For 20 years, the schooner Swift of Ipswich belonged to actor James Cagney, who regularly sailed the 70-footer for pleasure before it was turned into a roadside curiosity in Newport Beach and eventually sold to a wealthy Santa Barbara restaurateur.
The Swift's sister ship, Bill of Rights, was the oceangoing equivalent of a dude ranch. As a charter boat on the East Coast, it hauled loads of well-to-do landlubbers who hankered for a taste of the sea.
Today, both schooners are fixtures in the Port of Los Angeles, but they no longer play host to society's elite or armchair yachtsmen.
Under the current ownership, their mission has become more altruistic--carrying troubled youngsters from the county's toughest neighborhoods and providing them a few lessons about seamanship and life.
Based at Berth 84 in San Pedro, the Swift of Ipswich and the Bill of Rights now serve the TopSail Program, a maritime academy whose students include gang members, wards of the court and other at-risk youngsters.
TopSail's formula is basic: Positive things can happen if young people, even those in the worst situations, are treated with respect, put in a friendly atmosphere and provided the chance to do something unique.
The program, which was founded by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute in 1991, serves more than 1,000 adolescents a year--many of them the type of dysfunctional youths other programs don't have the patience for.
"We look for the bottom 5% of schoolkids, the ones lacking confidence or the kid who thinks he or she will have a life of failure," said Jim Gladson, a retired schoolteacher who started the program. "Those are the ones we want to reach."
Young people are channeled to TopSail by a variety of social service organizations, youth groups, middle schools and high schools throughout Los Angeles County.
Those selected are supervised by TopSail crews, which are drawn from a list of more than 400 volunteers, including business executives, professionals, teachers and retirees.
The typical course includes a series of daylong sails, followed by a three- to five-day trip to the waters around Santa Catalina Island.
"The payback is huge working with these kids," said Charlie Abbott, 42, a crewman on the 90-foot Bill of Rights. "I've found that with some of the tougher ones, the boats tame them."
Last week, 22 students from Burbank Middle School and Florence Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles set out from the harbor to begin the sequence of day sails.
At the dock next to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, anticipation coursed through the group. "Can I steer?" one youngster asked.
"Let's swim with the mermaids," another said.
"Oh my God, are we going out on that?" a girl remarked before descending the gangplank.
Once on board the Swift and Bill of Rights, baggy chinos and Air Jordans mixed with deck shoes and polo shirts. Slang and occasional profanity blended with archaic commands from an era when ships were propelled by the wind.
"Ready on the peak! Ready on the throat!" yelled Lindsey Philpott, a crewman helping to raise the sails on Bill of Rights.
"Ready," the students answered.
Then the port and starboard teams started tugging on two lines that would hoist the foresail. It was tricky business because the front and rear of the boom had to rise at an even pace to set the sail efficiently.
As the spreading canvas neared the top of the mast, it became heavier and the program's young charges began to feel the strain in their backs and arms.
"Ah man, I don't know if I can do this . . . " one 13-year-old complained.
"Let's go! You can do it!" yelled Alice Robinson, another member of the crew. "I want to see some sweat, pain and agony. I want to see your muscles bulging."
Robinson is often the designated "mom" for the outings. Creating a semblance of family on board is part of her job.
"I've learned to shoot craps, use a spray can and hot-wire a car from some of these kids," Robinson said. "But they have learned something from us about marine life, the constellations and what it means to accomplish something."
When Chris Lopez, 12, of Nightingale Middle School first came aboard the Bill of Rights in his baggy sweatpants and black T-shirt, he was worried about everything--most of all sinking.
Lopez paced the deck, saying: "Are there rocks on the bottom? Are we gonna hit that big ship over there? Is it scary to turn?"
He took a try at the ship's wheel, which was taller than he was, but wandered off after a few minutes, leaving it unattended. Given a second chance at the helm, Lopez stuck with it throughout the day, dutifully following Gladson's commands.
Robinson even marked the boy's hands with a felt pen to help him distinguish port from starboard.
"Look at me, man. I'm driving the ship. I'm driving the ship," Lopez said.
"When that kid got here, he couldn't focus on anything," Gladson said. "We are looking for improvements like this--the small successes that build upon themselves."