Most ships are named for women and captained by men, but the 60-foot-tall Spike Africa in Newport Beach is named for a legendary man who sailed the Pacific and is captained by a 32-year-old woman who is a former nurse and model.
Monika Sloan, captain and owner of one of Orange County's best-known boats, inherited the schooner from her late husband, Bob Sloan, who built the boat in the early '70s in his Costa Mesa back yard and named it for a colorful and well-known sailing friend.
When Bob Sloan died of leukemia in 1986, Monika Sloan was faced with a tough decision. She could sell her husband's beloved Spike Africa, whose ongoing maintenance and monthly slip fees consume thousands of dollars, or she could keep the boat and find a way to make it pay.
"I didn't want to sell it," says Sloan, who feels that as long as she owns the boat she is keeping her late husband's dream alive. "Besides, this is a unique vessel," she says. "It is part of local history."
So in May, 1986, shortly after her husband's death, Sloan opened a charter business, using the Coast Guard-certified vessel to carry passengers on day sails, bay cruises and overnight trips to Catalina. Although the business is still in "the break-even" stage, it has allowed Sloan to keep the boat and to earn her Coast Guard-approved captain's license.
Getting the Coast Guard license was not that difficult, says Sloan, who has been sailing since she was 12. "Having gone through nursing school and knowing how to take tests helped me on the written part," she said. "And you have to document that you've spent more than 1,000 days at sea. With all the sailing Bob and I did that was easy."
During her 5-year marriage, Sloan worked in her husband's business, delivering boats to and from Mexico, up and down the Pacific and from coast to coast. "I was cook and cleaner," Sloan said with a laugh, "but I always stood my watch." (Bob Sloan, who was 50 when he died, had logged more than 1 million sea miles in delivery work, including 50 trips through the Panama Canal.)
The Sloans used Spike Africa, which served as their home, to deliver cargo, to tow other boats and as a prop in movies and commercials. Sloan still gets an occasional movie or TV job for Spike Africa, which has appeared in such television shows as "Hotel" and "Riptide."
"The boat is so photogenic we've also done catalogue and magazine photo shoots and have appeared in video movies," said Sloan, who would like to see that part of her business grow. Pictures of Spike Africa have appeared in Vogue, Time, Woodenboat and Land's End Catalogue.
The sight of Spike Africa being carried by the wind through the open ocean is breathtaking. Even those unfamiliar with boats recognize the schooner's classic lines and rare beauty--a beauty maintained only by a never-ending process of sanding, painting and varnishing.
For the past 12 years, Spike Africa has been docked in front of the Rusty Pelican restaurant, where diners can gaze at the vessel's sleek, wooden hull and dream of voyages at sea.
This year for the first time, Sunday brunch diners can arrange for excursions on the vessel. Through mid-March, the restaurant is offering "whale-watching brunches" that, for $35 a person, include a 10 a.m. brunch at the restaurant and an 11:30 a.m. whale-watching excursion aboard Spike Africa. Passengers return at 2:30 p.m. (For information, call the Rusty Pelican at (714) 642-3431.) In addition, whale-watching cruises aboard Spike Africa will be given each Saturday through mid-March for $20 a person. (For information, call (714) 642-9988.)
Between charters, Sloan, an admitted fanatic about the boat's cleanliness, personally inspects the vessel's interior and performs many daily maintenance chores ranging from cleaning the heads to scraping paint on deck.
"Every day there is work to do. Being in the charter business wears on the boat," she says, sitting on the foredeck, dressed in well-worn jeans and a pullover sweater. The clothes are a far cry from the $1,000 Halston gowns Sloan used to wear as a runway model for luxury department stores.
"I've completely given up on my nails," she joked. "But I enjoy going home and dressing up--maybe putting on an evening gown. I enjoy the contrast."
Eventually, when the business is established, Sloan would like to be able to use Spike Africa once again for her own pleasure. But for the time being, she can't afford to miss any charter opportunities.
"The beauty of the vessel is its versatility," she said. "We now do everything from cocktail cruises and Catalina trips to burials at sea--which may sound morbid but are not."