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Growing Up Newport: Emerson, Mom and Jimmy Cagney

Naturally, our Mom was a big booster in making sure we were on time for sailing as we grew up.

Emerson, the boatman at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club for probably more than 40 years, ran the club shore boat. Emerson’s schedule was Monday through Friday, and he would pick up kids (non-calms) fromn 8 to 9 a.m. at five bayfront areas throughout the harbor, and have us at the club by 9 a.m. for sailing classes, activities, lectures and races. Our activities would end around 3-3:30 p.m., which gave us free time until 5 p.m., when Emerson would reverse the process and take us to the drop-off points on the bay.

We would ride our bikes from Cliff Haven to Bayshores and Emerson would pick us up at my grandparents’ dock. From there, he would stop at the Bayshore beach dock and continue along his journey. Mom knew if we were late we would literally miss the boat. Emerson performed the same service for my Aunt Mary a generation before us.

While Dad was busy at work, our biggest promoter while racing our boats was Mom. If we missed the shore boat she would drive us to the club. When we were older, she would insist we ride our bikes. This was great incentive to be on time for Emerson.

As I noted, we had free time from around 3 p.m. until the 5 p.m. return trip. We would play games involving swimming in the bay, and cross Balboa Boulevard to go body surfing. If the surf was big, we would walk down to 15th Street, which always had the biggest surf in this area. The most fun surfing was when the lifeguard stands had a yellow flag. Only the biggest and best of the older kids surfed when the red flag was flying. Being a little skinny kid, I enjoyed the yellow flag and never journeyed out in red-flag conditions.

Emerson had an interesting life before his retirement to the club. He captained freighters in Alaska. After many years up north, he was quite happy with our Southern California weather. He always wore a khaki uniform with a captain’s hat. At the end of summer there was a family dinner to hand out kudos to kids who excelled. This was the only time we would see Emerson hatless and in a suit and tie. He was always included because of all the help he gave us and his tanless bald head stuck out like a sore thumb.

As we kids were more than a handful, it was also the only time Emerson was happy and smiling. In hindsight I’m sure it was a relief for him to see summer wind down and school start. The man had the patience and tolerance of a saint.

Although our sabots and snowbirds had fiberglass hulls, the masts and booms were varnished wood. About twice a year Mom would come to the club and direct the proper procedures for stripping, bleaching and applying many coats of varnish to the masts and boom. The sabot leeboard, rudder and tiller also were wood and needed the same care. The snowbird had a fiberglass and wood centerboard which we didn’t have to care for, but the tiller and rudder needed prep and varnishing, also.

Much later on, she purchased an 18-foot Century lapstrake mahogany launch which had a varnished deck and stern. She always had those areas glistening and the painted hull was ship shape. The launch could seat about eight people and the mahogany seats were varnished. The folks enjoyed many years of bay cruising with their wine at hand. The name of the vessel was “Martha’s Vineyard” as Mom’s name is Martha. There were grapes painted on the varnished stern along with the name in gold leaf. Mom drove the boat and handled all upkeep, and Dad sat in the back seat always with a big smile on his face.

Following years of Mom’s complaints about the major expense of Dad’s boats, when she found the sunken launch at the Sea Base the complaints ceased and desist. Mom hoped it wouldn’t cost much to restore the yacht and Dad smiled and agreed. We never heard again about any boat expenses, as the launch restoration could have bought a new Mercedes. For many years she kept her boat at my sister’s home on West Bay Avenue.

Also during this time, there was a pirate ship moored off Bayshores. To us it was quite large and painted red and called The Swift. Years later I learned the owner would yell at my Dad from his house in front of the boat to get the heck off his boat. My Dad was about 16 and would swim out, climb aboard and jump off.

I was told this by the owner when I was about 12. He was the brother of James Cagney, the actor, and they had the boat made for the movies. His brother had a beach house adjacent to the Bayshores beach, and my grandmother always referred to her friend as Jimmy. Bill and James Cagney bought a lot of land in the area in the 1940s and sold some of it in the ’70s – beside Hoag Hospital and to the west. Part of their holdings is now Newport Crest and Villa Balboa.

The Swift now has a much more formal name and is part of a fleet of antique boats in San Pedro which forms the Los Angeles Nautical Museum.

Fishing has dropped off lately, but the rest of the month there are many offshore fishing tournaments. The end of the month, Avalon will have an air show and commemorate Glenn Martin flying the first seaplane ever to take off and land which happened to be in Avalon and return which was 100 years ago. We will be part of the fleet to cheer on Jetlev flyer Dean O’Malley’s trip from Balboa to Avalon for this same air show.

Sea Ya,

Skipper Steve

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