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Boat repairman not ready to drop anchor yet

Tony Burica, 83, would like to retire from his Costa Mesa business, but locals say there's no one who can take his place.

August 23, 2011|By Mike Reicher, Los Angeles Times
  • Tony Burica, 83, of Tony's Boat Shop tightens screws on a tiller attached to a sabot at his shop in Costa Mesa. It's not really for the money here, he said in a thick accent, spreading his arms out and smiling broadly. I don't feel like I'm working.
Tony Burica, 83, of Tony's Boat Shop tightens screws on a tiller attached… (Kevin Chang, Daily Pilot )

Bring it to Tony.

That's what parents and coaches have been telling young sailors for more than 30 years.

Tony Burica repairs Naples sabots, the popular eight-foot boats that can be seen skimming across the water in places like Newport Harbor. As the summer racing season winds up, Burica, 83, begins another year of patching, sanding and painting.

And this may be his last.

As soon as he can find someone to take over his Victoria Street shop, which Burica built, he plans to retire to spend more time with his wife, Tereza. But local sailors suggest that nobody can replace him.

"He's like an Old World craftsman, and that's very difficult to find these days," said 54-year-old Mark Gaudio, a competitive sailor who brought his sabot to Burica when he was young and whose son now does the same.

Burica immigrated to the U.S. in a five-year odyssey from Croatia, his homeland. Burica said he and a friend eventually sailed across the Atlantic in an 18-foot wooden boat they built.

It was those skills that made Burica so valuable to William "Bill" Shock, a noted boat builder who operated out of Newport Beach's Cannery Village for decades.

After soaking up enough knowledge of fiberglass repair from Shock, Burica set out on his own. In 1979, he opened Tony's Boat Shop in a building near the Santa Ana River in Costa Mesa.

Today, the interior is coated with fiberglass dust and the corners of the shop are filled with masts, planks and booms stacked vertically in heaps. Dinghies — Lido-14s, Sabots, Lasers and other mainstays of Newport Harbor — sit on handmade dollies or trailers.

"He's so knowledgeable. It's like he has an encyclopedia," said Lily Hou, a Lido Isle mother who was dropping off her child's sabot this summer.

Burica may keep a boat for a week, fixing all its small problems, even those the owner didn't notice. He makes small repairs, takes his time to do them properly and doesn't charge much. As a consequence, Burica isn't swimming in cash. The building is paid off, he says, and he rents out some small homes.

"It's not really for the money here," he said in a thick accent, spreading his arms out and smiling broadly. "I don't feel like I'm working."

The math makes it hard to find a replacement. Others in the boat repair industry have approached him in hopes of renting space and at one point, Burica said, he had a deal to sell the building, but it fell through.

"It's hard to find a guy who would know how to do all this," he said.

People in the local sailing community agree. The International Naples Sabot Assn., which is based in Southern California, awarded him its annual appreciation award in 2009, when he began to talk about retirement.

"He's just extremely friendly, very talented," said Debbie Benedict, a director of the local sabot fleet and Lido Isle resident. "You feel very comfortable with him."

Burica works alone. He wears paint-splattered khaki pants, drinks water from a thermos and eats lunch from a black lunch pail, its grooved lid coated with dust.

His brother helped at the shop for 15 years, until retiring about two years ago because of back problems. Burica has a grandson and two grown sons — one lives in Irvine and works in the software industry, and the other works in warehousing in Sparks, Nev.

Generations of sailors come to Burica's shop, like Gaudio and his son.

"You don't see them for a couple years, and they're about 2 feet higher," Burica said.

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