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On the Waterfront: Billy Whitford makes a difference

The truth is mightier than the myth when it comes to the Newport Aquatic Center founder

Eugene Garcia
Right where he wants to be, Billy Whitford created more than a boathouse in the Back Bay; he created a paddling community open to all.

I had heard a lot of stories about 57-year-old Billy Whitford, the founder and executive director of the Newport Aquatic Center in the Back Bay, whom everyone knows as just Billy.

Stories as in:
“Billy is the Steve Jobs of California paddling.”

“Billy will drive a trailer full of canoes to Vegas for a race, drive back to pick up his daughter from school, then drive back the next day to help the kids win.”

“Billy invented the modern paddle.”

“I heard when he was young, Billy climbed a telephone pole, did a handstand at the top and climbed down again.”

Understandably, I couldn’t wait to speak to this telephone-pole-climbing, paddle-creating legend. So I called. And called. And called some more. Everyone who knew him said he was one of the most approachable men they knew. Perhaps, I thought, if only one could get ahold of the man.

“Oh, that’s just because Billy doesn’t stop,” one of the parents of a boy who has been attending NAC’s Kids Paddle Camp for years told me. “Every time I go to the NAC, he’s up in the rafters fixing something, out on the bay driving the lead boat, or teaching a group of kids how to paddle. He’s hard to pin down.” That seemed very true, as both times I visited the NAC, Billy was out on the water.

Finally, after three people pestered him into it, Whitford called me. His voice was friendly, but urgent, like a man who considered the phone a major inconvenience in his quest to fix the world. Didn’t I understand that he had things to do, people to help, kids to get out on the water? Answering questions about himself did nothing for the kid trying to learn a bowline, or the collegiate paddler training for the Olympics, or the next group of inner city kids he wanted to get out on the bay.

But I had a lot of questions – about some of the claims on his behalf and about how he came to paddling and founding the NAC. What I knew was that Billy was a former collegiate and champion paddler who also holds the honor of being a winning steersman in the world’s premier outrigger canoe race, Hawaii’s Moloka‘i Hoe. That he moved to Hawaii after getting the NAC up and running and oversaw the historic Moloka‘i Ranch, along with coaching junior Olympians. That he would still be there if the NAC hadn’t run into financial trouble, forcing him to return in 1997 and bring it back to life with his undeniable energy and will-not-fail attitude. That there are hundreds of “Billy Fans” who will do absolutely anything for this man. That along with being an inspiration to thousands of kids through the NAC, he has three daughters himself.

Mostly, I knew Whitford was a person who seemed destined to become a fixture of Newport Harbor from a young age, having grown up at the Sea Scouts’ Newport Sea Base, literally.
“My father was the caretaker and so we lived there. It was great, having the boats and the bay right there,” he told me. He grew up rowing, learning to be self-reliant and building the skills to become an all-around waterman, a concept he has dedicated his life to inspiring in future generations.

“That term is thrown around so easily now, but to be a true waterman means something,” he said. It’s a big reason he started the NAC in 1982. He envisioned a multisport public boathouse using public land so that everyone, especially kids, could gain access to the water, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

It wasn’t an easy sell, however. “I had to jump through so many hoops, so much red tape. There were 19 government agencies that had to sign off,” he said, pointing out that the Back Bay land wasn’t just public, but also environmentally sensitive. In fact, it seemed fairly hopeless for years – the boathouse wasn’t built until 1987.

But today, after some ups and some downs – when he was away in paradise – the NAC is everything Whitford dreamed it could be. It’s a testament to the one thing everyone who spoke of him corroborated: He gets things done. “If buildings need to be moved, Billy will get them moved. There is no ‘things-not-getting-done’ with Billy. Things will get done,” Cory Fults, 22, told me. Fults paddled at the NAC all through high school, then helped run the Kids Paddle Camps, before taking up residence in Hawaii, a move inspired by Billy, about whom he wrote his SAT essay (“Please write a personal essay about a community hero”).

The NAC, Fults said, is more than just a boathouse, it’s a true community. In fact, it’s much more than a boathouse, however you measure it. The nonprofit offers the public opportunities to learn rowing, canoeing, kayaking, outrigger canoe, standup paddle, and more. Membership, which includes use of a fitness facility, is available for a modest fee, but all classes are open to nonmembers. The facility provides boat storage and kayak rentals. And there are many paddle camps for kids throughout the year, along with opportunities for inner-city and underserved kids to get out on the water for free.

“What makes us special is we’re open to everybody. Hourly members, people on vacation, Olympic athletes, kids from Santa Ana who come in by bus, everyone,” said Kelly Thompson, who runs the outrigger program and serves as office manager. She said the all-inclusive spirit is thanks to Billy. “He always wants to get more people involved, more kids on the water. Everything he does is to get kids on the water,” she said.

Thompson also verified one of those larger-than-life claims I had heard. Not the one about the telephone pole, but about Whitford’s Santa-like time-bending skills. “Oh, the trailer story? Absolutely true,” she said. “Tomorrow morning, for instance, he’ll drive a trailer to Sacramento, drop off the boats and be home tomorrow night for dinner. Just so the kids will have their boats.”

