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The wanderlust of a true beach boy

Life after 60 for John Aurelio Garau was an endless summer of surfing, sailing, scuba diving and rollicking adventure. Home for him the past 35 years was a slip on F dock at California’s Dana Point Harbor, where he kept his 27-foot Erickson sailboat, Salome. Garau, the “Jefe of F dock” and Laguna Beach’s oldest former lifeguard, died Aug. 23 at age 88.

John Garau was an avid adventurer and a skilled ocean navigator who sailed the world.

He leaves behind friends at home and around the world who knew him as a one-of-a-kind adventurer and free spirit who would say, “You’ve got to have guts to go,” says Robert Mooers, of Irvine, Calif., Garau’s skipper on many a race that he navigated. “People who hold on too tight, they’re not willing to cut the cord and do it.”

Garau — nicknamed “Frenchie” in his Army days, presumably for his way with the ladies — did it. He grew up in Southern California in the pre-Beach Boys days with pioneering surfers and surfboard makers Dale Velzy and Hobie Alter, designer of the Hobie Cat. “He was always an avid waterman,” says Garau’s son Jaime, of Laguna Niguel.

Garau started out as just another kid on the beach who liked to swim and body-surf and watch the girls. During summers while in high school, he lifeguarded in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, where he met many of Hollywood’s sailing stars — Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Ward Bond among them. Garau’s parents sent him to the Army and Navy Academy, a college prep boarding school on the ocean in Carlsbad, where he met a classmate who introduced him to ocean sailing on his father’s classic Rhodes 33. Sailing became Garau’s ticket to a bigger world. A garrulous man who loved to regale an audience with stories, he became a skilled ocean navigator who signed on as volunteer crew on other people’s boats and sailed the globe — to Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Pacific, Australia, the Mediterranean.

“He was a real adventurer,” says Bob Anderson. For four or five years during the 1980s, Garau crewed for Anderson, of Oklahoma City, on Anderson’s 48-foot custom C&C racing sloop, Celerity. Garau was in his 60s at the time.

He and Anderson, who is now 90, cruised the east and west coasts of Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, islands off Colombia and Venezuela and the U.S. Gulf and East coasts to Norfolk, Va., where Anderson decided he needed to take a sabbatical from cruising. “I got so sick of sailing. I foolishly came back to California,” he says. “John took off on another boat and sailed to the Azores and Mediterranean.”

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Garau used to crew for Mooers on races to Mexico. “He was an excellent navigator,” Mooers says. And Garau’s knowledge of Mexican west coast waters was encyclopedic. “From Baja down, he could tell you every shoal, every area with coastal anomalies, wind issues, sea conditions. He was like a walking almanac. … There was not a place in Mexico that he was not intimately familiar with. He took a VW van all the way to Panama through Central America. He made that his quest.”

Adventure in the DNA

Garau was the go-to man for getting things done in a strange port. He made friends quickly with the right people. “He knew every mayor. He knew every port captain,” Mooers says.

He spoke with them in “street Spanish” — the rough language of the streets. “He knew how to open doors,” says son Jaime, who cruised with his father and Anderson on Celerity for six weeks. On Colombia’s San Andres Island, the elder Garau befriended a lieutenant on a Colombian Navy frigate who took them out to the frigate on a tender as his guests and introduced them to a navy scuba team who took them out diving on the reef. “He has friends all over the world like that,” Jaime says.

Garau came by his adventurous spirit honestly. His father, Aurelio Garau Sr., was one of four brothers — all talented cooks — who emigrated to the United States from Sardinia, Italy. A couple of the brothers opened a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., that was popular with presidents and congressmen. Aurelio went to work for Delmonico’s, the famous New York restaurant, and later opened a Delmonico’s in Los Angeles and an L.A. Cotton Club that, with a speakeasy next door, became a popular music and dance club during Prohibition, Jaime says.

Garau’s mother, Salome Blanchard, came from New Mexico pioneer stock. French-Canadian Charles, also known as Carlos, Blanchard, settled in Las Vegas, N.M., in 1864 and became a prominent merchant, trader and wagon master who organized and led mule and ox trains loaded with supplies on the Santa Fe Trail. One bit of history tells of an Apache raid on one of Blanchard’s mule trains carrying government supplies to Fort Dodge. The Indians took off with all of the mules, leaving Blanchard to walk 50 miles through Indian territory to the fort to get help from the cavalry.

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The Blanchard family went on to establish a large meat and supply company and owned several mines. Garau’s great-great grandfather, Albino Perez, was a Mexican general and governor of New Mexico who was killed — beheaded — in an 1837 rebellion against the central government in Mexico.

Garau’s father was quite an adventurer, going big-game hunting in Africa, retracing the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition, sailing on a schooner to Hawaii, visiting Alaska. “[He] was quite a businessman,” Jaime says, but he lost much of his fortune in the Great Depression four years after his son’s birth late in life, in his 50s.

A ‘wild bunch’

John Aurelio Garau graduated from the Army and Navy Academy in 1943, joined the Army Air Corps right out of high school and trained as a navigator on B-24s. It was a skill he would use to great benefit later while cruising but did not have to use on bombing missions because World War II was over by the time he finished his training.

