Story by Leslie A. Westbrook
Photos by Henry L. Fechtman
Pleasure Boats & the Santa Barbara Harbor Scene
“The only cause my husband Humphrey Bogart ever gave me to be jealous of was not of a woman but of a boat—a racing yacht called Santana. He was in love with her sleek lines, and the way she moved in the water. Sailing was his greatest joy. But I got seasick. I didn’t want to sail, I wanted children.”—Lauren Bacall
We can thank yeast baron Major Max Fleischmann—industrialist, adventurer, yachtsman and humanitarian—who adopted Santa Barbara as his home in the 1920s and helped create the breakwater, thus paving the way for Santa Barbara’s long-desired harbor. Fleischmann donated the funds to build the breakwater, which was completed in 1929, so he could moor his 218-foot luxury yacht Haida in Santa Barbara (which he did for ten years). Fleischmann owned 22 yachts during his lifetime. Other wealthy sailors followed suit over the decades. Bogey sailed our shores and won races in the 1950s. James Cagney briefly owned Stearns Wharf and brought his renowned yacht, Swift of Ipswich, which later became a charter boat and tourist attraction, to Santa Barbara. Errol Flynn’s magnificent 75-foot wooden ketch, Sirocco—under different ownership at the time—sailed in and out of the Santa Barbara harbor in the 1950s and late 1960s. Current Hollywood folks drawn to the local waters include Law & Order television producer/creator Dick Wolf and his wife Noelle’s pleasure craft, Guilty. The Channel Cat, an 85-foot luxury catamaran owned by Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett’s partner) is often available for local charities.
However, the Santa Barbara harbor is much more than yachts and big boats. It has an important commercial fishing element. And a fine maritime museum. But it’s the people who gravitate to the sea that are the heart and soul of one of our town’s most treasured neighborhoods. “The harbor is really different every day. If it’s not the weather, it’s the people. If it’s not the people, it’s the events going on, “ says Mick Kronman, harbor operations manager for the City of Santa Barbara waterfront for the past 15 years.
Kronman provides facts on the city-within-a-city he oversees with his $13-million annual budget collected from user fees, slip owners, parking, ground leases and the like. “The priority is commercial fishing and recreational boating,” says Kronman. “There are 80 to 90 commercial fishing boats in the harbor, bringing in black cod, lobster, sea urchin and other catches of the day.” Fish is sold at wholesale to distributors, sold to the public at the Saturday morning Fisherman’s Market and always available at the venerated Santa Barbara Fish Market, open seven days a week.
There are 1,139 slips in the harbor, with monthly berthing for 1,103 registered boats. Sailing and powerboats are pretty much divided 50/50. Full time live-aboards, who make up about 10% of the boat population, range from 150–180 hearty souls, depending on their whereabouts. Live-aboard Dawn Sherry calls her eight-minute-long walking commute in high heels to her boat “The Walk of Love.”
While the harbor is open to everyone, the marinas are not. Sure, you can stand there with a picnic basket in hand, wearing Topsiders, and someone will eventually let you through one of the four marina gates, but legal access is restricted to boat owners and their guests. Gaining “permission to come aboard” a moored boat is another matter. Boat owners seem to fall into two camps: those who are incredibly friendly and welcome guests, friends and even strangers onboard to show off their baby—many seemingly know more about their boats than their first-borns—and those who are notoriously private and publicity shy. The bigger the boat, the shyer the owner, it seems.
Dawn Sherry, an architect and musician, lives aboard her recently acquired 50’ Grand Banks, Aurora (“Dawn” in Latin), which she is decorating “mid-century modern style,” on Marina 1. Sherry related so much to the book Diary of a Sea Captain’s Wife: Tales of Santa Cruz Island—the account of Margaret Eaton, who operated Pelican Bay Camp and was considered “a woman living in a man’s world”—that she soon realized a life near and on the water was for her. A talented architect (she designed Santa Barbara Public Market), Sherry moved into the harbor in 2000.
