Nineteen years and two ex-wives ago, Don Mitchell determined to go down to the sea in a boat of his own making, a dream he clung to with all the perseverance of Ahab in his fictional quest for the whale Moby Dick.
And so it was with a great smile that Mitchell finally cast off from his Van Nuys driveway and took his homemade cutter on its maiden voyage through tree-lined streets and over the Sepulveda Pass to its slip in Marina del Rey.
The circuitous road trip, which had to be carefully planned to avoid low overpasses, ended nearly two decades of work by Mitchell, 55, who built the 45-foot boat from scratch in his back yard because he "wanted a big boat, but couldn't afford one."
When he began the project back in 1972, Mitchell told his wife that he "could knock this guy out in two years. Hands down, no problem."
The task proved vaster than he expected.
"I'm not really on schedule," he conceded recently.
During the boat's gestation, Mitchell got divorced, married and divorced again. And he raised three daughters and doubled the size of his house.
When the boat reached its slip in the marina June 12, about 15 friends and relatives watched as Mitchell's mother, Helen Mitchell, 80, christened it Orion--after the Van Nuys street where the boat slowly took shape. A friend gave Mitchell a bottle of Dom Perignon to break over Orion's bow. Mitchell, saying he could not bear to see a $125 bottle of bubbly splattered all over the dock, supplied his mother with a $2.99 substitute.
For the time being, Mitchell's dreamboat is a motorboat. The mast won't be ready for a month, and the sails for another month after that.
His first trip? "To sail to the breakwater and back. That would make me pretty happy."
After that? "It's all baby steps. Maybe the first buoy."
Eventually, though, Mitchell has his sights set on destinations beyond the horizon.
His first extended trip will be to Avalon.
And then--who knows?--he would like to sail north to Alaska or south to the Gulf of California. So far, there are no plans for a trip around the world, but Mitchell did not rule it out entirely.
"If it's a good boat . . . maybe."
That remains to be seen. In its first hours in the water, Orion sprang a couple of small leaks that were quickly repaired. Mitchell was to spend the next few nights aboard Orion, which sleeps six, making adjustments and looking for problems.
"If it sinks in the slip, I'm going down with it."