Say the words “historic” and “ship” in the same sentence, and I am all over that like Gatorade on a winning football coach. Hence, it should be no surprise that when I read about the existence of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point – and thus, the existence of a replica of the 1825 brig The Pilgrim – I scheduled a trip down to see it the very next Sunday (my Saturday).
That Sunday was yesterday.
J was game, and after we met two friends for a gorgeous breakfast at The Griddle on Sunset, we hit the road for Dana Point. As a side note, I highly recommend The Griddle. Not only are their pancakes spectacular – and spectacularly large – but their French press coffee is simply divine. J and I split the pumpkin pancakes (YUMM!!!) since they take up an entire plate, and what a delight. What a gorgeous, delectable, heavenly delight. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, topped with homemade whipped cream, and pumpkin filling … I’m getting hungry just thinking about them now!
After pulling off the freeway in Dana Point, we headed straight for the Ocean Institute, a hands-on, interactive, marine science, environmental science, and maritime history education center. How have I lived in Los Angeles for almost 6 years and not known this place existed? Talk about a dream come true! An educational facility dedicated solely to marine science and maritime history? I was in heaven!
I was so excited when we parked that I somehow managed to completely disregard the information booth’s instructions for purchasing tickets. J asked the guy where we go, and I thought he said we purchase tickets in the Gift Store. Off I went! Like a shot from a gun (or a ball from a cannon in landlubber parlance). J was calling my name, but I disregarded him. I wanted my tickets! When his calls grew more insistent, however, I turned, and he was pointing the other way. “We get tickets in there.” “I thought he said we get them in the Gift Store,” I replied. J turned to the information booth staffer who, trying to hide his laughter, said that J was right. I was heading the wrong direction.
Anyway, tickets in hand, we had arrived just in time for the next tour of the Pilgrim. You know how kids are on Christmas morning? My excitement puts them to shame.
I knew the ship I was about to board was a replica. This particular vessel was built in 1945 by the Dutch and was intended to be part of their post-WWII Baltic trading enterprise. She changed hands, as can often happen with ships, and she came to the Ocean Institute in 1975. She has been a “floating classroom” ever since – teaching young elementary school students about life on the high seas in the 19th century.
Or the time of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who wrote a classic in maritime literature: Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, detailing his time aboard a 90-foot brig called The Pilgrim. Dana, an undergraduate student at Harvard in 1832, signs on as a common sailor aboard The Pilgrim, a cargo brig built for trading voyages with Mexican California. The ship makes its way south from Boston, around Cape Horn (I was hooked), up the west coast of South America, and into the waters off Alta California, where it docks at several harbors to trade its hodge podge array of American goods – everything from frying pans to carriage wheels to clothing and cosmetics were onboard – for Californian hides and tallow.
In the 1830s, California was still Alta California, and, therefore, part of the Mexican empire. The former Spanish Missions have been converted into centers for the prosperous ranching industry, and the Mission buildings themselves are now private residences for the wealthy rancheros. The United States, at this time extending as far west as the modern-day eastern border of Texas, has limited access to cattle and cattle products. Mexico, up to its eyebrows in cattle, has limited access to manufactured goods, so a vigorous trade between the two nations is underway. The Pilgrim’s goal was to empty its cargo hold of bric-a-brac, and acquire somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 cattle hides to bring back to the east coast.
That goal required stops at several harbors along the Alta California coast. The Pilgrim pulled into San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, trading with the presidios: San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Pueblo de los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. In the book, Dana provides vivid descriptions of these small settlements and their residents, including the local Native American peoples that worked for the rancheros.
When The Pilgrim’s crew traded with the people of San Juan Capistrano, Dana relates a charming anecdote of the sailors tossing the cattle hides off the top of the bluffs along the waterfront near the former mission, throwing them out like giant Frisbees. It was the only way the crew could get the hides down to the boats that would take them back to The Pilgrim itself, anchored a few miles offshore. Today, those bluffs are part of Dana Point … named after the self-same Dana, and the current home of The Pilgrim’s replica.
