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San Clemente Journal

When a Young Man Found the Sea - A Story of Don Hansen

Sep 30, 2021 08:44AM ● By Don Kindred

Don Hansen and the fleet of 17 today.

by Don Kindred

In 1938, as America was slowly rising out of the Depression, the Hansen family pulled up stakes from the farmlands of Iowa. With both kids and whatever they could carry they boarded a train for a 2,000-mile journey to the Spanish Village of San Clemente. When they finally got settled, the 10-year-old city’s burgeoning population notched up to 478.

Don Hansen’s mother would find work as a waitress, his father became the butcher at Haywood’s downtown grocery store, and Don would discover something that he never could have found in Iowa ... the sea. 

In a relationship that now spans over eight decades, he has shared his love of that ocean with untold numbers of aspiring seafarers who caught their first fish, saw their first whale or felt the first splash of the mighty Pacific across their brow. 

Now, at 87, his legacy includes a fishing and whale watching fleet of 17 boats and a successful business that serves 50,000 customers a year. But the impact of his leadership, vision and contributions to his local community and the fishing industry is even greater. His experience and advice is respected around the world and has led to Presidential appointments, state commissions, and being seated on a whole alphabet of boards and other commissions. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the Beginning: Fishing in the ‘40s
The San Clemente Pier was already home to a small sportfishing fleet by 1946. From Easter to Labor Day, the boats would be moored a few hundred feet off the pier overnight and the captains would take a shoreboat out to retrieve them each morning. The fishermen would use a small staircase that led down to a tiny dock near the waterline. With two men on the dock, and two men on the boat, the patrons would carefully rock and roll their way aboard as the boat often bounced against the pilings. “We never lost a customer,” Hansen would claim later, with a smile, “we did lose a deck hand one day who had come down with ice cream cones and missed a step as the boat bounced out; we picked him up a little wet, but unharmed.”

The ‘40s and ‘50s were a golden age for fishing. Other boats were rarely seen on the horizon and the catch was generally plentiful; yellowtail, all kinds of sea bass, barracuda and rockfish. When the boats returned the haul was pulled up with cargo nets, consistently filling the end of the pier with heavy sacks of fish. They’d be lined up and waiting to be taken to the shore. That’s when 12-year-old Don Hansen went to work. He would pull his wooden wagon out to the fishermen and offer to haul their catch to shore for the price of a tip. “Nickels and dimes, sometimes a quarter,” he says. “Candy money. It was a great job for a kid. You couldn't get in trouble; you just played in the ocean until the boats came in and then went out to do your job. It got to be a little competitive,” he smiles conspiratorially.

The San Clemente Pier would become his second home for the next 25 years.
Hansen had worked his way up to a deckhand by 1952, the year he turned 18. He joined the Coast Guard during the Korean War and served two of his four years in the south Pacific (Guam). The experience gave him even more invaluable knowledge in
seafaring and navigation. 

After his honorable discharge, and taking classes at Orange Coast College, Don received his captain’s license. He was 23. He started off his new career back on the hometown pier running a charter boat, the Mustang, for Bob Miller, and eventually worked  for Nelson Cook at San Clemente Sportfishing. Within the next decade he had captained or at least helped to build each of the boats in the fleet. 

One day, his boss decided to sell the business and offered Don a chance to be the next owner. It was a big decision for a young man. But Hansen loved what he was doing and he knew if he didn’t buy it, someone else would. (He also had the good fortune of knowing a customer who was willing to loan him the money.)

In 1966, Don Hansen first took charge of the fleet of four boats... and the business entity known as San Clemente Sportfishing, Inc. 

Then he went to work. His work ethic surprised even those who knew him. Starting at four am he would help retrieve the boats, fill them with gas and bait, sell the tickets and then captain one of them on to San Clemente Island or some other fish-worthy destination. His timing was good. There was indeed “Fishing aplenty in San Clemente.” By himself, he was taking over 10,000 fishermen out every season. He rarely took a day off. And, as he recalls, “Loved every minute of it.”

But the big bonus was that he knew the Dana Point Harbor was starting construction and the first thing he did was put in a bid to re-establish the business there. 

Despite his home being in San Clemente and his love of the pier and the community, the move offered too many advantages for his young enterprise to pass up. It would provide a ready supply of diesel for the boats; a consistent, nearby access to bait and the safety of loading customers off a dock in a protected harbor rather than at the mercy of the swell against an open pier. 
Five years later, San Clemente Sportfishing, Inc., started doing business as “Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching.”

