The Stars and Stripes have disappeared from the marina breakwater but may return in 2015

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

The Marina del Rey breakwater flag was a welcoming signal of safe harbor Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

The Marina del Rey breakwater flag was a welcoming signal of safe harbor
Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

On recent sailing trips out of Marina del Rey harbor I’ve been looking in vain for a familiar sight that had become a welcome reference point for years: the American flag that once stood tall on the breakwater has been missing in action.

Even if the flag had become frayed,
I thought, that was no reason to remove it permanently. I was reminded of an old seafaring poem:

“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down / Long has it waved on high / Many an eye has danced to see / That banner in the sky.” – “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the few healthy things to come out of our nation’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was that for the first time since the Vietnam War turned ugly, Americans across the political spectrum embraced the flag again in national unity.

The flag on the marina breakwater was more than a symbol of our country, however.

“It’s the last thing you see as you leave the marina and the first thing you look for when you come back,” said Brenda Varma, who sails with the Single Mariners of Marina del Rey, a recreational boating group based at the Pacific Mariners Yacht Club.

When I saw the flag on departure, my heart always quickened because I knew I’d soon be braving the open ocean. But its true emotional tug was on the return. With its prominent position I could spy it from miles away and set course for it. The flag’s proud presence was a soothing, welcoming sight for all boaters — whether they had been out for a quick jaunt along the bay, a weekend in Catalina or a wearying trek much farther away.

Even at night it stood illuminated, beckoning all toward safe harbor. Now the breakwater looks barren.

Another important function of the flag for boaters was that it acted like an airport wind sock. If the flag were stretched taut, it was time to reef sails.

“The flag is a useful indicator of actual wind speed, since it takes a pretty good breeze to get Old Glory completely unfurled,” said Evan Sandler, the skipper of Sailient, a 30-foot Catalina sloop.

I’ve used it to determine not only wind speed but direction. The flag’s position before leaving the harbor for a day sail has told me whether or not I’d be tacking constantly just to clear the Venice Pier or have a straight shot to Malibu. It has helped me decide whether I should head north or south to Redondo and beyond. Studying the flag also revealed whether the breezes were shifting quirkily in Santa Ana conditions or gradually clocking as they usually do during the day.

To find out why the flag had disappeared, I turned to Carol Baker, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. She told me that the flag’s problems went back to that light.

During the last dredging of the channel the cable powering the light was cut. “We replaced it with a solar-powered system that caused us one problem after another. On cloudy days the solar array didn’t generate enough power. Bird guano often dirtied the panels. A rogue wave during a February storm then took out the system. We were even struck by vandals,” Baker said.

Lucie Kim, also with Beaches and Harbors, said she recognized how important the flag was to the Marina del Rey boating community — and, more important, that it may return.

“We are doing our utmost to bring it back. In the interim, the staff manually raised and lowered the flag on July 4th and Veterans Day this year,” Kim said.

“There’s been some talk about moving the flag to a more accessible location, but the public prefers it where it is,” Baker added.

Marina peninsula resident and power boat skipper Michael X. Burns, who wrote to The Argonaut wondering what had happened to the flag, agreed.

“I think the Stars and Stripes deserve their spot at the Marina’s gateway. It was always a great symbol on the horizon to see on beautiful beach and boating days,” Burns said. “This is our nation’s second biggest city. When those Russian oligarchs visit on their yachts, they should be reminded what country they’re in.”

Baker told me that we can expect a new solar-powered, energy-efficient LED lighting system for the flag in the coming year. Unfortunately, she doesn’t expect to see a new flag raised until Memorial Day.