Sailing in the Wake of Giants

Sailing in the Wake of Giants

“We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.” —Richard Henry Dana

We made it into Dana Point harbor and set the hook just as the sun slid behind the tall cliffs. It had been a calm trip from Catalina but a long one, so while Colin put things away topside, I went below to conjure dinner from the last of our fresh provisions and a can of mystery vegetables.

Somehow, in removing the paper to prevent cockroaches, all cans accidentally got labeled as green beans. Turns out our surprise ingredient du jour was peas, which worked out well enough in a frittata with caramelized onions and goat cheese. Once we cleaned up the dishes, we were asleep within minutes—about the time the rest of SoCal was turning on the evening news.

In the morning, I pulled back the hatch and poked my head up to find we’d slid back several centuries in time.

Even better, we’d landed in the middle of sailing history paradise.

Let’s set the stage. In early 19th century America, public education was still virtually non-existent, and many kids began working before they reached their twelfth birthdays. Thus, few of the working class could write memoirs, and especially not sailors, so most people knew little about their daily life and struggles. 

Meanwhile, there was a fascinatingly remote area of Mexico that had few resources, but was populated by settlers who’d been banished to the hinterlands and their cattle.

The cattle multiplied. Suddenly the area was booming with resources because people used cattle hides for everything from leather satchels to the belts that ran the growing number of machines in industrial factories. Still, very few Americans had yet heard about the strange territory: Alta California.

Enter a Harvard-educated son of a prominent colonial family, who undertook a sea voyage to help cure his vision problems. It was thought sea air was a viable cure for opthamalia, only instead of taking a grand tour of Europe as his educated peers may have done, in 1834 he signed on as a deckhand on a relatively small commercial brig out of Boston named the Pilgrim.

Over the course of two years, he voyaged up and down the coast of this empty land called California, visiting villages and outposts with Spanish names as unfamiliar as San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco, living the life of a lowly sailor. When he returned, his book Two Years Before the Mast not only described these places in great detail to a fascinated audience, his descriptions of the abuses commonly inflicted on sailors had a massive impact on public opinion.

So if you are a sailor and have never been flogged, you may have Richard Henry Dana to thank.

The spot Colin and I had anchored—Dana Point—is named for its most famous visitor, and we have both been great fans of his work for years, but we hadn’t expected to find a full-sized replica of his ship sitting right off our stern that morning.

Pilgrim, replica of Richard Henry Dana's ship

We’re not sure what Richard Henry Dana would have made of the scene off his stern. Pagan sun worshiping ritual?

[Sad update to this story: on March 29, 2020 the Brig Pilgrim sank in her slip and had to be demolished.]

Side view of Brig Pilgrim

Length on deck 98 feet, beam just under 25 feet and mainmast height also 98 feet, making for a fun comparison to Pristine, who measures in at 37 feet, 10 feet 10 inches and 47.5 feet respectively. Having climbed our mast several times, I can only imagine heading twice as high up the ratlines to furl in the billowing topsails. 

But wait! There’s more! Why be satisfied with one sailing giant experience, when you can have two? Hang with us here. Can you handle a little more history?

Somewhere around the time the first pharaohs were conquering Egypt, in the era of stone tools, Polynesian navigators were making journeys of thousands of miles over open ocean in canoes built of logs and coconut fiber, reaching sparse islands without a single nail, much less the aid of a compass, clock or sextant.

“The Pacific Islanders’ reading of water... has never been bettered by humans anywhere on Earth.” —Tristan Gooley

While the art of Polynesian navigation appeared lost after contact with Europeans, in the 1970s, an intrepid group in Hawaii set about re-discovering the past. Using sketches, they re-created a traditional canoe, building with fiberglass since koa logs weren’t available, but staying true to the original design. They could only find a single person qualified to navigate the maiden voyage using traditional skills, and they plucked him from Micronesia to make a historic voyage in 1976 from Hawaii to the Marquesas. 

While I was not staring at the original Hōkūle‘a from my companionway, I was a mere hundred feet from her sister ship, Hikianalia, which was moored in front of the Ocean Institute on their latest voyage.

Colin and I swayed to Hula music, toured the vessel and chatted with crew who’d sailed on both ships. One of the most amazing things I learned was from a sailor from Moloka‘i named Todd, who’d explained that because Hōkūle‘a’s two hulls were lashed together, rather than being built of a rigid form like modern catamarans, the vessel flexes in high waves. Engineering-wise, this helps prevent catastrophic failure, but what really struck me was when he said the experience was like riding something organic over the ocean. Many a sailor believes their vessel has a living spirit, but I can only imagine it is that much more true for sailors aboard Hōkūle‘a.

And what about those navigation methods? For those who aren’t sailors, it involves reading the weather (i.e. clouds form differently over land), the stars (using an open hand as a sextant), and the swell (which refracts when it hits land, creating distinct patterns). If you want to know more, the website for the project explains it all far better than I ever could.

Hula dancers

How to better hula music? Why, add dancers, of course!

Construction by lashings

If you look closely, you’ll see the beams are all lashed to the hulls. Apparently, they used several miles of lashings to make Hikianalia seaworthy, good old three strand nylon in place of coconut fiber.

How lucky were we? This amazing scene we’d accidentally parked Pristine in filled our curiosity reservoirs and gave us the chance to chill out and melt into this floating lifestyle. We did some provisioning, laundry and other errands. We caught up with our friend Dan for an amazing dinner (thank you, Dan!). But mostly, we just did what we wanted—which I think is the whole point of this crazy alternative life we’ve chosen.

Next up, we will sail back to the present day, planning to spend about a week in San Diego while Colin attends a memorial and Pristine and I get ourselves shipshape enough to collect our captain and head south of the border, down Mexico way.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of bonus shots from the past week.

Pristine in Dana Point Harbor Pristine drew a little interest in Dana Point harbor herself.

Colin & Chey at Cat Harbor

Turns out the land legs still work too. After staring at it for months, we climbed Ballast Point just before we left Cat Harbor. This beautiful, natural harbor will always have a place in our hearts.

Catalina view

Colin cleaning the decks

Colin has also figured out that morning dew equals freely delivered fresh water, perfect for wiping the salt off the boat.

Chey welcoming the morning

Clearly, one of us works harder in the mornings than the other. 

Fair winds and following seas, dear friends!

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