“It’s an interesting lifestyle, but it’s not for everybody,” she advises. “You have to be resourceful. When the boat comes loose in the middle of the night, you have to get up and tie the lines.” And a woman/boat owner’s work is never done, she adds: “It takes three hours just to clean the outside of the boat. The maintenance is not unlike the Golden Gate Bridge—you are living in a hostile marine environment and always polishing things!” However, she and her lab, Bridget, both love the camaraderie of her ’hood—neighbors often gather for dinner or to play music and hang out on each other’s boats.
“I love it here—I feel like I am on an island,” she says. “I like the water all around me. I never tire of sitting on my back deck and looking at the view or seeing the baby seals hanging out. I don’t even mind the dredge—its part of the water world and part of Santa Barbara.”
Garrulous, friendly “Bear” Kramer, owner of Hotel California and a triple captain (U.S. Merchant Marine, Coast Guard and recently retired airline pilot), welcomes me aboard and says, “I’m not boasting, but she is the most beautiful boat in the harbor.” This, I guess, explains why his 48’ Choey Lee is often booked for fashion shoots by clients such as Ann Taylor and Land’s End. “We strip her down for a shoot, and she looks like an Italian racing yacht,” he enthuses. He and Cinda, his bride of two years and an airline purser for 41 years (they have six children and six grandchildren between them), are launching wedding dinner sails—romantic sunset cruises for brides- and grooms-to-be before the big day, with dinner served onboard, replete with U.S. Navy flatware and dinnerware that Bear’s collected over the years. Their first wedding dinner cruise was for their daughter.
The Ocean Alexander yacht Torqua is a classic beauty—all 93’, 10” of her—named for Torqua Springs on Catalina Island. The highly respected Jim Wulff, who often sails the owners to Avalon Bay, captains her. Seeing his signature pith helmet when welcomed aboard, one feels assured that this knowledgeable, well-known sea captain will get the boat and her guests to their destination safely. Torqua has four staterooms, marble bathrooms, wall-to-wall carpet, a much-used washer/dryer (for beach towels) and an engine room the captain calls “The Temple,” but no Wi-Fi, ensuring a truly old-fashioned vacation. According to her owners, she has been a “wonderful recreational platform providing countless hours of pleasure for friends and the family,” which includes three sons.
Santa Barbara Yacht Commodore Joanne Gordon—the second woman commodore in yacht club history—and her husband, Scott, own a pretty 52’ motor sailor ketched rig called Endeavour. They fell in love with the custom-built, one-of-a-kind boat, Scott says, when they tried, but failed to buy her in a three-way bidding war. But when the boat (named for a British Royal Navy battleship that ran aground in the 1800s) came back on the market several years later—with some $350,000 worth of improvements—they were able to purchase her for the original asking price. The couple’s family has been cruising to the Channel Islands ever since their now-grown children (including one son, who lives aboard a boat in the harbor) were babies, carried onboard along with “fold-up cribs and Johnny Jump Ups.” Scott can often be found working on Endeavour—it’s little surprise the yacht was recently awarded the Jefferson Cannon award from Santa Barbara Yacht Club for “Best Maintained Yacht,” power or sail (the cannon is used annually at opening day ceremonies).
For Arthur McNary, it all began 27 years ago on his first sailing date with his wife, Sherri, and a “crazy dream” to buy a boat and sail the Caribbean. Now Green Flash, a 47’ luxury cruising catamaran, is new to the Santa Barbara harbor and one of many charter boats available to the public wanting a taste of boating life without buying one. (Santa Barbara Sailing Center books the charters.) After living aboard in the Caribbean, Arthur and Chef Sherri, a native Santa Barbaran, brought Green Flash through the Panama Canal to Santa Barbara, where their three grown children live.
The couple crews Green Flash themselves—they have put 4,000 nautical miles on her to date—and Arthur notes, “Santa Barbara is a great little harbor—everyone has been so nice and welcoming!” Green Flash has two queen-size berths and a kids’ cabin and can sail at 14 knots—twice as fast as other catamarans in her class. She can accommodate up to six guests on cruises ranging from 2.5 hours to overnight trips to the Channel Islands. Sherri’s food/adventurer blog, flashinthepan.us, features an extensive list of her recipes for tasty fare served onboard, such as fig, caramelized onion, goat cheese flatbread pizza; jalapeno cilantro lobster cakes; and gazpacho. If you go, you’ll have to try one of the couple’s “signature margaritas”—to die for!
