It's Yachting, Loosely Defined
By SCOTT MARTELLE, Times staff writer
November 03, 2003

If it weren't for the pictures, a skeptic might wonder if any of it really happened.
Taking a train to Catalina. Riding a yacht to Las Vegas. Adopting as a flagship a tugboat that not only
couldn't tug, it could barely float.

But it all happened. And there are whispers that something just might happen again, something
audacious, something that would capture the imagination of an overstimulated public and turn the
spotlight once more on the Balboa Island Sculling and Punting Society.

The society isn't exactly shadowy, but after more than half a century of sometimes willful obfuscations,
verifying details of their exploits is about as easy as keeping a martini glass filled at one of their
meetings. But some truths are discernible.

The group's roots date to the late 1940s when friends gathered in a Balboa Island bar and decided to
form a society that had no purpose at all. The founders, schooled in irony and the absurd, included
cartoonists Dick Shaw, who created Mr. Magoo, and Virgil Partch, who drew the "Big George" strip.

"They had some ideas for having some fun, and formed this loose group, which has been loose ever
since," said society member Pete Torre of Costa Mesa, a one-time restaurateur, current part-time
bartender and a Balboa Island native. Torre, a self-described Johnny-come-lately who joined around
1981, was named the society's historian a couple of years ago because "I was the only old guy around
with a computer who knew how to use it."

The history is held in three boxes of old newspaper clippings, photos and slides that reveal a penchant
for outlandishness -- part Rat Pack, part Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. Even the name reflected a
certain outlook, a tongue-in-cheek pretension poking fun at Newport Beach's yacht clubs.

Partch once described the group as "a bunch of jolly boys

After an uneven -- unsteady might be a better word -- start, the hard-drinking society gelled in 1952
after Shaw bought the society's flagship, the Michigan, a 25-foot mackerel boat. That gave the society
something to do, even if it was just float around Newport Harbor, cocktails in hand.
As a boat, the Michigan made a pretty good sieve. The society named it the HFS Michigan-- as in
"Hardly Floats Sometimes" -- and it lived down to its name. "All of a sudden it would just decide to
sink," Torre said. "In the middle of the boat parade it would go, bloop!"

The Michigan's pedigree was not particularly auspicious. William James Michall of Bell Gardens built
the boat in 1941 from a kit, planning to use it for mackerel fishing. He named it WJ after his own
initials, but gave up the ship once he figured out fishing for mackerel is more work than fun. "He sold it
in '43 to George Bomay, who was from Michigan, thus the name Michigan," said Gaye Wassall-Kelly,
who, with her husband, Bill, has owned the boat since 1997. "Of course, it's bad luck to change the
name of a boat. That's why they say it sank so many times."

The Michigan's lack of seaworthiness didn't keep the society from challenging a San Diego Ferry boat
to a race in 1970. They loaded the Michigan on a trailer, drove it to San Diego, quickly lost the race
and even more quickly found a wharf-side bar.

Around 1965, the Michigan almost caused an international incident. During the height of the Cold War,
a few society members put out to sea to rendezvous with a Russian trawler -- which often were used
by the Soviets as spy boats. The intent,
Shaw once said: "We wanted to show them we liked vodka, too." The U.S. Coast Guard, which was
not amused, headed the Michigan off and ordered the crew back to the dock. "They were going to
seize the Michigan," said Wassall-Kelly, who has collected a history of the boat and its exploits. "They
said, 'Get out of here, you fools.' That was a big no-no, that's for sure."

The Michigan still floats. Wassall-Kelly and her husband, who are not society members, have
refurbished it, and somewhere along the way the original leaky wooden hull was replaced with
fiberglass. They also had the boat exorcised, but that's another story. Whenever the couple tour the
harbor, Wassall-Kelly said, they get hailed by longtime residents who remember when an appearance
by the Michigan meant mischief was afoot.

And there's much to remember

The group's first big exploit came in 1953, when the society hoisted the Lazy Bee, a 40-foot cabin
cruiser, on the back of a trailer, climbed aboard and had themselves and a large amount of liquor
hauled across the desert to Las Vegas. The boat made it, but not all the booze.
The trip was not without drama. To pass the time, some of the yachtsmen started a game of poker,
$20 minimum. It got stuffy out in the middle of the desert and Shaw decided to change the air in the
cabin. "When I opened the window," he once recalled, "the whole pot blew out into the desert." Once
you've taken a boat to Vegas, the next challenge is obvious -- a train to Catalina Island. That came in
1958, when the society rented a railroad car, a barge and a tugboat and set sail, drinks once again in
hand.

"You couldn't do that now -- attitudes have changed," Torre said, sipping a mug of coffee at the dining
table of his Costa Mesa apartment. "In those days it was a whole different atmosphere.

Darrel Burke, a two-time society commodore and 30-year member, said the biggest scheme has yet to
get off the ground. A few years back the society arranged to have a bus driven aboard a pressurized
cargo plane so they could say they rode a bus to Hawaii. At the last minute, the cargo carrier was
bought by Federal Express and the bus never flew.

"It kind of went to hell on us," Burke, 61, said with resignation. "We still have the plans. It might never
happen, but it's nice to have plans.

One plot that did work: hijacking the Balboa Island Ferry, an act of piracy nine years ago that began in
the Club '47 bar near the Balboa Peninsula ferry dock.
"Half the guys were juiced by the time we left," Burke recalled. "We ran up the Jolly Roger and the
club flag and took the ferry all the way up to Woody's Wharf. We had one of the fire boats behind us
spraying water and we had the Harbor Patrol with the lights and sirens going. Fortunately, they didn't
get too close."At the bar, Burke said, they put a sign on the ferry offering to sell it to whoever would
cover their bar tab: $1,200. "Nobody wanted to pick it up," Burke said with a laugh.

The society is still strong, if landlocked. There are about 60 members and every couple of months they
get together at a local bar. They also celebrate the Dec. 5, 1933, repeal of the Volstead Act, which
ended prohibition.

Two or three times a year the society organizes outings, such as renting a bus for a Newport Beach
pub crawl, which raises money for the group. Each year on the Saturday closest to St. Patrick's Day
the society elects a new commodore, and the outgoing commodore picks a charity to receive whatever
money was raised during the year.

Members don't like to talk about the good deeds, though. Sends the wrong message, they say.
It's been a long time since the society launched a prank on a par with those hatched by the founders.

Maybe too long. Some members are getting a little antsy.

Torre, who owned three Charlie's Chili restaurants from 1965 to 1991, is retired now, working part time
as a bartender to keep busy. Many of the other members are retired now too.
Which means the Balboa Island Sculling and Punting Society members have plenty of time. And as
any church-school teacher can tell you, idle hands are the devil's playthings. Some members have
once again been casting mischievous eyes at a certain ferry.

"We're trying to develop a scheme to steal the Balboa Island Ferry, if we can find a way to do it without
going to jail," Torre said. "We'd take it over to Woody's Wharf and have a cocktail."

As he's pressed for details, Torre suddenly turns cagey. Maybe, his eyes say, he's talked too much as
it is.

"I think it can be arranged," Torre allowed, but then clammed up like a mug from "On the Waterfront." "I
can't really say."