Skip to main content

San Clemente Journal

Two Years Before the Mast … and 75 After

Jul 16, 2020 11:43AM ● By Donia Moore

The Pilgrim looked majestic under sail. Kindred Photo.

by Donia Moore

“The fourteenth of August (1834) was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western coast of North America.”
So begins Chapter One of Richard Henry Dana’s chronicle of the life of an ordinary seaman in the 19th century.
The Pilgrim began her sailing voyage on that day, headed for the western coast of the continent to trade New England’s manufactured goods of shoes, food, and ironware for cattle hides from the Spanish rancheros, and Richard Henry Dana embarked on an adventure he could never have imagined. 

 As a Harvard College student in his third year who was recovering from an attack of measles, he tired of the long weakness, and inefficient medical aid he suffered and sought to affect a cure by exchanging his life of book-bound scholar for one of salt air and sea breezes. Proud sails billowing, the American brig Pilgrim set sail, carrying Richard among her crew of “Jack Tars”.  
In addition to a remarkable book chronicling his adventures of 1834-1835, Two Years Before the Mast, he also left his name imprinted on the colony of San Juan Bay, which would eventually become Dana Point. Up until his story was published, the majority of books about life at sea had been written by people who had gained their experiences as naval officers or passengers, traveling as gentlemen … with their gloves on. As a common sailor, Dana found his life from the forecastle to be very different.

Although Richard’s experience with the Pilgrim lasted only two years, the ship ploughed the waters for many more. In 1856, the original Pilgrim caught fire and sank.

The modern version of the Pilgrim started her life in 1945 as a three-masted schooner plying the Baltic coastal trade out of Denmark. In 1975, she was sailed to Lisbon, Portugal by Captain Ray Wallace, the noted marine architect, where she was converted to her most recent rig.
In September of 1981, The Pilgrim entered Dana Point Harbor. With her crew in authentic uniforms the Pilgrim was greeted with a special program, music and Spanish dancers. A reenactment of the tossing of hides off the cliffs and to the brig was a highlight. After a day of celebration, the Pilgrim sailed off to its final destination in San Pedro to become a floating museum. 

The plans were to move the ship to Monterey as part of an attraction, but the California Coastal Commission didn’t agree. So in May 1981, relinquished by her owners, she returned to Dana Point being purchased by the then Orange County Marine Institute-now the Ocean Institute-for a reported $500,000. After four years of wrangling while at anchor, the Pilgrim finally entered escrow and a new slip was provided. But when the time came to go sailing, an old maritime law from the ‘20s precluded the Danish-built hull from being used as a U.S. ship. A special federal act was enacted to allow sailing by then Congressman Ron Packard, and the merchantman became the Ocean Institute’s largest classroom. 

For 40 faithful years, the Pilgrim provided national award-winning living history programs to thousands of students. Additionally, she proved to be a glamorous and popular movie star. Dana’s voyage was memorialized in the 1946 movie Two Years Before the Mast with Brian Donlevy as Dana. Filming began in 1944 but due to the war, the open sea was not available for filming. So Paramount Studios built a 140-foot copy of the brig Pilgrim in an outdoor water tank.
The vessel also had starring roles in the 1997 movie Amistad with local Ocean Institute staff as extras on board. The brig played the part of the Tecora, the slave ship. The prop nameplate from the stern of the ship in that film is now hanging in the boat locker near the pier. The Pilgrim also appeared as three other ships in the movie-Washington, Providence and The Gentleman. It was also in the 1997 movie Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.

Many of us that live in this area were actively involved with the Pilgrim. Some of us sailed her. Some of us taught about life aboard a sailing ship as told by Richard Dana. Some like me maintained her - sanding and varnishing her sturdy deck, spars, and masts. Many, me included, were fortunate enough to strengthen family bonds and teach history at the same time by involving our children in those maintenance chores required to keep the tall ship Pilgrim proud.


