962 and Dana Point Harbor in 1971.)

As early as 1906, when the three small communities of Balboa, East Newport and Newport voted to incorporate as the city of Newport Beach, there was talk of developing the area's principal asset: Newport Bay. The difficulty of getting through the surf, across the sand bar and safely into the bay drove brothers James and Robert McFadden in 1888 to build a commercial wharf (site of today's Newport Pier) outside the harbor so that ships could load and unload their cargoes.

Even though several people were killed and boats were swamped and often went aground trying to enter the harbor, early sailors such as Soiland continued to cross the shallow inlet. In a booklet titled "The Saga of Newport Bay," Soiland--who not only sailed here but bought two bay-front lots in Newport for a total of $1,500 in 1903--wrote: "We had to enter the harbor by lying outside until the big breakers subsided and then run in bumping over the sand bars with an incoming tide . . . it was not safe to get into and out of the bay."

Because the entrance was so dangerous, the harbor's first jetty was built in 1917, when the city began dredging a channel along the inner shore of the peninsula.

Lyman H. Farwell, who was 11 years old when the jetty was built, remembers "going down to the end of the peninsula" and watching as the first jetty rocks were dropped into place. Farwell, an ardent yachtsman who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday by going sailing, is one of two remaining "lifetime members" of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, the oldest of the county's 11 yacht clubs. (Farwell's brother, Felix, is the other.)

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