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Captain of boat design

Of the first to build wooden ships in Costa Mesa, veteran got along with customers and could visualize their ideas for them, friend says.

February 10, 2010|By Brianna Bailey

Longtime Newport Beach resident Don Donaldson, who designed many of Newport’s massive wooden ships, including the famed 100-foot yacht the Mojo, has died. He was 88.

Donaldson died quietly in his sleep Sunday, his son John Pentecost said Wednesday.

A partner in the Ditmar-Donaldson ship building firm, Donaldson and his late partner Richard Ditmar were some of the first builders of wooden-hulled ships in Costa Mesa.

“You can still see the ships they built down on the harbor,” Pentecost said. “His work just floats by.”

Despite having no formal training, Donaldson designed hulking, million-dollar yachts made out of exotic woods like teak and mahogany.

“Today, you’d need an engineering degree to do something like that,” Pentecost said. “He just grew up around boats.”

High school classmates, Ditmar and Donaldson went into the boat building business after World War II.

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Donaldson had just returned from serving in the U.S. Army in Japan and Europe.

The two were selective about whom they would build a yacht for, remembers Donaldson’s friend Sparks McClellan, who would sometimes visit the old Ditmar-Donaldson office on 16th Street.

Ditmar was standing in the office shaving one day, when a man walked in off the street to ask about commissioning a boat.

“Ditmar didn’t miss a stroke. He kept on shaving and said, ‘What do you think, Mr. Donaldson, can we build a boat?’” McClellan remembered.

“No,” Donaldson nonchalantly replied.

“They built good boats and if you wanted one, you had to know them, I guess,” McClellan said.

One of Donaldson’s most famous designs was the Mojo.

The 1969 yacht with a wooden hull has a storied history.

The Mojo was once damaged by a massive rogue wave when actor George C. Scott charted the vessel out of a Northern California harbor.

The Mojo also made an appearance in the second season of the ABC reality show “The Bachelor.”

The yacht can still be seen in Newport Harbor. Luxury cruise company Hornblower Cruises bought the vessel in 2004.

“Don had a wonderful personality. He gelled so well with customers and spoke very well with the people who were purchasing these yachts,” said friend Daren McGaveren. “He was able to visualize their concepts for a yacht.”

Donaldson also designed the Vantuna, an 85-foot personal fishing boat for Gilbert C. Van Camp III, the chief executive of the Van Camp Seafood Co.

Occidental College later converted the Vantuna into a marine research vessel.

The famed 1948 speedboat the Miss Balboa was one of Ditmar-Donaldson’s early designs. The Miss Balboa could travel up to 60 mph. Popular among tourists, the Miss Balboa could carry as many as 36 passengers and travel from Newport Harbor to Catalina in 20 minutes.

Donaldson was an active member of the American Legion Newport Harbor Post 291, where he is remembered as the man who helped rebuild the legion hall after a fire devastated it in 1979.

Donaldson is survived by his wife, Mary, sons Don Donaldson and John Pentecost and his wife, Pam, and grandson, Matt Pentecost.

A funeral mass in Donaldson’s honor is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Newport Beach, 1441 W. Balboa Blvd.


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