After the war he resumed lifeguarding, this time in Laguna Beach, where he could hang with the surfers and party on the beach or rub shoulders with Hollywood society at lifeguard parties at Bette Davis’ estate on exclusive Wood Cove. An excellent swimmer but perhaps a little too fun-loving for the lifeguarding hierarchy, Garau was fired for waterskiing down the beach while on duty on a busy Fourth of July weekend. It was the sort of high jinks that the young Garau was known for.

As a teen during the war, he and his buddies would break curfew and swim down the beach commando-style past the coastal defenses for the fun of it. In the Army, he once was hauled in by the MPs for cutting his way back into the beer tent after being tossed for unruly behavior, Jaime says. “They were quite a wild bunch,” he says.

Garau married Sally Conley in the mid-1950s, and together they opened the Reef Liquor Store on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna, which they ran together into the early 1970s while having four children — Jean-Pierre, Jean-Francois (Jaime), Maria-Christina (Salome) and Jean-Paul. Jaime says his father was a stern disciplinarian who gave demerits and issued report cards to his children to keep them in line. “He never learned to do the loving father or grandfather thing,” he says wistfully. “But out in the world he could make a friend with anyone.”

Separated from Sally in the early ’70s, Garau sold the liquor store and opened Reef Realty on the beach in Laguna. Jaime remembers the realty office as a locus of surfer activity, as Garau himself surfed into his 70s. Jaime and his friends would store their boards under the office and use its shower. Garau would anchor his sailboat off the beach in the summer, sleep on it and swim or surf to shore to shower for work. “It was a good hangout place,” Jaime says.

Garau bought his Erickson 27, Salome, in 1978 for $20,000. It became the home he always came back to after a six-month, year-long or four- or five-year cruise. Jaime says his father liked Hawaii best — for its culture, its people, its beauty, the surfing — and cruised or raced there several times, sometimes staying for six months. He had a lady friend there, Carol Kawananakoa, the widow of a war buddy who was a member of the Hawaiian royal family. She opened doors to genuine island culture. “He went to royal [luaus] and wild boar hunting on Maui,” Jaime says.

Garau had a story for just about every port he visited. As Anderson remembers it, he and Garau were about to leave Mexico for Costa Rica on Celerity when they met an elderly American cruising on a 36-foot sloop. He had lost his crew and needed help, so they loaned him their young mate. Garau hadn’t been getting along with him, anyway. “John was very controlling,” Anderson says. “He wanted to put everything where he wanted it. If someone came aboard and moved things, he really got upset.”

Garau trained to be a navigator on B-24 bombers.

Garau gave the mate waypoints to a rendezvous off Costa Rica where they would meet up, and warned him to stay at least 50 miles off Nicaragua, where pirates had been attacking boats. The sloop didn’t make the rendezvous, so Garau called the American embassy in San Jose and found that the two had been jailed in Nicaragua.

Ignoring Garau’s warnings, the old man had sailed too close to Nicaragua. Pirates boarded his vessel, stole everything of value, then let the boat go. Afraid to keep sailing, the old man hit a rock trying to anchor near shore and the boat sank. The two dinghied to shore, where a magistrate locked them up for illegal entry. The skipper should have known better, Anderson says. The mate? “He was just a kid, a greenhorn.”

Garau was 79 when he set off on his last two-year cruise to Hawaii, Tahiti, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia, and travels to Vietnam, Hong Kong, China and India. “I’ve got a picture of him on an elephant,” Jaime says. In New Zealand he bought a VW camper — as he had done earlier in his year-and-a-half of travels through Europe — and toured the country alone, including wild, remote Stewart Island, where as an avid hiker he could explore to his heart’s content. Then he sold the camper, flew to Australia and did the same thing — this time surfing and diving. “You’ve heard of ‘Europe on $20 a day,’ ” Jaime says, laughing. “He figured out how to do it on $10 a day. He wasn’t rich.” He stayed at parks and cheap rooming houses and lived like the locals.

Garau had lived at Dana Point Harbor longer than any other liveaboard. He was the mayor of F dock. “He ran things,” Jaime says. “If people didn’t clean up around their boat, they heard about it from John. He hated disorder.” Frustrated by their unsightly condition, he would go up and down the dock and paint people’s dock boxes.

A man of strong opinions, Garau was a vocal advocate for liveaboards at the marina. “There was a right way and a wrong way, and his way was always the right way,” Jaime says. “And he didn’t care who he told that to.”

In one of his last major projects, Garau in 2012 helped Mooers rerig and recommission a classic yacht that Mooers had acquired: a 35-foot Rudy Choy-designed ocean catamaran that Polynesian Concept built for actor Buddy Ebsen in 1969. Framed in spruce with 1/8-inch plywood skin, the cat was a fixture on Newport Beach for many years but had been in an anchorage in Hawaii for the last 10.

“Frenchie knew the boat well,” Mooers says. “I’ve got good memories of that time with him.”

Garau’s health steadily declined after a minor auto accident a few weeks before his death. In a wheelchair and on oxygen, it was no longer safe for him to be on the boat by himself, so Jaime took him off Salome and put him in a small nursing home just three blocks from Jaime’s house. He was “mad as hell,” Jaime says.

Jaime plans to keep Salome, but he has renamed her O’Johnny, after his father. “We were out sailing it last weekend at the Tall Ships Festival,” Jaime says. “I think he looked down and smiled.”

November 2013 issue