Have you ever gone to an open house for a home out of your league simply to look? Or gone in to a car dealership just because? I’m an on-line yacht lookie-looer and one recently caught my eye.
It was for a 1990 Passenger Ferry for $1.3 million.
The listing said, “It is very rare to have a passenger ship with a current Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection for 149 Passengers, 1-Captain, and 2-Deckhands here on the West Coast." The listing suggested the right buyer would be looking for a business opportunity or yacht conversion for personal use.
Turns out the boat is the 115-foot RV Challenger, owned by the Long Beach Marine Institute (LBMI) and docked near the Sea Scout base Appian Way.
Rev. Willard May and his wife Shirley founded Newport Campus Church Ministries and LBMI in 1980. The Church website states the following about their educational ministry. “We believe we should be stewards of our environment. This we do per God's instruction.”
The RV Challenger helped the church fulfill its mission by educating thousands of young people about protecting our oceans.
Willard and Shirley have passed on and their children Daryl May and Karen Shackelford have continued their legacy. Their operation has been on hold since February as a result of the pandemic. All their staff was laid off, and the bulk of their expenses involve the vessel’s maintenance, according to Daryl May.
Traditionally, LBMI offers a three-hour excursion, led by one of their marine biologists, on board the RV Challenger where students can observe marine mammals and birds in their natural habitat. May estimated three thousand students sail on board each year.
The vessel had a major engine room refit 6 years ago. In 2014, the Grunion Gazette reported that Challenger’s upgrades were paid for by a $900,000 grant from Air Quality Management’s Carl Moyer Program. The grant money provided the vessel with three new main engines and two new generators, reducing fuel use by 20% and cut back on emissions by at least 50%.
Captain Daryl May offered some history on the vessel, explaining that LBMI purchased her in Boston, where she worked as a commuter ferry. A crew was hired to deliver her to Long Beach; it took about two or three weeks.
There were five boats — almost sisters — built in Steiner Shipyard for Boston Harbor Cruises in 1990 to 1991. Of those, three are still owned by Boston Harbor Cruises and are serving as backup to the new catamaran commuter boats and used in charters.
The fourth was originally named Eugenia Louise and painted solid white while in commuter ferry service. She became RV Challenger and now sports a blue hull.
The fifth vessel, known as Lu Lu E when she was in Boston, is now M/V Catalina Duchess, part of the Catalina Classic charter fleet. The Booze Cruise episode of “The Office” was filmed on board, so she was temporally named Lake Wallenpaupack Princess.
All five of the ferries were built by Steiner Shipyard, located in Bayou La Batre, Ala.
Challenger’s listing agent Tim Hagan said, “Most people recognize Steiner Shipyard's name because they built the Black Pearl — the pirate ship for Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”
“There are no detailed drawings of the whimsical 18th century, round-bottom, wooden pirate ship, because there is actually a 120-foot steel OSV (offshore supply vessel) inside of it.” explained Andy Davis, the naval architect who oversaw the refit, “Sunset (her original name)/Black Pearl turned out pretty well, and fully functional. Immediately after it launched, it navigated 2,000+ nautical miles from Bayou La Batre down to the Eastern Caribbean, then back up to the Bahamas.”
RV Challenger has plenty of options — she might go back to ferry or charter service, do film work, or someone might convert her into a pirate ship. Wherever she goes, she played a key role in Long Beach’s maritime history and contributed to educating students about protecting our environment.