Los Angeles Times


Tuesday, June 22, 2000

Catalina Rescue Steams Forward 
  History: Mexico gives group 90 days to remove the
  steamship, which lies rusting in Ensenada. The vessel
  carried millions between the island and San Pedro.
  By DIANA MARCUM, Special to The Times

Most everyone familiar with the story of the steamship Catalina agrees it's a classic seafaring tale, full of the romance and pathos of a ship far from home.

Where people disagree is on what would make a happy ending. For decades a familiar sight plying the waters between Santa Catalina Island and San Pedro, the historic ship has been rusting in the muddy Ensenada harbor since 1997. 

A group trying to rescue the ship took a key step forward Monday, when the Mexican navy released the Catalina for salvage efforts. A June 9 letter signed by President Ernesto Zedillo gives the SS Catalina Preservation Assn. 90 days to get the 300-foot ship out of the water. 

If organizers of the rescue effort can raise the partly submerged vessel, chase out the stingrays and sharks, and make it the quarter-mile to an Ensenada dry dock, then the real questions begin: Can California's last steamship, a state historical landmark and Los Angeles cultural monument, be restored, and can a permanent home for it be found? Or should it be towed out and given a simple burial at sea? 

Among those hoping to see the boat restored is naval architect Ron Holder, president of the preservation association. He concedes that the ship may be too far gone--and that $40,000 in contributions may only salvage scrap metal. But his dream is that the Catalina can be reclaimed. 

"If there's one thing I'd love to hear again it's that deep-throated whistle," said Holder, a Laguna Niguel resident who remembers childhood trips on the ship with his grandfather. 
But many longtime Catalina residents oppose the resurrection, calling it a sacrilege. 

"It's like digging up grandma and putting her at the head of the table," said Chuck Liddell, an Avalon resident who grew up on the island. "Most islanders feel that strongly. The Catalina is in our memories and that's where she should stay." 

Liddell said he "literally felt ill" at the sight of the Catalina beached in Ensenada Harbor. "Not so much that she was sinking, but that she's dying a disrespectful death. She was used as a nightclub. She looked like a painted lady. 

"Now they're talking about pulling her up, towing her back. . . . Enough is enough," he said. "I'd like to see her at the bottom of the ocean between Avalon and Wilmington, where she deserves to rest." 

While there are mixed feelings about whether the ship should be restored, one thing is certain: It won't end up back at Santa Catalina Island, where residents agree there is no room to dock it. Preservationists hope to find a home for the ship in Los Angeles or San Diego. 

From 1924 to 1975, the Catalina carried passengers 26 miles from San Pedro to Avalon day in and day out during the summer season. A lesser ship would have just been called a ferry--but the Catalina went by the grand moniker "the Great White Steamship." 

To board the Catalina during its heyday was to enter a world of luxurious leather settees and gleaming teak. On the upper deck people danced to swinging big bands. Magicians and clowns entertained passengers. On the lower deck youngsters played hide and seek among the lifeboats, and couples found hidden spots where they could be alone. 

Over five decades the Catalina carried about 25 million people, according to the Steamship Historical Society of America. 

Residents fondly remember the rituals with which the ship was greeted as it approached the island: Speedboats would circle the ship, water skiers slicing through its giant wake. Closer to shore, children swam out to dive for coins passengers tossed into the bay. People in Avalon gathered to sing as passengers stepped off the ship that docked near the center of town. 

But by the 1970s, increased operating costs and competition from smaller, faster ships sent the Great White Steamship on a long downward spiral. The once-elegant vessel bounced from port to port and owner to owner. 

In 1977, real estate developer Hymie Singer picked up the Catalina at auction for $70,000 as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife, Ruth. In the end the Catalina was transformed into a floating discotheque moored in Ensenada. After the disco closed its doors, the Catalina escaped its moorings and washed up on the sandbar where it has been sinking slowly ever since. 

Hoping to end the tale of the Catalina with its salvation, preservationists have raised $40,000 so far. Holder hopes fund-raising will pick up after the group has something to show. 

"This was money raised before we even owned the ship or knew if we could raise her," he said. "My guess is that if we can get her in dry dock where people can pound on that 1-inch-thick steel hull, they'll say . . . 'Maybe there's a way.' " 

After the ship is raised, Holder plans a detailed survey to determine how much work is needed. The raising and survey and hull repairs are expected to cost $90,000. Full restoration easily could cost $1 million, depending on what is revealed in dry dock. 

Then there's the question of where the ship will stay. Catalina has no room to dock the ship, and plans to moor it in San Pedro or San Diego have gone nowhere. 

But supporters of the preservation effort are not letting that discourage them. Among them is Dave Engholm, 35, the man who started raising the cry to save the Catalina. 

"It's not just me," said Engholm, who worked on the ship during the Singer years and got married on the Catalina's dance floor. "People grew up with this ship, fell in love on this ship. Twenty million people have 20 million stories. How can we let that go?" 

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