Archive for » December 18th, 2014«

Boats for $20? At 'Storage Wars' by the sea, anything's possible

Johnny Cizek pulls up to the docks in an inflatable gray dinghy, just minutes before the action starts.

Buzzing nearby on wooden walkways are about 50 people looking to pick up a deal, bargain-hunters who have shown up on a recent chilly morning to scour old, beat-up boats that over the past few months have washed up or been abandoned in Newport Harbor.

Cizek, who lives on a boat in the harbor, sees a familiar sight wedged between a couple of small boats: a Boston Whaler that looks like it has had better days, one dusty leather seat tossed to the side.

“There’s my boat,” said Cizek, who has wiry white hair and a handlebar mustache.

“I lent it to a friend, and look what happens.”

Cizek is a regular, one of a handful of locals who show up at the public boat auction run about three times a year by the Orange County Harbor Patrol. Most hope to score a deal on a boat they can flip or turn into their own treasure.

If there’s nothing worth a bid, Cizek offers his services as a boat renovator to those looking to spruce up their newly-purchased vessels.

It’s an aquatic version of “Storage Wars,” where bidders come with cash to outbid, or outsmart, the boat-seeker next to them. Sometimes they score. Other times, they get caught up in the hype and lose a bit of money.

On a recent auction day, about 30 vessels were up for grabs: inflatable dinghies, kayaks, sabot sailboats and even a catamaran and a 30-foot sailboat left abandoned in the harbor.

“The sailing community seems to be here,” Cizek said, checking out his competition. “And a lot of rookies.”

He waits to see if he can reclaim his Whaler. If he doesn’t win a bid, he at least wants his seat back.


Mike Moran of Costa Mesa was among the early arrivals. He looked at every detail of the smaller boats and kayaks stacked on top of each other.

At the last auction, he scored a paddle boat for $60. This time, he’s on the hunt for a fishing boat for his son, Colin.

“It’s like treasure hunting,” Moran said.

Loren Gibel traveled from Corona to Newport Beach. It’s his third boat auction. Previously, he’s nabbed a dinghy and a few kayaks, which he has turned around on Craigslist, making a few hundred bucks. He’s worried that a reporter asking too many questions will give away all the trade secrets of the hunt.

“You don’t want to write all this up, do you? It will end up like ‘Storage Wars!’”

Mel Fitch peeks into a 30-foot, red sailboat called The Captain. The door is locked, and there’s no way to know what’s behind it.

“There’s a bottle of Jack in there,” she yells out.

“How much is Jack Daniels worth, $13?”

Deputy John Cooper, who is helping to sell the boats, emphasizes that they come “as is.”

The Captain seems to be the biggest risk. The lock couldn’t be removed without damaging the boat, so what’s inside remains a mystery.

“If there’s 25 bales of marijuana in it, it’s yours. If it has a body in it, it’s yours,” Cooper said, joking.

“With a little love inside, and a weekend of scrubbing, I’m sure it will be great,” he added.

That, too, was a joke.


As the crowd gathers, Chris Miller, harbor resources manager for the city of Newport Beach, lays down the ground rules.

You have to be at least 18 years old. You must have identification (so if the boats end up back in the harbor abandoned, they know who to chase down).

“The purpose of the auction is to find these boats a good home,” Miller said. “We want you to use them. If you don’t want to use them, don’t bid on them. We’ll throw them away.”

Some bidders are simply scoping out the competition. Steve Romanow of Newport Beach stands to the side, watching the others before the auction gets underway.

“You can see the body language, how some people have their arms crossed. Some of the guys are old salty dogs who know if a motor looks good,” he said.

He isn’t one of those guys, Romanow added. But he’s been to car auctions and knows a few inside tricks that might give him an edge.

“Sometimes, the first one is the best deal; everyone is asleep,” he said. “They aren’t sure what to do.”

That’s exactly what happens. When Miller starts the bidding for a small boat at $20, everyone just looks around, not wanting to be the first to bid.

But when the second item – a yellow kayak – comes up, the crowd comes alive. The bidding shoots up quickly and ends at $180, with some mumblings from the crowd.

“I can get a new one off Craigslist for $200,” one man whispered.

Natalie Rigolet scored a small sabot, sans sail, that’ll need a lot of work to become seaworthy. It’s for her 8-year-old son, Austin. The price: $40.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of work,” she said.

But when two more sabots sell for $20 each, she quipped: “I totally overpaid.”


Miller wants to see that the big red boat, The Captain, finds a good home.

“I’m going to start higher, so we can get serious people who can see the vision,” he said. “What you can’t see here is whatever is inside, behind the lock. No one knows, so you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Bidding for the 30-foot vessel starts at $150.

Not a peep.

“I have no sale, going once. No sale, going twice,” he said. “One last chance, no sale, going three times.

