Were you in the Sea Scouts? This sailor might have taught you to pilot a boat, tie a knot, and become a leader
Mike Stewart is 80. He’s spent more than half his life teaching seamanship to adolescents.
Not for pay. Not for glory. He’s a volunteer.
Stewart knows firsthand the value of the Boy Scouts maritime high adventure branch, called Sea Scouts.
He joined the Sea Scouts in 1953 at 15.
Ten years later, after a stint in the Navy, he became the skipper of Sea Scout Ship 711 out of Newport Beach, known as the Del Mar. Over the decades, he’s mentored about 700 adolescents.
Now the hunt is on to find as many of those alumni Sea Scouts as possible to salute Stewart for his dedication at a reunion in November.
The celebration will mark Stewart’s 55 years as skipper of the Del Mar.
The unassuming Stewart is OK with that, even if he’s not one to seek attention. After all, it’s not like he plans to go anywhere anytime soon.
Ask him how much longer he plans to continue as skipper of the Del Mar and he only half-jokes with his answer:
“Until they spread my ashes at sea.”
Sea salt in his veins
The license plate on Stewart’s Honda Odyssey van reads “SHIP711.”
Call his home phone and the voicemail greeting answers, “You’ve reached Mike Stewart, skipper of 711, the Del Mar.” People of all ages just call him “Skip.”
Stewart was born and raised in Riverside, but his family owned a beach house on Balboa Peninsula and came to Newport Beach on the weekends. A brother still lives in that house.
The thing is, Stewart didn’t go out on the water much as a boy. He would get seasick when his dad would take him fishing on his power boat. But then a friend who was a Sea Scout invited him to a meeting.
“So I took him up on it,” Stewart says of his introduction to the Newport Sea Base youth maritime center in Newport Beach. “And I’m still here.”
He loved the camaraderie and mastering nautical skills.
It was his first experience with any kind of scouting program. By the time he graduated high school in 1956, Stewart had earned the Quartermaster Award, on a par with Eagle Scout as the Sea Scouts’ highest rank. He had also joined the U.S. Navy reserves.
He shipped out on active duty to the Philippines aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Shangri-la. Stewart, a radar operator, remained in the Pacific during his service — six years of both active and reserve duty — and hung out at Newport Sea Base whenever the ship docked in San Diego.
“I was here,” he said, “putzing around.”
Sail on, sailor
Following the Navy, Stewart transferred after one semester at Riverside City College to Orange Coast College, where he studied computers.
He became a Sea Scouts volunteer in 1962. That first year aboard the inaugural Ship 711 out of Newport Beach, aka the Del Mar, Stewart served as one of two mates under another skipper. The next year, he took the helm.
A lifelong bachelor, Stewart’s avocation had a truer course than his employment.
His 13 years as a computer operator ended in 1976 when he asked for three weeks off from his job to drive cross country in a Volkswagen van with a few scouts to see the tall ships during the bicentennial parade in New York Harbor. His boss would only give him two weeks.
“I said goodbye and that was the end of my computer career.”
He spent three years as director of Sea Base, overseeing the construction of new buildings. Next, he became a bus driver, transporting the elderly and disabled on what was then called Dial-A-Ride. He retired at 62 after a surgery.
He lives in the same house in Costa Mesa that he bought with a friend in 1985. The current Del Mar is a 43-foot sloop, the fourth Sea Scouts Ship 711 of Stewart’s tenure.
“I’ve pretty much dedicated my life to it,” Stewart says of the scouting program.
Sometimes he asks himself why. It’s simple: He enjoys the activities, and “95 percent of the youth are great to work with.”
“And I’ve had great help,” he said, slapping the shoulder of Dale Stoica, an adult volunteer who was a Sea Scout under him.
Stewart likes to let the scouts learn from their mistakes as they go through the skills — piloting and navigation, tying knots, distress communication, leadership and other lessons — covered in a 272-page manual.
He is a tough but fair taskmaster, according to Stoica.
“He really wants you to know it before he says yes, you do know it.”
In 2006, the Del Mar crew captured the National Flagship of Sea Scouting, beating out more than a dozen other contenders from around the country. This year, the Del Mar placed among the top four competitors.
Sea Scout programs can be boys only, coed or girls only. Stewart’s unit is all-male, ages 14 to 21.
At a recent Wednesday night meeting, seven scouts showed up, along with two other boys interested in joining. They came from Brea, Huntington Beach, Irvine and Newport Beach. Scouts are expected to help each other learn, but, says Josh Timmerman, 19, “Skip is the go-to.”
Timmerman, who joined in 2015, serves as the boatswain, the youth leader in charge of the equipment and crew. While explaining how to do an accordion fold of a sail, he defers to Stewart.
Stewart likes what he hears: “Whatever you say.”
All hands on deck
Trying to track down the now grown men mentored by Stewart is its own challenge.
The only contact information reunion organizers have are old addresses and phone numbers — many with no area codes — on an Excel spreadsheet. A few of the Sea Scouts hailed from the Inland Empire, but most had lived in Orange County.
Diane Finkbeiner, whose son Spencer is currently a Sea Scout under Stewart’s tutelage, laughs at one call she made:
“His mom said, oh, he moved out years ago. But I’ll let him know you’ve called.”
The alumni Finkbeiner has been able to reach remember their skipper.
“Everyone that I had a chance to speak with immediately said, ‘Ah, the best time in my life.’”
To find out more about the Nov. 3 reunion for Mike “Skip” Stewart at Newport Aquatic Center, email skips55th @ gmail.com. See photos of the Del Mar and its crews through the years on Facebook at facebook.com/SSSDelMar/.