Decade of ownership leads to lifetime of memories

It's been 10 years since Jim Butz first set eyes on Sea-Dog, sistership to a limited edition run of only five identical power boats - one of which was reportedly commissioned by actor Charlie Chaplin - built by Stephens Bros. Of Stockton in the early 1930s. It is still in operation today.

Back when Sea-Dog was launched, the boat gleamed of polished teak, Port Orford cedar (a rot-resistant wood grown in the Pacific Northwest) and shiny brass. More than half a century later, while other vessels have been lost to sea or simply abandoned to rot away, this salty old dog has lasted through the years - as well as through countless owners.

While it can be said that Sea-Dog has been lucky to have been cared for by its many nurturing owners, Butz will tell you that the true luck is to be given the chance to become part of this vessel's rich history. He admits that in 1987, he had initially set out to buy a new boat. However, that quickly changed. "I just fell in love with (Sea Dog)," he said. "It was such a beautiful ol' boat that all the new boats paled in comparison."

The boat is 55 feet long with a 12.5 foot beam. It weighs 35 tons and holds 1,000 gallons of fuel. According to Butz, the vessel is still running strong on its fourth or fifth set of engines - a pair of Buda military diesels used during World War II.

Sea-Dog was commissioned by H.A.B. Sneve, a marine equipment salesman. Taking from the stories he's been told, Butz describes Sneve as a man whose character was similar to circus legend P.T. Barnum. "He really was a showman," Butz said.

Sneve turned Sea-Dog into a floating showroom, which was known as "the Boat-Show-Boat." Its maiden voyage was from San Francisco up to Alaska and then down to Mexico, with Sneve stopping in countless harbors along the way, opening up all the hatches and calling out to the landlubbers to come see his merchandise.

The demonstration became so popular that Sneve named his growing business to coincide with his famous boat. Incidentally, Sea-Dog Marine Hardware is still in business today and is located in Everett, Washington.

Eventually, Sneve sold Sea-Dog to a prominent and well-known yachtsman from Newport Beach named Wesley Smith. Smith's daughter, Jannette Wills was just a debutante then. She's now in her 80s and living in Pacific Palisades. Butz said she used to come visit Sea-Dog down at the docks whenever he was there. In time, her visits became less frequent, but Butz says they continue to keep in touch through letters.

After Smith came "Ping" Boudine, who became Sea-Dog's owner from 1934 to 1940. Like Wills, he's also in his 80s now and works as a volunteer captain at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. Butz says that whenever Sea-Dog's in town, Boudine will greet him at the shore with a wave hello.

Boudine parted with Sea-Dog shortly before the war came, during which Uncle Sam took over the helm, back when registered vessels of the United States were called in by the government to serve during World War II.

If the owner turned over his vessel willingly out of patriotism and dedication to his country, many times he was rewarded with a military title and allowed to captain the ship. (But for unknown reasons, this wasn't the case with this particular owner.)

Sea-Dog was painted gray from bow to stern and equipped with a 50 caliber machine gun, which was mounted at its bow. It was stationed in San Pedro Bay, where it was used to patrol for Japanese submarines. When the war concluded, Sea-Dog was released to its owner.

Butz isn't sure what happened to Sea-Dog after that, but it sadly resurfaced again in 1979 as a derelict with no engines. Its new owner spent two years rebuilding and refurbishing the boat to bring it back to its former luster and then sold it.

Years passed and eventually, Butz met up with Sea-Dog. The boat was in such good condition that he had only to do some minor structural work to get it to look the way it is now.

Butz said he and his wife Martie have enjoyed looking after Sea-Dog, but they never claim to be the boat's owners. Butz knows that eventually he'll have to sell the vessel, just as so many previous lucky captains have done before him.

Ideally, he says he would have liked to pass it down to his children, but he realizes that wouldn't be fair to Sea-Dog. "It's too big to keep in somebody's garage," Butz said.

Butz said that not only does the boat need to be docked at a harbor, but it must have routine maintenance done by someone who "has a lot of passion" as well.

Until he finds someone though, the Butzes will continue taking care of their old friend. Once a year he and Martie, along with other members of the Classic Yacht Association's Southern California Fleet, return to Channel Islands Harbor and open up the hatches just like Sneve once did, calling out to everyone to come take a look. They never know who will be stopping by.

This article first appeared in the August, 1997 issue of Sea Magazine