“OK, no sale.”

But the hot item up for grabs is Cizek’s old Boston Whaler, the boat that found itself in impound after he let a friend use it.

“You can cut this boat in half and it will still float,” Miller said to pump up the crowd. “So this boat has some life in it. A lot of life, I think.”

Miller starts at $40, and hands quickly shoot up.

“How about $60? Do I hear $80… How about $100 for the whaler?”

When the price passes $200, Cizek sighs with disappointment. His boat would get a new owner. The bidding eventually hits $540.

The proud new owner is David Brooks of Costa Mesa.

He plans to take the 9-foot boat to his beach house in Mexico, where his grandchildren can play with it. He wasn’t planning on bidding more than $500 but figures the extra few bucks were worth it.

“It’s safe and stable, and they aren’t going to tip it,” he said.

Though bummed, Cizek is glad that the Whaler would give joy to young boaters. The former and new owners talk about how the motor worked and some of the other personality kinks the boat had.

“I’m not sad about losing it,” Cizek said, shrugging.

He has just one request, Cizek said, which Brooks happily obliged.

“I would really love that seat back.”

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Larry Ellison takes America’s Cup outside of U.S. to get his way

Remember the America’s Cup? Those were the days, eh? Monumental hype, epic races and crashes on San Francisco Bay, and controversy on top of controversy.

At the end of the day, the 2013 Cup had sunny weather, big crowds and a remarkable comeback win by Larry Ellison’s Oracle team. So as defending champion, he got to pick any site for the Cup, which will be held in 2017.

And two weeks ago he picked … wait for it … Bermuda. It’s the first time in the 163-year history of the event that an American defender has not chosen a venue in the United States to stage the Cup.

That is certainly Ellison’s right. In San Francisco, he changed the boats from stodgy, slow monohulls to 72-foot catamarans that could jet over the waves at nearly 60 mph.

And to be perfectly honest, San Francisco officials were hardly heartbroken to be out of the running for the 2017 Cup. They’d had it with Ellison and his team. More than one insider said the secret cheer at City Hall was, “Go, New Zealand.”

Meanwhile, Ellison had just about enough of media like The Chronicle pointing out inconsistencies, demands and entitled behavior.

Ellison apparently wanted to be praised and admired. We were more like, “Uh, Larry, you promised us a fleet of eight to 12 boats and you only delivered three. And by the way, the 72-footers are so big and unwieldy that they are scary and dangerous.”

Ellison is on the case this time. The boats will be smaller, 60 feet, will “only” reach speeds of 50 mph, and there will be a lot more of them. Five challengers have already committed, with five more “expressing interest.”

Fine. But there’s a little unfinished business. Understand, this isn’t sour grapes. It would take a personal appearance by King Neptune to get San Francisco to consider hosting again. And even then the financials surely wouldn’t pencil out for skeptical local politicians. It’s not going to happen.

But step into The Chronicle time machine and travel back to the giddy days when the Cup was going to be on the bay. The previous Cup had been a bit of a dud. Held in Valencia, Spain, it generated so little buzz that U.S. television networks ignored it.

San Francisco, the narrative went, was going to create the new wave of sailing. The big, fast boats, the up-close spectators and the convenient West Coast location were going to democratize the sport. With the help of amazing TV graphics, the America’s Cup was going to go mainstream.

We can argue about how that worked out. An optimist would say the weather was utterly awesome, the TV pictures amazing and crowds of sailing neophytes lining the bay were amazed.

Yeah, Ellison would say, but the media didn’t fawn over me like everyone promised.

So he went to Bermuda. Lovely weather, an amphitheater harbor and a time zone favorable to European TV.

Swell. But what happened to bringing the Cup to the masses? Bermuda is a two-hour flight from the East Coast. The location virtually guarantees the spectators will be the traditional, wealthy sailing crowd.

Kind of makes you wonder why Ellison picked Bermuda doesn’t it? After all, San Diego, for example, was eager to host, had a great site and a sailing tradition.

Well here’s a possibility. Bermuda wanted the event so badly that, according to Minister of Economic Development Grant Gibbons, it put together a $77 million package for Ellison’s Cup. That includes a $15 million fee to the event authority, $25 million to cover any sponsor shortfall and $25 million to prepare and maintain an America’s Cup village.

Wow. As someone who was on the inside of San Francisco’s Cup bid says, that’s $45 million more than the total San Francisco spent, and after sponsorships were included the city’s contribution was just $24 million. (The final event shortfall was $5 million after sales and endorsement money came in.)

So maybe we misunderstood Ellison. Maybe instead of bringing sailing to the masses, what he really meant was he was bringing masses of money to sailing.

But the press coverage in Bermuda is expected to be very flattering.

C.W. Nevius is a San Francisco Chronicle staff columnist. His columns appear Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: Twitter: @cwnevius

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