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First Yachts -- Now Their Own Island

Orange Coast College will use a donated islet for sailing and marine science programs.

February 13, 2003|Hilda M. Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Thanks to the donations of well-heeled yacht owners, Orange Coast College has assembled a first-class armada over the years. Students can sail across the Pacific or even circle the globe aboard yachts that once belonged to the rich and famous.

Now the Costa Mesa college's sailing program has somewhere to go: its own private island.

The 36-acre island, off the coast of British Columbia, is known locally as Rabbit Island, an uninhabited chunk of land thick with pines.

Henry Wheeler, a yachtsman well-known in the Southern California boating community and the island's former owner, recently donated the island to the college's School of Sailing and Seamanship.

"Just the idea of owning an island is kind of stunning," said Doug Bennett, executive director of the Orange Coast College Foundation.

"We had to make him comfortable with the idea that we could take the island, run programs within the island and make good use of it."

Taking advantage of the abundant life in the isle's waters -- including orcas, otters, seals, clams and mussels -- college officials plan to offer courses, probably during the summer, in marine sciences, island ecology, mammal research and kayaking.

"If you're interested in the marine sciences, the Pacific Northwest is truly an area you have to see because there is so much marine life," said Brad Avery, director of the School of Sailing and Seamanship.

Although Wheeler donated the island to the sailing program, marine science students may also enroll in the courses, which are expected to begin in the summer of 2004 and last between five and 14 days.

The state budget crunch, which threatens community college students with tuition increases and fewer classes, will not affect the anticipated programs, Bennett said.

Private funds will support island maintenance, which can run from $30,000 to $50,000 a year, Bennett said. Through tuition and additional fees for travel and housing, students will help fund the courses.

Despite its distance from Costa Mesa, the acquisition, valued at about $750,000, will nicely complement the school's marine science and boating programs, Avery said.

"I think part of education is traveling and going to a place that is different from other places you've already been," he said. Owning an island "enables our students to be in a completely different environment and introduce them to the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest."

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