“My husband refers to our boat as his mistress,” laughs Deanna Dongieux, as she invites me aboard the couple’s sleek 54’ Jeanneau sloop, Burlesque.
Four years ago, after selling his company, Mercer Advisors, and retiring, Gene Dongieux began searching for an end tie (the end of a marina pier), thinking he’d buy a catamaran since the couple and their two children had enjoyed bare-boat chartering in the British Virgin Islands and Tahiti. But when the sloop (previously named Yum) came up for sale, and was located on a rarely available end tie, he didn’t want to miss out. Then, he admits, he fell in love with the French-built sailboat. Gene earned his captain’s license about a decade ago from Santa Barbara Sailing Center and skippers the sloop they christened Burlesque.
As much as he loved his new toy, Gene found retirement boring and wasn’t thrilled with tinkering on the boat day after day. He returned to work as the co-founder and chief investment officer of Ariadne Wealth Management in Montecito, which manages family wealth for 18 families, including his own.
Still, there’s plenty of time for fun on the boat. The couple joined the yacht club and made new friends, including the “cruisers” group, who help one another learn about harbors and moorings on trips to Pelican Bay at Santa Cruz Island and annual end-of-summer Catalina Island cruises. A talented artist, Deanna decorated the Burlesque’s interiors with great style and hostesses with panache, entertaining friends for sunset drinks or dinner onboard—sometimes moored in the harbor, for those who suffer from mal de mer. “My husband thought this was a phase, but it turned into a passion! We are on the channel, and we love to watch the other boats go in and out. The only bad thing? We got sideswiped—by a cop!”
“It’s a lifestyle. The vibe is totally different in the harbor from other parts of Santa Barbara,” Gene says. “I may not have Burlesque forever, but I’ll always have my end tie!”
Chuck Kaye has brokered huge deals in the music industry (with such music notables as John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Bob Marley estate and Buffalo Springfield), but for the past 40 years, his other love has been sailing. It was a work colleague who gave him the sailing bug. In fact, every seven years, he would “quit and go sailing,” leaving high-pressured jobs at places like A&M Records and Warner/Chappell Music (for which he ran, merged and created huge profits) and sailing off into the sunset to exotic places like Bora Bora, Hawaii, the Med and across the Atlantic, New Zealand and Mexico, with tales of the high seas to match. He navigated with a sextant, and he’s still at it.
“There’s not a boat in the harbor that sails more than Zaca,” says Kaye. Over the years, he has owned quite a few sailboats. But five years ago, he purchased Zaca, a 60’ Farr he brought to his slip in Santa Barbara. “She is the most spectacular boat I’ve ever owned, and she has a great pedigree,” he says. “She’s fast, powerful and opulent.”
With 150,000 nautical miles, Kaye knows his way around a vessel—and then some. At press time, he was readying his pilothouse cruising sailboat for a summer sojourn with Rebecca, his wife and skipper of 36 years, to Kauai’s Hanalei Bay for the summer, where they will live aboard. “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” are two songs Kaye was involved with—and one can only imagine, as the couple sails off to Hawaii for the summer, that they’re taking those tunes to heart.
Before You Buy a Boat
So you want to live the Santa Barbara harbor lifestyle, with fair winds and following seas? Captain Bear Kramer says there are three things you have to ask yourself before buying a boat: Do you want it? Do you need it? Can you afford it? “If the answer to all three is ‘No!’” he laughs, “then buy it!”
As another boat owner, David Kramer, notes, “The acronym for BOAT is “Break Out Another Thousand!”
Be forewarned: The “wait list” for a slip in the harbor has long been closed and slips are rarely available, even for those who have been on the list for years. You can get a slip permit when you purchase a boat. If you want to purchase an entry-level boat, say a Catalina 28, and lease a coveted slip, plan to spend at least $60,000. End ties and yachts cost well over a million dollars. In addition to upkeep and repairs, there are monthly slip rental fees.
Captain Wulff, who has worked in the harbor for 53 years, reiterates the sentiment for those dreaming of the big-boat lifestyle: “It’s no longer mom and pop in our harbor. Unless folks have an inheritance, they can’t play down here.”
Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.