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Snug by the Sea : Oceanside's Small Harbor Is Enjoying Its Day in the Sun

May 17, 1990|JOSEPH DITLER

As the sun prepares to disappear over the horizon, Oceanside's serene harbor takes on the look of a turn-of-the-century whaling port.

The sea is deep blue, and the harbor has turned into a sheet of glass as small fishing boats pull into their slips.

The Cape Cod Village that lines the harbor basks in the golden sunlight that comes at dusk. The deeper the sunsets, the more colors engulf the many restaurants and shops.

This tiny, man-made harbor has become the destination for tourists seeking pristine beaches and escape from city traffic.

Many of the harbor regulars say they chose it because it's smaller, quieter, less known than its nearest harbors--San Diego to the south, Dana Point to the north. But, as increasing numbers of visitors seek the same quiet refuge, the harbor is losing some of the quiet they come for.

"Between the sand project, our new fishing pier and our new docks," said harbor master Don Hadley, "we've seen a drastic increase in the number of people who regularly use the harbor. Many visitors are coming from Orange County. We've been discovered."

The harbor is a blend of shopping, sporting and culinary treats. Restaurants dot the mile-long shoreline, and a yacht club sits at the north end of the harbor, where boating events fill the calendar. A decorative lighthouse gives Cape Cod Village the look and feel of days gone by.

A commercial fishing fleet of 30 boats slips in and out each day, bringing fresh fish to market. But people can also buy directly from the boats, which dock beneath the Chart House Restaurant.

The tiny harbor was built in 1963, and its serenity now belies its turbulent beginning. The channel entrance was dredged to 30 feet that first year, but, in just 12 months the flow of sand made it one of the worst navigational hazards on the West Coast.

Hundreds of boats have been swamped and capsized over the years. A picture taken in 1964 shows then-harbor master Jon Curtis walking across the harbor entrance in waist-deep water.

"It was a real mess," said Curtis, now retired from the Harbor Police but still involved in area yachting activities. "They stopped counting when I rescued my 200th victim."

Curtis was nearly killed three times in the line of duty. He was honored in 1964 with the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Honor for heroism--he dived into heavy seas to rescue a mother and her two young children from a sinking boat. In 1979, he won the Coast Guard Medal of Bravery for another rescue in an accident that eventually claimed 11 lives.

"Waves would break 12 feet in that channel entrance due to the shallow water," Curtis said. Today, a large sand bypass pump stands on stilts at the channel entrance, like an overgrown sentinel of protection.

The bypass pump is an experiment by the Army Corps of Engineers to lift sand from the channel entrance and pump it back onto beaches south of the harbor. It appears to be working. The depth of the harbor entrance is about 20 feet at low tide. Boating is again on the rise.

There are no sailboat rentals in Oceanside Harbor, but the Yacht Club offers a sailing program for youngsters. The Yacht Club is at the north end of the harbor, between the Jolly Roger Restaurant and the Villa Marina Hotel.

Children ages 12-20 can participate in the beginner and intermediate classes, offered for $125. Sailing is done in the popular Dutch Shoe Sabots. You must join the club to participate; fees for children are $50 for initiation and $8.75 a month. Those who complete the course can rent sabots for $5 a day. They are stable enough to sail in or outside the harbor.

At the other end of the harbor is Helgren's Sportfishing, which provides whale-watching and sportfishing trips seasonally on its two Coast Guard-certified fishing boats.

The first yellowtail caught in Oceanside this year was landed April 28 on the boat Electra, out of Helgren's.

Other fish caught from the boats are bonita, barracuda, calico sea bass and halibut. Usually fresh anchovies are the bait of choice, but a complete selection of lures and frozen bait is also available. Helgren's also rents fishing rods and sells fishing licenses. Parking is free.

Capt. Mark Oronoz and Dick Helgren own the sportfishing fleet, which they brought down from Orange County 11 years ago "to get away from the crowds."

"This is a nicer location," Oronoz said, "with plenty of parking and the weather's beautiful. The fact that it's a small harbor actually helps business, because everyone wants to get away from the crowds."

On the east side of the harbor is the Oceanside Fishing Pier, which is separate from the much larger Oceanside Pier down the shore. No license is required to fish from the pier, and lights allow anglers to fish at night. Typically, the catch here includes croaker, sand shark, sea skate or the occasional halibut.

The harbor is a circus of activity on the weekends. The surf along the beach is some of the best for miles and is the scene of many international surfing events.

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