Newport Beach Once a Boat-Building Hub

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I think I’ve mentioned before that for as long as I can remember my Dad is my idol.

His achievements and charity in helping his community and people have always been a humane example of a self-fulfilled lifestyle. Since I was quite young spending time with him out and about in our Newport area was a joy. Usually these times were a bayside or boating-related event.

When I was about 5 years old my Dad asked if I wanted to go with him to visit a friend, Bob Dorris. I think he attended Newport Harbor High with Bob. We went to the Cannery Village area, in Newport, just down the street from the Cannery. During this time, it wasn’t a restaurant, but a noisy, smelly, bigger-than-life fish cannery. I think at this time it was canning cat food.

We went to the building and side boatyard that is now Alta Coffee. Bob and his wife lived upstairs at the site and Bob was building a wooden powerboat about 16 feet long. It had the design of what we called a “launch” in those days. A launch was built to carry passengers, usually from a much larger yacht, and could be towed or stowed on the deck of the yacht.

Bob was building several of these vessels. My Dad mentioned these were to be used at a future amusement park. In our area there were no amusement parks in those days, so I didn’t understand what he was talking about. In another year or two I learned what an amusement park was and saw these same boats in action. Our first visit to Disneyland included a ride on them through the open mouth of a whale in Storybook Land.

As we all know, these launches are still being used to this day. Bob is also well-known for the 1973 design of the 36-foot Grand Banks built by American Marine in Hong Kong. The design was an instant hit, and the sea-kindly ride and roomy interior for a 36-foot trawler has been copied from then to this very day.

Bob was also an avid sailor and crewed all over the world in races. He was a big man with a deep voice and gentle demeanor.

Another gentleman similar to Bob in size and stature was Jack Rumland. Jack and his family lived down the alley from us in Cliff Haven. Cliff Haven is the area beside Dover Drive and Coast Highway North to 16th Street and West to Irvine Avenue. Many times from about 6 years old to around 9 years old, my Dad and I would go to a local shipyard where Jack was building Newporter ketches. These handsome looking 40-foot ketches were some of the first wooden boats to be made from marine plywood. Many naysayers said boats made of marine plywood were not safe and the glue-lam would separate and the yacht would sink.

A Newporter ketch.

In the ’50s and ’60s our harbor had dozens of “Newporters.” I’ve included a picture of a Newporter for sale at Catalina, recently taken. Since their beginning I have read many stories from national sailing magazines of Newporters visiting ports all over the world. These sturdy vessels are very sea kindly. These yachts were very comfortable cruisers and with the pilot house, one of the first I can recall, that would allow you to look out the windows and see your surroundings. This design also was a breakthrough and copied many times and to this day. I guess we can put to rest the fear of marine plywood boats not being seaworthy.

As I have mentioned in past articles, the Newport area has been home to scores of sailboat and power boat manufacturers. It is sad in a way that our area is so successful because as it grew and became what it is today, boat building has been gradually displaced and replaced. The value of our land is so high that it is not cost-effective to continue to build boats here.

Many builders, along with Walt Disney, moved to a much cheaper area, which was central and southern Florida. Now that Florida has grown to what it is today, many builders have moved to Taiwan and China. This may be the next boatbuilding frontier, but the parts, engines and hardware are made in the good old USA.

Last week I mentioned I would visit with you about my recollection of how we paid for a new marina at the Balboa Bay Club.

The Bay Club and many other marinas, like Dana Point, were introduced to low cost concrete docks. These were to be the best investment a marina owner could purchase and were to last forever, similar to a concrete driveway. Within 10- to 15-year period, much shorter than is the case with their wooden counterparts, these docks started to crack and break-up.

In the early ’80s, this started to happen at the Bay Club as their docks had been replaced in the late ’60s and early ’70s. By the late ’80s, many of the slips were roped off and unusable.

Emergency repairs were the norm there. Our Coast Guard, beside the Harbor Department, came to the rescue. A new captain on the cutter was alerted to an emergency in the Lido Village area and steamed full-speed ahead down the bay to said emergency. The 6- to 8-foot wake caused the old, deteriorated docks at the Bay Club to disintegrate. The Bay Club sued, and I think they received $1-2 million dollars in damages. So, we paid for replacing their docks sooner, even though they were in terrible condition.

I hope everyone who likes deep-sea fishing gets out as soon as possible. The experts say this is the best fishing we’ve had in 20 to 30 years. I think I’ll follow my own advice. Tight lines!

Sea Ya,

Skipper Steve

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  1. in 1992-93, My bf & I restored a Newporter..hull # 37 built in 1957, beautiful boats! Thoroughly enjoyed the restoration and later sailing her! We parted company but he still owns her! I miss her! Enjoyed your article!
    I think we saw 5 other Newporters in our travels. I think 137 were built over a 20+- period from the mid 40’s to the mid 60’s. I had the history of all of them.