Topanga History: The Topanga Yacht Club

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Proposed yacht harbor, 1925

In 1924, the Los Angeles Athletic Club bought Topanga Beach with the intention of building a yacht harbor. 

To promote the cause, British actor Captain Vesey O’Davoren (1888-1989) founded the Topanga Yacht Club in 1928.

He proudly claimed descent from two English Prime Ministers, William Pitt (1708-1778) and “Iron Duke” Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), as well as a family of medieval Irish scholars. His title, Captain, came from serving in the British Royal Air Force during World War I, where he was injured several times, including by a mustard gas attack that left him voiceless. 

In 1920, he left England, for better acting opportunities in Hollywood. He could still work because films were silent, and recovered his voice in time for the advent of sound films in 1927, but mostly played butlers.

He did not live at Topanga Beach. Hardly any of the club’s members did. Topanga was simply a preferred shelter for small boat owners before the bay had marinas or breakwaters.

USC students turned the social club into a racing team in 1930, with O’Davoren remaining its leader, or commodore. 

The only two USC students known to have lived at Topanga Beach in 1930, Frank Jennings and Jerry M. Johnson, were not in the club. However, there must have been sailors in their Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity because “Every week-end groups of Sig Eps could be found” at their cabin.

A Topanga Yacht Clubhouse existed, but I couldn’t learn where or whose it was.

The club had about 15 members and 10 sailboats, mostly of the Centerboard and Starlet classes, and built their reputation with the latter.

A “notable aspect of Star sailing,” according to Wikipedia, “is the extreme hiking position adopted by the crew and at times the helmsman, who normally use a harness to help hang low off the windward side of the boat with only their lower legs inside.”

Starlets are two-thirds the size, or 15.5’, not much longer than a surfboard, and cost about the same to build. “They provide a sport which is not restricted to the man of means,” which was appreciated during the Great Depression, maybe in the same way that surfing has flourished alongside unemployment during the current pandemic.

“The boats are fast and wet … The sailor who likes a thrill and wet spray in his face, not to mention down his neck, can find all these things in a starlet.” (Evening Outlook, Dec. 5, 1933) 

O’Davoren built his Starlet, Elf, in his backyard, and the club rented out building instructions to non-members. 

Five-mile races off Topanga Beach were held every Sunday, circling a triangular course three times. The club had its own burgee (club flag) and winners passed around the same “perpetual trophy,” a way to celebrate multiple races with one award.

The most active member was Robert L. Wilson (1898-1994), a Scottish USC alumnus and successful architect.

“Through the 1950s virtually 50% of the buildings in the Santa Monica basin were constructed by the family business, Wilson Brothers.” (Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1994) 

Also of Scottish descent were two members who actually lived at Topanga Beach, Thomas Spence (1910-1974) and Jake Fields (1913-1999), whose parents operated the motels Spence’s Cabins and Cooper’s Camp (the Topanga Ranch Motel). Fields sometimes sailed Wilson’s boat, Gull.

The club’s first officer, Helene Raymond (1878-1951), lived at Topanga Beach. She was the nation’s No. 2 archer and an old friend of O’Davoren, who had previously served on the California State Archery Association.

The only member known to have lived in Topanga Canyon was the club’s rear-commodore, Oka Stewart (1906-1995), a former circus high-diver best known for creating the resort Camp Wildwood in 1944.

The most athletic member was Major Goodsell (1900-1988), a five-time World Champion sculler (rower) from Australia. 

The highest scorers in the first season were Inglewood dentist Dr. Fred P. Ott (1896-1986) with his Goat, in the Starlet class, and Harold Henshaw’s Moby Dick, in the Centerboard class.

In 1933, Santa Monica started its own sailing club, but anchored its boats at Topanga Beach, bringing the total number of boats there to about 20. The sailing club admitted women, but not as officers, and explicitly barred non-whites. Their commodore, August Poulsen, and most of their members were Douglas Aircraft workers.

Somehow, the sailing club must have gotten ahold of one of the dories used by Admiral Richard E. Byrd on his Antarctic expedition (1928-1930) because that summer it found a second life at Topanga Beach as a ferry boat to the anchorage.

The two clubs united in support of a yacht harbor for the bay, but both suffered a loss of identity when Santa Monica built the first one by the pier in August 1934. The Topanga Yacht Club gradually disappeared, along with the Los Angeles Athletic Club’s dream of having their own yacht harbor. The Santa Monica Sailing Club grew, but was annexed by the Los Angeles Yacht Club. Bigger boats moved in.

For a few more years, Santa Monica’s Evening Outlook newspaper kept the momentum going by sponsoring a Labor Day Weekend race to Topanga and back for sailboats 16 feet and under. The prize was a 35”, bronze, perpetual trophy with a sailboat on top, and a smaller replica for permanent possession.

In 1934, the first winner of the race was the Topanga Yacht Club’s vice-commodore, Charles Caldares (1893-1976), in his Starlet, Goat. He was a half-Mexican high school teacher from Los Angeles, and became the club’s commodore the following year.

In 1935, Oka Stewart’s Starlet, Imp, placed second. 

And in 1938, the club’s racing committeeman, Don R. Shawver (1894-1972), won in Mystery, a Snipe class sailboat. He was a Santa Monica car mechanic.

The Santa Monica Yacht Harbor only lasted about 10 years before city officials decided that the breakwater was too costly to maintain and let it crumble away. But, like Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic rowboat, the Topanga Yacht Club had a surprising second life.

In 1975, Jan Moore, Topanga Woman’s Club President, founded the Topanga Creek Yacht Club as a publicity stunt to raise awareness about the watershed. It was little more than a T-shirt, but it showed that the club’s memory had been preserved in the popular consciousness. 

Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.