An Old Fish Story from Dave Peter
Life-long local fisherman, Dave Peter, remembers Don back in 1961. Dave was only 10. He used to hang around the end of the pier until he could talk someone into a “buddy pass” which would allow him to go fishing for free. 
The second run of the day was called an “Albacore run.” It generally left about 1pm in the afternoon but got us home by dinner time. After I had made it aboard,” he says, “Captain Don Hansen announced that he had some good news and some bad news. He asked us, ‘Who has to be home at 5:00?’  Probably 10 of us raised our hands. ‘That’s the bad news’ he said, ‘The good news is there are a whole bunch of albacore out in the channel, and we are going to be a little late, then he asked again, ‘Who has to be home at 5pm?’ 
Not a hand went up.” The boat would end up with its limit of about 200 large tuna close enough that they never lost sight of the pier. 
“My dad was waiting by my bike when I made it back to shore, he was pretty angry ... till he saw that sack of fish.”

On to Dana Point, 50-years-ago
Dana Point Harbor was officially dedicated on July 31, 1971. Dana Wharf was the first tenant. They were blessed with a perfect location near the mouth of the breakwater that would allow the captains to spend more time chasing fish than idling through the harbor. Four boats were in the initial fleet.

 Hansen and the harbor were a perfect fit, everything was new, Don was a young leader, hungry and full of ideas. He had already added ‘Whale Watching’ to his business offerings after witnessing the unbridled enthusiasm he saw in his passengers faces when his fishing boats would pass them at sea. He is credited with starting the whale watching industry in Orange County, if not all of California. The same year, he also started The Festival of Whales to celebrate the migration of these magnificent mammals, which continues today as the longest running festival in the world. Which would also lead to Dana Point being named, with daughter Donna’s help, ‘The Whale Watching Capital of the World.’ He also helped start Dana Point’s Christmas “Parade of Lights,” that is still popular fifty years on; with its ‘Free rides with Santa.’ He later started two children’s marine education programs; Dana Wharf Kids’ Club and Dana Wharf Kids’ Fishing Camp.

“It’s all about educating the kids to love and respect the ocean,” he says, “my children were raised with that knowledge, but we always need to teach the next generation.”
Always Giving Back

His business was always just one part of what Don Hansen brought to his community. Even before the move to Dana Point, he had been very active in San Clemente. He had served four years on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, and helped form the San Clemente Dons, when President Nixon was in residence in 1968. He was President of the San Clemente Exchange Club and a member of the Elks. He had been named San Clemente’s “Citizen of the Year” in 1970, the community’s highest honor at the time. (He would receive the city’s Lifetime Achievement Award 35 years later.) But today, that list of honors, awards and appointments is far too long to put on any trophy.

His focus has been on the fisheries and trying to keep recreational fishing viable into the future. He was Chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) for six years and a Commissioner for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a special appointment he received from the governor. Hansen is presently a commissioner on the National Inter-America Tropical Tuna Commission which was an appointment from President Obama. You see where this is going … check out the list at the right.

Don has drawn the respect of colleagues because he often finds himself between the scientists and the fishermen, a difficult spot. But one made easier by Don’s affable personality and ability to listen and understand differing viewpoints ... to be able treat everyone with respect, even when he didn’t agree with them.

“Don’s is always the most respected voice in the room,” says San Clemente’s Dr. Gus Gialamas, who has served with him on two hospital boards over the last 30 years. “He can use his sense of humor to dissolve tense situations, and find a way to put things in perspective.”
In 2010, Don turned the business over to two of his children, Michael and Donna, his oldest, David “Captain Dave” Hansen runs a charter boat out of Cabo San Lucas. 
Nobody said the word retirement, but now he is able to focus even more time on the things that are most important to him; like his 14 grandchildren, and his desire to keep the ocean healthy and the fish plentiful when it’s time for their grandkids. 

“Our philosophy never changed,” he says, “Daily Adventures; Life-long Memories.”

Awards and Honors

Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission  
(Appointed by President Obama)
Pacific State Marine Fisheries  
Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission (M.A.F.A.C.)
Pacific Fisheries Management Council
Groundfish Advisory Board
Dana Point Harbor Association, President
Sportfishing Association of California (Vice President)
Sportfishing Association of California
Advisory Panel for Harbor, Beaches & Parks Commission of OC   
Advisory Panel for OC Sheriff’s Department  
Pacific Fisheries Management Council (Original Advisor)
Advisory Board, San Clemente Hospital/Saddleback Memorial
Blue Ribbon Committee of San Clemente
Dana Point Festival of Whales Committee
Sea Grant Program Panel Member, UCSD
Dana Point Chamber of Commerce
Revitalization Task Force Dana Point Harbor/County of Orange
San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce
San Clemente Chamber of Commerce  
National Coalition Advisory Panel  
California Advisory Association
U.S. Coast Guard, operator

Orange County Tourism Council Legacy Award*
Sustainable Fisheries Award, NOAA
Lifetime Achievement Award, San Clemente
Citizen of the Year, Dana Point
Citizen of the Year, San Clemente
NOAA- Sustainable Fisheries Leadership award