And then, overnight, she was gone.

On Tuesday, March 31, in the early morning hours, the Pilgrim sank at her berth in Dana Point Harbor. The plans to float the Pilgrim with airbags and move it to a barge with a crane waited while the insurance company worked out contracts. Efforts to raise the partially sunken brig Pilgrim - now resting on the floor of Dana Point Harbor - have stalled. Since the ship was discovered heeled starboard in its dock at the Ocean Institute on Sunday, March 29, multiple agencies have worked to stabilize it and prepare it for transport via barge to a shipyard. In the meantime, salvage teams have worked hard to remove any contaminants from the water. If the Pilgrim can be salvaged and taken to a shipyard, an inspection of its hull could reveal further details on what led to the ship’s demise. 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol has also obtained surveillance video from homes overlooking where the Pilgrim is docked to see if they can offer any clues. Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol Lt. Chris Corn said institute officials had been battling a slow leak, but it was said to be under control. He spoke with Dan Goldbacher, director of Maritime and Facilities, who told him that the leak was managed with a pump.

Institute officials said they have been vigilant in the ship’s maintenance, and the Pilgrim underwent regular out-of-the water and underwater inspections. In 2016, it was hauled out for survey and repairs and in October 2019, the institute began fundraising to support the haul out and repairs scheduled to take place in January. The haul out was postponed until June due to overload at the shipyard, said Wendy Marshall, executive director of the institute. Meanwhile, the institute has maintained its certifications with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Now, Marshall said, the ship is likely beyond repair. “We are sad to bid farewell to this iconic vessel which has been such an important part of the Ocean Institute’s programs and to the children they served,” she said.

The Pilgrim is valued at $6 million. According to Institute spokespeople, the decision to scrap and demolish the Pilgrim was made by the US Coast Guard and the Ocean Institute after a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to refloat the vessel. Unfortunately, the age of the wooden hull made refloating infeasible due to the difficult and dangerous operation required.
 “Wooden plank hulls just don’t act like other construction materials when no longer afloat. The hull experienced excessive pressures around the internal structural members, the deck, and the hull planks. It will probably be impossible to determine the actual cause,” observed former crew member Howard Greybehl. 

The ship will be greatly missed by all those who visited it as school children, the community and the working crew. News of the Pilgrim’s demise spread throughout the harbor, through the city and to thousands of the institute’s supporters early Sunday. 

By midday, the ship’s crew were pumping out the remaining fuel from the tanks and working with deputies and a local sea tow company to get the Pilgrim upright. The ship will be lifted by airbags. Officials will determine if it can be towed to a shipyard.

As with any sinking vessel, Corn said, a typically small amount of fuel gets into the water and will evaporate. Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Fish and Wildlife were also there to monitor the recovery.

Since the Pilgrim went into service, more than 400,000 fourth and fifth-graders from throughout Southern California spent nights on the Pilgrim as part of a living history program every fall. Students learned about early California development and the area’s maritime history.
“We put them into challenging roles where they learned to become leaders,” said Dan Goldbacher, Director of the Maritime and Facilities of the Ocean Institute. “They became mates on each cruise. Like sailors in the 1830s everyone had to be on the same page to make the ship work. They learned how to rig the ship, prepare meals and row boats into the harbor to get hides. It showed them they had to push themselves to accomplish goals.”

The Ocean Institute staff is working hard to clean and repair parts of the Pilgrim to be sold or auctioned off to those of us who just can’t let her sink into oblivion. If you are hoping to capture a little bit of maritime history and help the Ocean Institute, please contact the Lorena Chambers Gallery at the Institute for more information about how to obtain any available relics. 
Wishing you calm seas and fair winds, dear Pilgrim.

Ocean Institute 
24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, 
Dana Point, CA 92629 (949)496-2274  

Current Issue Online





Upcoming Events Near You

No Events in the next 21 days.

Facebook Page