Dana also doesn’t exactly withhold his opinion on the places he’s visiting. He, for the most part, was charmed by the west coast of California. I remember he particularly loved San Diego and San Francisco. How he gushed over San Francisco. But he absolutely hated – and I mean HATED – this dusty, dirty, ramshackled, backwater town located about 20 miles or so from the San Pedro Harbor, and known at that time as el Pueblo de los Angeles. Could it have been a more godforsaken and desolate place? Not according to Dana.
Made me laugh.
If only Dana could see it now.
Anyway, Dana’s voyage does not end on The Pilgrim. He catches another brig headed east called The Alert and, after another treacherous journey around Cape Horn, he sets foot on his native soil in 1834, two years after he had set out. In the 19th century, common sailors like Dana slept in hammocks in the fo’c’sle, or the forward most part of the ship (near the bow). It was literally before the forward mast or the mast closest to the bow. And hence the title of the book: Two Years Before the Mast.
From the historical perspective, Dana’s opus is not only one of the best accounts of life aboard a wooden sailing ship in the 19th century – Dana was probably one of the few common sailors who could actually read and write – but his descriptions of Mexican California are truly priceless. You couldn’t wish for a better primary source of life in that time.
And his descriptions are so vivid, that even though the current Pilgrim was built as a three-masted schooner, she was easily converted to the two-masted brig rigging that Dana described on his Pilgrim. Other features match Dana’s experience as well, such as the placement of the steering wheel as close to the rudder as possible, which means, the rather illogical-appearing placement of the steering wheel near the stern. According to our guide, this helped with the efficiency of the wheel and its communication with the rudder – the more rope needed to connect the wheel with the rudder, the more energy lost in the turning of the wheel and the subsequent turning of the rudder. Furthermore, the more rope on the deck, the more likely it was to wear out… not a good thing in a ship that is driven by its use of ropes.
And the cargo hold is the largest space on the ship. Why? Because the cargo is where the money is. Thirteen or 14 sailors can smash themselves into a low-ceilinged chamber the size of a modern-day bathroom, but there will be 60 feet of cargo space. And you will pack all 60 feet full of stuff. Because for every item in that cargo hold, that is one more dollar in somebody’s pocket somewhere.
Then there is the work of sailing a sailing ship. I have experienced the hurricane-force winds of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. And I was on a cruise ship the size of Rhode Island. I can’t imagine how a 90-foot ship with two masts managed to survive that journey, and multiple times too. But I did learn how these early sailing ships dealt with the circumnavigating winds off the Cape – they sailed in a zig-zag. They turned the ship to the southeast so they could catch the few puffs of breeze blowing in from the east and then turned it back to the northwest when they hit a certain point on the southward journey. Then back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Until they had zig-zagged their way around the tip of South America.
After such a leisurely and informative tour of The Pilgrim, J and I wandered around the rest of the Ocean Institute a bit, petting some sea stars in the Discovery Zone and catching sight of a Garibaldi – California’s state fish! – before we headed off to find him something to eat.
Men. And their hunger. Let me just say this for the record: the next time a guy complains about a woman’s bitchiness when she is PMS-ing, I am going to remind him of men’s grumpiness when they get hungry. Sheesh.
But I’ll give J his credit. He did start getting cranky when he started getting hungry, but he also suggested we rent kayaks!! I haven’t kayaked since our trip to Catalina back in 2011, so this was an exciting treat for me. And he suggested we take the kayaks up to the Pilgrim and the Ocean Institute’s sister ship, The Spirit of Dana Point for a “different perspective.”
What a man! He can get hungry anytime he wants!
And that is what we did. Rented our single-seat kayaks, and journeyed around the Dana Point harbor, getting up close and personal with both The Pilgrim and The Spirit of Dana Point. We also spotted some exciting birds, although I only managed to get a picture of one. Now, I just have to figure out what kind of bird it is.
But for now, I am going to relish. Relish in the sheer thrill of being aboard an historic ship. The thrill of being in a kayak and paddling around the gorgeous Dana Point harbor. The thrill of seeing new birds and learning new history.
This is what life is all about.