And while he might want to get every kid out on the water with a paddle in hand, he does have an ulterior motive: to teach kids to be independent, problem-solving watermen like himself (although he might leave out that part about himself).

“I’ve got kids who can build me a website but can’t hook up a trailer or tie a knot,” he told me.

I told Whitford that I knew Cory Fults, his former student and employee, and about how comfortable I was on a boat with him. “Of course you are,” he fired back, “because you know that if things go bad, he’ll stay calm and find a solution. Every time, no matter what, he’ll solve the problem and get in safely.”

And that’s true. Fults exudes calm control, especially on the water. Fults is not just the product of paddling for Billy through high school, however. He was also part of Billy’s most recent project, the NAC Junior Waterman Academy, which had its maiden voyage in 2013. Billy, along with a few peers, brought six kids to the Channel Islands aboard a 65-foot Sunseeker yacht, filled with every type of watercraft imaginable, including a chase boat, for a five-day skill- and confidence-building expedition. The goal of the academy is to “educate, inspire and assist young individuals to lead the most healthy, active and adventurous lives possible in, on and under the water.”

From the sound of it – and the video produced about the expedition – the academy succeeded. The crew launched from Santa Barbara, with Fults and the kids paddling 20 miles to Santa Rosa Island. For nearly a week, they paddled from island to island, learning about the islands’ geography and history, gaining experience with anchoring and boat-handling, spearfishing for dinner, scuba diving, and even managing to get a few surf sessions in.

Some good education, and even better stories came from the trip. “The whole time we were at Santa Rosa, we’re talking about these great white sharks, and there’s this story about Big Ben, a fully mature great white shark that eats urchin divers,” Fults recalled. “Who knows if it’s true or not, but we get a line tangled in the prop on the chase boat, twice, and
I somehow get elected to dive on it both times. The water’s green and murky, 52 degrees, and looks like it’s just filled to the brim with white sharks. So I’m thinking ‘Ben’s right below
me, isn’t he?’ ”Whether it was all a plan to build Fults’ self-confidence and “three-in-the-morning” courage, who knows? But the fact is that Fults said he came out of the trip a much better waterman than he went in. He said that with every year that passes, he discovers a new depth to the expedition, his NAC experience, and to Whitford’s incredible generosity.

“Billy wants to help and employ the world,” said Fults. “Spend enough time down at NAC and Billy will find work for you. And then he’ll start paying you for it. Thinking about it now, the opportunities he extends to people are amazing.”

Merja Freund is a mother of a 13-year-old son, Van, who’s just beginning his “Billy” journey. He’s attended the Kids Paddle Camp for four years, and Freund said she’s seen a noticeable difference in his self-confidence, maturity and life skills.

“When Van is at the NAC, he’s learning all about safe boating, he’s learning standup paddle, he’s learning to tie knots, he’s learning how to problem solve, he’s learning people skills. He’s rowing with older people, younger kids, he’s a student and he’s a teacher. He’s able to be all those roles,” said Freund.

The Freund family members are such Billy fans, in fact, that Barry Freund, who owns Orange County Landscape Maintenance, donated dozens of palms to the NAC. And, like anything having to do with NAC, it turned into another “Billy story.”

Some of the palms were 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, so Whitford had commandeered a crane. But on the day of the move, there was no operator and the plan broke down. But a few tons of palms were not going to defeat Billy.

“Billy shows up with a bunch of rowers and the canoe trailers,” said Freund. “They’re helping me and my guys dig up these palms and then heft them up on a boat trailer. Twenty people on a palm. It’s not exactly the ideal situation for transporting these trees, but we’re going for it. I’m there, Billy’s there, the kids are there, we’re going to get it done.” And, of course, they did. And it’s highly likely a lot of high school kids learned some great lessons about grit and not giving up – along with having a lot of fun and gaining a great Billy story to tell.

It’s also indicative of the inspiration Billy Whitford exudes, said Fults when he heard the story. And when water is added, it becomes even stronger. “I remember when I was 16. About two-thirds through a 12-mile race, we were 10th in the pack out of 50 to 60 canoes. Then, Billy pulled up beside us in the support boat and for about a mile, he coached us,” said Fults. “His voice came through that microphone and we started moving. It wasn’t necessarily what he said, it was the fact that Billy Whitford was saying it. We ended up seventh in the race, which is incredible for a bunch of 16-year-old kids. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes, but I’ll never forget it.”

Then Fults told me about the impossible-to-believe telephone handstand story. Only it was suddenly more possible to believe. Of course, there was only one man who can verify it. So I decided to call the legend himself one last time.

Against all odds, he picked up. From the sound of wind coming through the phone, I could tell he was in a boat, probably on the bay. “Just taking some kids out. Can we talk in a while?” he said. “I think 4:30 would work. Can you call me then? Yeah, I think that might work.”

A few hours later, I called at precisely 4:30. Predictably, I got his voice mail. I didn’t bother leaving a message though. What’s the point? He’s got better things to do than talk. There are rafters to fix, kids to teach, boats to deliver. Basically, Billy Whitford is too busy getting things done.

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