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Caught between heaven and hull

September 10, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Before I try to sell you the opportunity of a lifetime, some truth in advertising:

They say the two happiest days in the life of a boat owner are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.

You be the judge.

Six years ago, three partners and I set out from the Alamitos Marina in Long Beach on a 22-foot sailboat we had bought for $800, or $200 apiece.

It was no yacht, in other words. And we didn't even make it to the breakwater before oil began gushing down the shaft and the motor froze. Rather than do the sensible thing, which would have been to sink the boat and swim to shore, we got towed back to port and bought a new motor that cost exactly twice what we had just paid for the boat.

Smart boys, no?

A year later, having learned not a whit, the same four musketeers decided to upgrade to a boat named Interlude, which cost us $1,100 apiece. We were departing Alamitos on yet another maiden voyage when I observed, with great pride, that the motor was pleasingly quiet.

With good reason.

It had shut off, and we were soon drifting uncontrollably toward a bona fide yacht. One of my mates practically lost a leg fending us off, and now we were floating backward toward the concrete wall at Joe's Crab Shack, providing great entertainment for Sunday diners. With no time to spare, we got the motor started and averted disaster.

Why risk such embarrassment with every voyage, and why stay in the game when a replacement part the size of a safety pin costs the same as airfare to Hawaii.

Because I have a thing for salt air and open sea. The love affair began when I was a boy in the San Francisco Bay Area, and summer vacations were in Santa Cruz and Monterey. I knew I wanted to live close to the water someday, and my favorite thing about greater Los Angeles is that someone had the good sense to put it between mountain and sea.

We've sailed Santa Monica Bay, floated down to Redondo Beach for lunch, and crossed the channel to the quiet side of Catalina, where the water is turquoise and the land virtually unspoiled. We've seen schools of dolphins along the way, and always envied the folks who live the quiet life in the tiny beach town of Two Harbors.

It's also fascinating to watch the world's economy at work off the coast. Oil tankers cruise past us with high-priced crude, and container ships steam in from Asia packed with answers to the U.S. demand for cheap goods. One of these years, I'm going to visit a toy factory in China and follow the shipment across the sea and onto the trucks at the port, writing about all the lives along the route.

One of my mates on Interlude loves the marine life so much, he bought a second boat all his own from a former reporter. Its name is Newsboy.

But slip fees have been spiking in Marina del Rey, which used to be more of a playground for the middle-class in the days of aerospace and manufacturing. Now it's being rebuilt for the gleaming yachts of the super-wealthy. To save money, we decided to sell Interlude and all go in together on Newsboy.

First we offered the old boat cheap to friends, urging them to grab it before the rush.

No takers.

Then we tried Craigslist, listing the boat at $2,500, and noting that it was more than a boat -- it was waterfront real estate. Interlude sleeps four, some of them comfortably. And how else can a person get waterfront property -- a flotel, if you will -- for a monthly slip fee of $345?

A dozen people answered the ad, and we even scheduled an "open boat" to show it to prospective buyers.

But nobody came.

So we decided, with heavy hearts, to give the boat away.

And struck out again.

Has anyone around here looked at a map lately? That blue stuff is an ocean, and yet we couldn't give away a perfectly good boat. Sure, it needed a little work, but nothing major. We tried the Sea Scouts, who used to gladly take donated vessels. But the slow economy has hit the boat world hard, and the scouts have more than they can use.

Finally a Wilmington salvager named Jack Shubin expressed interest.

We thought we had him hooked, but then we talked again. A boat is a tough sell nowadays, he reminded us. He might be reduced to dismantling the keel and selling the ballast, and the price of lead was falling. But sure, he'd come see Interlude, although it was going to cost him a small fortune just to gas up his truck.

When he arrived, Shubin looked us over real good, sizing us up. He had grease under his fingernails, a face of red leather and a dust bowl voice. Crooks, women and the economy had done him in, he said, spinning his tales of junkyard philosophy. He knew he had us.

He might be persuaded to take the boat, he announced, if the price was right. But we had a different view of who should pay whom.

Great negotiators that we are, we got him down to $100, forked it over, and said goodbye to Interlude.

But I couldn't quite let go, and so I headed out to see Shubin one day last week. I drove down past the Valero refinery, a trash collection center and an auto demo yard. His lady came out of a double-wide trailer. A welder played ranchero music. Boat and vehicle parts were strewn from here to west Texas.

In the middle of the yard, Interlude was held aloft, dangling from a hoist like a lost orphan at a Rust Belt boat show. No takers yet.

"I just wanted to see our boat again," I told him.

"I thought it was my boat now," he said.

Indeed it is, and so last weekend we headed for Two Harbors in Newsboy. The hull was gouged by a mooring buoy, the dinghy sprung a leak and took on water with us aboard, we nearly got decapitated when the motor surged and sent us speeding toward the blades of a raised propeller.

Ah, the sailing life.

Tempted, landlubbers? Call Jack Shubin at (562) 432-8767, and it'll be one of the two happiest days of your life.


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