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Steamer Catalina may end up as scrap | Ship ferried thousands to Avalon; now it's mired in Ensenada muck

Gregory Gross
STAFF WRITER | The News-Pilot of San Pedro contributed to this report.

13-Mar-1998 Friday

ENSENADA -- The steamship Catalina, a 300-foot-long piece of California's
maritime history, is mired on the muddy bottom of Bah´┐Ża de Todos Santos,
grounded by high winds and business conflicts.

Long ago evicted from Los Angeles, then kicked out of Newport Beach and
rebuffed by its island namesake, the Catalina appears to be on the verge of
ending its days here.

For half a century, the ship known as the Great White Steamer ferried
tourists in style and serenity between San Pedro and Santa Catalina Island,
until service stopped in 1975. For eight years, between 1977 and 1985, it
was a ship without a port.

Then, in 1985, a decade out of service, the ship appeared in Ensenada's
harbor. There it rode at anchor, a curious anomaly amid the private yachts,
shrimp boats and cruise ships, while businesspeople on shore talked of
converting it into a floating restaurant.

So far, nothing has come of all the talk.

Today, waves lap over the lower half of its stern. Its steering wheel and
brass portholes have long ago been stripped and stolen. Its wooden rails
have become perches for gulls and kingfishers.

When the Catalina began taking on water and partly sank in front of the
site where Ensenada's new cruise ship terminal is being built, port
officials made it clear that they would not let the ship rest there

With that, a clock began to tick away what could be the last days of the
Great White Steamer. Unless someone comes along to rescue the vessel, its
next stop will be the breaker's yard, where blowtorches will cut it up for

The Catalina was built in 1924 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who
bought controlling interest in Catalina Island in 1919 and used it as a
winter getaway and spring training camp for his Chicago Cubs baseball team.

The ship carried as many as 2,100 passengers per trip to the island for
more than 50 years. Among its famous passengers were Presidents Coolidge
and Hoover, actor Robert Mitchum and jazz great Lionel Hampton.

In its heyday, the Catalina made the 24-mile trip from San Pedro to Avalon,
a port on Santa Catalina Island, in the mornings, its crew dispensing lemon
drops to those who fell victim to seasickness.

Ruth Singer of Beverly Hills, whose husband, Hymie, bought her the ship as
a Valentine's Day present in 1977, said recently that she was resigned to
letting it go to the scrap heap.

She said that over the years she and her husband sank more than $2 million
into unsuccessful efforts to develop the ship as a tourist attraction.

There were proposals to return the ship to Avalon as a floating restaurant,
to use it as a fishing barge off Los Angeles, then again as a floating
restaurant in Ensenada. None of those plans came to fruition.

There were legal battles, disputes among business partners and a lack of
cooperation from U.S. and Mexican authorities, Ruth Singer said.

Meanwhile, the ship stood just offshore, an idle curiosity to Ensenada
locals and tourists alike.

"Scrapping the ship -- I think that's what should be done," Ruth Singer
said. "Mr. Singer is not well, and he can no longer take care of it."

Stormy weather may have moved the Catalina closer to that fate. High winds
in late December partly swamped the vessel and flooded several
compartments, causing the ship to go down by the stern at about a 15-degree

The gangway, by which passengers made their way from the dock onto the
decks, hangs in the air, extended over the murky waters of the bay.

The hull is essentially intact, but with most of the lower compartments
awash, boarding it would be too dangerous, Ensenada port officials said.
However, once the cruise ship terminal is finished, near the end of the
year, the Catalina will have to be moved.

If its owners are unable or unwilling to do so, the ship will be declared a
hazard to navigation, seized by the Mexican government and eventually
scrapped, port officials said.

The Catalina is not the only derelict awaiting a final disposition in
Ensenada's harbor. Three Chinese fishing trawlers, intercepted off the Baja
California coast three years ago while trying to smuggle Chinese nationals
into the United States, remain tied up and rusting near dry docks.

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.