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A Glass Boat and a Stone's Throw

The clear-bottomed vessel heads from Newport Beach to north state. It doesn't get far.

June 13, 2006|Kelly-Anne Suarez and Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writers

It took a good 800 feet of water to separate Rick Parker from his dream of turning a historic glass-bottom boat into a Cajun eatery.

City officials in Martinez had rejected the idea. They noted that their dilapidated marina near San Francisco Bay had some of the murkiest water in the state and therefore perhaps one of the worst sites for a glass-bottom boat.

But, gambling that he could win over city officials, restaurateur Parker bought the Phoenix anyway, becoming the owner of a 109-foot, wooden-paddle boat with a glass hull, 76 years of history and no home.

On Saturday, he and three crew members began the 450-mile voyage from Newport Harbor to Martinez, north of Oakland. The boat sank off of Malibu.

"At the time that the boat sank, Rick was on a last-ditch mission to bring the boat and show us how wonderful it was," said Rob Schroder, the mayor. "He was convinced that we would finally buy into the plan if he could just show it to us."

Parker wouldn't have had much time to make any converts. Martinez officials had denied his request to berth the Phoenix in the marina. Instead, he planned to use a guest site available to him for only two or three days.

The Phoenix's long journey to Davy Jones' locker began in 1930, the year a massive windstorm destroyed a glass-bottom boat that ferried tourists around Santa Catalina.

Materials for a new boat -- commissioned by the Wrigley family's Santa Catalina Island Co. -- included parts salvaged from the wreck, earning it the name Phoenix, according to Balboa historian Jim Fournier.

The ship was reported to be the world's largest glass-bottom boat, weighing 112 tons and accommodating 200 passengers. Its churning side-wheels and train-whistle horn gave the boat added charm.

For 63 summers, the vessel ferried tourists on 40-minute tours of Catalina's abundant marine life.

About 10 years ago, the Fun Zone Boat Co. bought the Phoenix and gave it a new home in Newport Harbor. The boat then embarked on a second life as a venue for weddings, corporate parties and other chartered events.

But age wasn't kind to the Phoenix. In its final years, the boat had become "a rust bucket" and "an eyesore," Fournier said.

Finally, with the 70-year-old Balboa Fun Zone undergoing a major face-lift, the Phoenix was no longer part of the site's future, and the boat was put up for sale.

Parker brought a copy of the advertisement to Schroder and asked about bringing the Phoenix to the Martinez marina.

"For the entire 10 years that I've held elected office here, we've been struggling to reinvent the marina," Schroder said. "So everyone said, 'That's great, that's wonderful.' "

The city hired a consultant to analyze the business plan. It was the subject of at least five meetings of the mayor and City Council.

Schroder said officials were encouraged by Parker's previous business experience, the successful operation of Le Beau's Louisiana Kitchen in Martinez.

"It's one of our finest restaurants," he said.

But the marina, where salt water and fresh water collide, has a chemistry that keeps an uncommon amount of silt suspended in the water.

"Overall, it just wasn't a business deal that they decided would be good for the city," said Richard Pearson, the city's community development director.

But Parker persisted, paying a six-figure sum to purchase his dream.

City officials said they weren't completely surprised.

"I guess you could say Rick is a dreamer," Schroder said. "He's not the kind of a businessman who would sit behind a desk, talk on the phone and send e-mail in a suit and tie. He's a free spirit."

The Phoenix's send-off Saturday was modest. Only the three crew members, Parker and Fournier were there to witness it.

Parker slammed a bottle of champagne into the bow of the ship. It didn't break -- in boating lore, a bad omen -- and required a second try.

As they sailed off, Fournier said he called out to Parker: "Are you going to rename the boat?"

Parker shook his head.

"Bad luck!" he shouted.

By the time the boat reached the coast of Malibu early Sunday morning, one of the 6-by-2-foot glass panes began to loosen, Schroder said Parker told him later.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Ray Lechner said Parker and his crew tried to pump out the incoming water.

"After four hours, they lost the battle," Lechner said.

A Los Angeles Fire Department search-and-rescue team responded to the crew's distress call and plucked the men from a lifeboat as the boat slowly sank.

The boat was up to date with its inspections, but it had not been certified to carry members of the public outside protected waters.

Since only crew members were on board, Parker's voyage to Martinez was within the law, Lechner said.

Lechner is investigating the cause of the sinking but said the boat was so deep that it would be difficult to send divers, and the boat would never be recovered.

Nevertheless, news reports said Parker hoped to find a way to raise the Phoenix.

He could not be reached for comment Monday. The mayor said Parker's cellphone went down with the ship.

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