Having graduated from Newport Harbor High School five days earlier, 17-year-old Brad Avery deferred college to visit distant, exotic places on the planet. He flew from LAX to Mexico City, and then to Panama, where he began a three-year trip sailing as a crew member on wealthy people’s boats in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. “I had a passionate, passionate interest in sailing,” he recalls.
When Avery wasn’t boating, he backpacked across Europe. This period in the early 1970s transformed him from wide-eyed, middle-class kid—who washed comedy legend Joey Bishop’s yacht, Son of a Gun, and drank coffee with John Wayne on his 130-foot boat, Wild Goose—into a savvy young adult. He learned how to fend for himself, partied for the first time, honed his already-keen boating skills and saw his love of nature intensify.
Awed by Ernest Hemingway, he entered the University of Southern California’s journalism program, hoping to master the art of storytelling. We’re lucky his stint as a reporter, a gig writing for The Orange County Register‘s outdoor sports page, lasted less than two years before he found his true calling. Nowadays, Avery serves as director of Orange Coast College’s School of Sailing and Seamanship, based near Restaurant Row on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. Some might dismiss the job as a lightweight task allowing three-hour lunches followed by idle gazing at the water as yachts parade back and forth with palm trees as a backdrop. After all, there’s no denying this scenery is spectacular, even hypnotic.
But Avery hasn’t let the atmosphere lull him. During a recent interview from an office perch overlooking the bay, he could easily name the owners of passing boats. Such familiarity makes him, along with councilman Duffy Duffield—another long-term nautical enthusiast—guardians of local boaters and waterways. “To me, [our waters are] like a huge public park with whales and Catalina Island,” he says. “It’s important to protect [them].”
Avery took over a boating program decades ago that could have easily been scrapped as inconsequential during state budget crises and built it into one of California’s best examples of an efficient, public-private cooperation. County officials provide the land for offices, parking and classrooms. The community-college district handles human-resource issues and accounting, and wealthy area residents, such as the Disney family, offset expenses with generous cash contributions as well as donations of an array of sail- and power boats.
The project couldn’t succeed, however, without Avery and his staff bringing daily enthusiasm. They attract students also by offering affordable rates of, in one particular session, a cost of only $155 for 20 hours of expert, hands-on training—most of it on a boat. More than 1,500 folks—including people from as far away as Big Bear and San Diego—enroll annually.
While sipping a margarita with a friend on a beach in Cabo San Lucas last May, Avery received a text message from Duffield: An incumbent council member had unexpectedly decided not to seek re-election. Duffield encouraged him to run for the seat. An amused Avery handed his phone to his pal, who saw the communication and, without permission, jokingly sent a response: Okay!
In a life loaded with twists, this non-politician ultimately accepted the challenge. Hardcore conservatives weren’t elated by his refusal to kowtow to their ideological doctrine on national hot-button topics. At a 2016 GOP candidates’ forum, they demanded he regurgitate their views on killing abortion rights and Obamacare with no replacement plan, or risk losing. On another aggressive front, anti-commercial-development activists sought his unyielding allegiance to no-growth sentiments.
Veteran boat captains who’ve navigated oceans and kept crews both thrilled and safe aren’t easily rattled. Avery let the advocates know he was open to consider arguments, but he refused to become a pawn for either camp. In November, this 63-year-old lover of the sea, wildlife and the city that has been home for nearly five decades won the election.