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Captains Say the Fun Is in the Journey

Tour guides' patter -- some of it made up -- enhances Newport Harbor boat tours.

August 04, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Fact or fiction?

Did James Irvine, the ranching tycoon, note in his will that the color of his home overlooking Newport Harbor be kept a bright blue, a hue that has become an eyesore for some neighbors? Is there a color named Irvine blue?

Does Don Crevier, owner of the Santa Ana car dealership that routinely sells the most BMW in the nation, have an elevator in his home because he's a Hollywood stuntman and often comes home injured?

Are the sea lions clinging to buoys the ones that were trained to fetch, roll over and catch a ball at Sea World in San Diego?

Tour guides along the Newport Beach coast who narrate, steer and provide spiels to thousands of tourists will tell you they're not sure either.

But it sounds good. And it sells.

"Laughs are what people want when they're on vacation," said Capt. Scott Kaatmann, 32, of La Habra, who has been giving tours in Newport Beach for more than five years. "It's all about fun."

Kaatmann is among a handful of captains who are trained and paid to brag year-round about Newport Beach's finest. Spicing up its Hollywood connections and passing along gossip about the lives of the rich and famous attracts more tourists, more fun, more for the tip jar.

Plus, when you've been boasting about the city's hot spots for years, eight tours a day, you've got to keep yourself entertained, too.

"By the time it's your sixth tour of the day, you're well done," said Charlie Maas, 47, of Newport Beach, who has been a captain for two years.

The narrated sightseeing tours, offered by Fun Zone Boat Co. and Catalina Passenger Service, have been a harbor fixture for more than 50 years. The two companies each offer at least a dozen tours a day -- both 45-minute and 90-minute versions -- on patriotic-colored boats.

The tour companies provide their captains with basic information about the harbor that is updated annually. Then it's up to the captains to tease it, spin it and pad it with personal style. To keep their patter fresh, they read real estate news, search the Internet and pass along gossip they hear on board and around town.

"If I was saying the same thing every day I'd go insane, so I have to make it more interesting," said Kaatmann, a high-energy, surfer-type guy with a goatee, cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He looks years younger than the sound of his deep radio voice that resonates over a microphone.

He steers the Queen, a 99-passenger boat owned by Fun Zone. On a recent day it was half-filled with sightseers eager to soak up local color. Among the tidbits he tossed -- with no guarantee that the facts are true:

* A contractor who worked on a Mediterranean house where King Gillette once lived told him that the razor giant died and left the home to his two sons. The brothers got into an argument and decided to split the home through the hallway.

* A passenger once told him that the head of Shea homebuilders has a glass floor in the kitchen so if you walk into the home, you can see the bottom of a cave. "I have a theory," he told the crowd. "People who have too much money, they do really stupid things."

* The custom blue-tile roof on a remodeled house that once belonged to George Hoag, founder of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, cost $300,000, he guessed. The house was sold two months ago for $8.7 million, he told his audience. "The new owners want to tear it down and rebuild it," Kaatmann said. "I did a lot of research to find out who the new owner is. I found out it was some rich guy."

* The home of Henry Segerstrom, who owns South Coast Plaza, has only one bedroom. "They say Mr. Segerstrom doesn't like overnight guests," Kaatmann said.

* To the right is Catalina Island, he tells them. Beyond that is Hawaii, about 2,224 miles away. It'll take you about eight weeks to get there with the Queen.

Captains say their spiels change, depending on the crowd. Youngsters like to hear about the pelicans and sea lions; older crowds want to see the American Legion Hall and learn about old-time movie stars such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne who lived in the area.

Many tourists say they're not bothered by the white lies.

"As long as they're not hurting anyone, it's harmless," said Betty Hanover, 76, of Sacramento, who was visiting her brother in Fullerton. "Word of mouth is probably where they get it from, but I'm a tourist, and I'm looking for excitement."

She said all the expensive homes and boats "make you wonder where the money comes from, but now I know who owns them."

Arleen Drew, 58, of Maryland, said she'd like to believe what the captains are saying.

"It would be nice to be authentic. You'd hope to hear the truth," said Drew, who was visiting her nephew in Rancho Santa Margarita.

"That's what you're paying for.

"But as long as it's not detrimental, I can live with that."

Some day-trippers, however, aren't so sure.

"He was very entertaining, but I wondered if everything he was saying was the truth," Susan Trachtenberg, 49, of Los Angeles, who brought her in-laws on the tour, said of Kaatmann. "He could tell me it's Bill Gates' home and I wouldn't even know.

"I understand why they do it, because if you're from Kentucky, you wouldn't know," she said. "But I live in Los Angeles, and Hollywood is part of my culture and I'd like to know the truth."

Some locals have even come aboard to set the record straight. "Newport Beach people are not afraid to tell you that you're wrong," Kaatmann said.

Captains say it's not all made up, just a mixture of fact, fiction and fun.

"It was the truth at one time or another," Kaatmann said.

"I stretch it a bit to get giggles. That's what I'm here for -- the laughs, the ohs and the ahs."

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