Still Seaworthy After All These Years, a Restored Angelita Sets Sail on a Golden Anniversary

updated 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 88, Owen Churchill had little to bind him to his 1932 Olympic sailing triumph but loving memories and a gold medal. That summer in waters off San Pedro, Calif., he and 12 crew members had sailed Angelita, a sleek eight-meter yacht, to four consecutive victories over their Canadian opposition for the gold medal. "She was a very fast boat," recalls Churchill, president of a family-owned real-estate and investment firm and inventor of the rubber swim fin. "Sometimes she practically sailed herself." Churchill sold the 50-foot boat in 1938 because the eight-meter class was no longer being raced, and he lost track of her in the years since then.

But like its gutsy and durable skipper—and unbeknownst to him until three years ago—the Angelita survived. On July 29 Churchill's beloved boat will sail across the Olympic Harbor at Long Beach as the official flagship of the 1984 Summer Games. And who better to be at her helm than Churchill and the only two surviving original crew members, Richard Moore, 73, and John Biby Jr., 72?

The saga of the Angelita's resurrection—and reunion with her onetime owner—is something out of an O. Henry story. Alan Simpkins, the retired president of an electronics company and a weekend sailor, stumbled upon the remains of the Angelita in a Santa Cruz boatyard. Simpkins contacted his friend Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, who invited Churchill to come and see the boat in the fall of 1981. "Only the hull was left," Churchill recalls. "There was no deck, no insides. She was really a wreck."

After paying $10,000 for the Angelita, Simpkins offered it to Ueberroth if he promised to restore it for the 1984 Games. "From the moment I learned about the Angelita I recognized it as a tangible link to the 1932 Games," says Ueberroth, who eventually picked up the $100,000 restoration tab on the boat himself. The team that went to work on the boat followed the original drawings for the interior down to the last detail. A new mast and boom were constructed, using the old specifications, and the hull was primed and painted to match its original color. "She's held her figure beautifully," says Churchill, beaming, during a recent inspection of the vessel.

Churchill was among the 22 businessmen who commissioned the eight-meter yacht for $22,000 to compete in a race called the King of Spain Trophy in 1930. The Angelita lost, and Churchill bought her for $15,000. Then 34, Churchill was an accomplished sailor and a veteran of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The son of a successful gold prospector who founded a real-estate and investment company in Los Angeles, he had decided to take up flying as a hobby after leaving the Army at the end of World War I. But on his return to Los Angeles, his mother presented him with a boat in exchange for his promise never to fly while she was alive.

Though Churchill lost his bid for a second gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, he skippered the Angelita to victory over three others in the 1937 Lipton Cup in Newport Beach, Calif. before selling her to concentrate on the family business. In 1939, Churchill went to Tahiti, where he observed the natives swimming with braided banana leaves attached to their feet. Six months later he patented the first rubber swim fin, which he sold to the British Navy during World War II. He still collects royalties from the original patent.

The resurrection of the Angelita has quickened the once slow pace of Churchill's life with second wife Norma Drew, 80, who was a film actress in the 1930s. Churchill has become a living symbol of the last Summer Olympics hosted by the U.S. and he is often called on to speak at official functions, reliving the experiences he and his crew shared. "Every time I go out and make a talk now," says Churchill, "I start to bawl like a baby."

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