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Sea of luxury

Plasma TVs, Steinways, walk-in freezers. On Newport Harbor's floating mansions, life is comfortable, curvy and grand.

August 07, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

When he was newly married in the late 1940s, John Crean would drive on hot summer days with his wife, Donna, from Anaheim to Newport Harbor. Like other tourists facing the cool ocean breeze, he pressed his nose against the invisible wall separating him from the yachts, cruisers and sloops skimming over green water or bobbing in their slips. Who are these people, he wondered. How can they afford this?

Now, the well-known Orange County philanthropist, who made his fortune in mobile homes, owns a yacht so big its maintenance costs are estimated at $1,000 a day. The 125-foot Donna C III has five staterooms, a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, a home theater and a Steinway player piano, bolted to the floor. It makes its own water, 100 gallons an hour, for drinking, showers and the Jacuzzi on the bridge.

The only problem is that Crean couldn't find a berth big enough in the harbor's yacht clubs. So he purchased a $7-million home on the north end of Lido Island for the slip alone. "It's a boathouse," he says with a chuckle.

One of the West's prettiest large harbors, Newport Harbor is a magnet for successful entrepreneurs, good-time day cruisers and sailors, longtime sailing families and blue-blazer traditionalists who like to say they made their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. Originally envisioned as a commercial port, the bay is big enough for weekly sunset sailboat races or for cruisers to motor over to Joe's Crab Shack or the Balboa Bay Club for dinner. But the slips are small, too short for the mega yachts that cruise Florida and the Mediterranean -- a fortunate situation since it has created a small-town ambience, a village of luxury, oceangoing mansions and seaworthy penthouse apartments.

No matter the state of the economy, builders and designers say the passion for new, bigger, more sophisticated and more personal yachts continues unslaked here. Interior decorators keep busy helping owners get what they want: homes away from home, offices to keep in touch with work, heliports, fireplaces and gyms.

When Raouf Halim, 43, sits at the helm of his $1.7-million, 64-foot Sunseeker, he breathes in an intoxicating aroma of saltwater and new leather. It's the same Italian leather, he says, used in Bentleys.

"What I love about the boat is that it's very consistent with my style: aggressive, fast-paced, technology-oriented," says Halim, chief executive officer of Mindspeed, a company that produces semiconductors for Internet equipment. The 16 pages of custom specifications he ordered for his yacht, handcrafted over 15 months in England, included high-end navigation systems, hideaway plasma TV screens and meticulous cherrywood and birch detailing.

The interior is carpeted in white and decorated with Italian silks.

Each room, including a master suite for himself and his wife and a three-bunk suite for his son and friends, is climate-controlled and equipped with its own satellite receiver and high-speed Internet connection. What's more, each is illuminated with rope lights on dimmers. "It's very romantic at night," says Halim.

Joel Romero, a broker who sells the Sunseeker, a relatively new model to the West, says most of his customers are "very organized people. All their time is scheduled. They have multiple businesses."

Too busy for long cruises, they often fly to meet their boats in Mexico, Alaska or the Caribbean. What about fishing? "If they want fish, they'll fly it in," Romero says.

Only a few are still interested in nautical stripes and emblems. "A lot of them say, 'I don't have to do that in my boat. It is a boat,' " says designer Teri Carano of Costa Mesa, who decorates about 120 boats a year in the 55- to 64-foot range. Her clients prefer what she calls "Southern California traditional," a clean-cut Ralph Lauren look with stripes and plaids, or Tommy Bahama's pineapples and palm trees in reds and golds.

"So many just want to sit down and feel comfortable and be happy in their boat," she says.

Unlike homes, boats are curvy, self-sufficient and mobile. "Every single thing is different because it's a boat," says Carano, who crewed on a boat for six years. Dishes need holding bars, counters need lips, and lose items -- such as toasters or vases -- need to be secured with Velcro or earthquake putty.

Mattresses need to be custom cut to fit beds that aren't rectangular. Because there's rarely enough room to make a bed or store sheets, Carano makes her clients thin sleeping bags with snap-out sheets for washing. When not in use, the bags roll up into bolsters tied with decorative cords.

Her son custom-makes special porthole shades (angled and secured) that are white on the outside so they don't spoil the lines of the boat.

Despite innovations in fabrics and finishes, interiors last only three to five seasons, Carano says. She suggests owners use longer-lasting synthetics instead of 100% cottons, silks or real leather.

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