Having battled the elements for 51 years, having sunk no fewer than four times, the S.S. Michigan is preparing for yet another couple of face-offs, in Newport Harbor this weekend during the fifth annual Wooden Boat Festival. The 24-foot tugboat will compete in tugs of war against the Little Toot, another of the oldest boats around, Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m.
The Michigan's past is as colorful as the refurbished red, white, blue and yellow hull that it sports today. Built in 1940 for a local fishing family, it was abandoned in the 1950s, according to Jim Dale, the local restaurateur who owns it now with his son, Alex. Legend has it that Walt Disney cartoonists Dick Shaw and Virgil Partch discovered the boat half sunken in mud and slime under the Lido Island Bridge and paid a local boatyard owner $16 for it.
Shaw, the story goes, would use the Michigan for wild drinking parties, then leave it unattended and unprotected to collect water and rain for weeks on end. He crashed it twice, into the Balboa Bay Club pier and later into the Newport Harbor jetty. It went down both times--and again in the '60s when someone hit it with (get this!) a beer can he'd shot from a cannon.
Meanwhile, Cmdrs. Shaw and Partch had used the Michigan to launch what became the annual Character Boat Parade in the harbor. The zany duo would sail around, shouting to others to come join in and show off their own "ladies of the sea."
When Shaw died in 1976, his widow sold the boat to a retired businessman, who gave it to then-4-month-old Alex Dale as a Christmas present in 1979. In 1985, Jim Dale spent more than $10,000 to replace its bottom half (Jim says Shaw had been plugging up holes in the hull with his artist's pencils. "The bottom looked like a porcupine," he recalls).
Today, the Dales use the boat mostly for family pleasure trips, though they still enter it in the Character Boat Parade each August. It will be one of about 125 boats on display during the weekend festival, which kicks off Friday at 5 p.m. with a parade starting at the mouth of the bay and winding through the harbor to Lido Village.
The festival itself will be based at the Boy Scout Sea Base, 1931 W. Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. Saturday and Sunday's events will include live entertainment, a children's model boat building school, and a costume party. A sailboat regatta is scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 (free for children under 12). Information: (714) 644-8211.