Photo by Keith MayOrange County's first travel-industry ombudsman, Richard Henry Dana Jr., won a place in local history for his 1840 novel Two Years Before the Mast. The book is widely acclaimed for its firsthand and quite candid depictions of a sailor's life, and it serves as a pre-Kathie Lee Gifford cautionary tale about checking out the reputation of a cruise-line spokesperson before you make your reservations. Also, it's the closest thing Orange County has to a literary history before T. Jefferson Parker's Laguna Heat.
Thankfully, Dana hasn't been re-created in Orange County (which would be just plain creepy), but his famous ship, Pilgrim, has. It rests in Dana Point Harbor, outside the Orange County Marine Institute, which maintains it.
The resemblances between the original Pilgrim and this simulacrum run deeper than the obvious. They are both made of wood, built a bit small for their type, and laden with small children. Today's ship is a favorite field trip for local schools, but it turns out that yesterday's was a kid magnet, too. Unlike the stereotypical movie depictions of big, burly sailors singing "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" (mmm . . . rum . . .), the average 19th-century sailor was between the ages of 12 and 16. Dana himself was a fairly old 19 when he visited the prenatal OC in 1834.
In contrast to certain other museums dedicated to OC's dubious historical figures—oh, um, I don't know, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, maybe?—the Orange County Marine Institute is fairly upfront about the nastier parts of Dana's history.
"He was a great man," says program director Karin Wyman, "but everyone makes mistakes. We want to show kids how he overcame his, not gloss them over."
To prove her point, Wyman discusses the circumstances that led Dana to seek a life at sea. Conventional history has it that a serious bout of measles affected his eyes and he left his studies at his doctor's recommendation to keep from straining them further—that nautical pursuits were basically his only remaining career option. "It's true about his eyes," says Wyman, "but he was also caught cheating on his exams and was expelled."
The glorious Pilgrim itself was built in 1825 as a vessel for smugglers. Later, Boston merchants Bryant & Sturgis bought it and used it to ship New England-manufactured goods to California, where they were exchanged for mite-infested leather skins and tallow. The trip took between six months and a year, leaving from six to 12 sailors on a boat with one another for months at a time. Most likely, few of the crew members spoke the same language; most were immigrants escaping the poor conditions in their home countries.
Stepping into the Pilgrim's hold suggests how uncomfortable that ride must have been. Six bunk beds line the walls—three on each side—in a minuscule space where a tall man can't stand upright. But this layout actually understates the discomfort of the real accommodations.
"Actually, this would really have been part of the cargo hold," says Wyman. "The actual bunks would have been over here." She leads us to a room a little more than half the size of the first one. "Of course, half the crew would have been on deck at all times."
This not only illustrates the harsh conditions sailors endured but also suggests the genesis of OC's affordable housing.
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For his part, Dana was changed by his time at sea. After his return to Boston, where he finished his law degree at Harvard, Dana campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for extended rights for sailors.
"Originally, the captain was like a god at sea," says Wyman. "He was completely untouchable for abusing his crew. Thanks in part to Dana's work, an abusive captain would have to face retribution when he returned to shore."
And Dana's personal evolution is testimony to the value of travel: dealing fairly with immigrant labor; concerned about poor living and work conditions; overcoming past moral corruption to become a champion of the poor and struggling.
Surely it's obvious why Dana is revered so greatly—and it's nice to remember how enraptured he was of Orange County's natural beauty. But one wonders what he would say if he could see the OC coastline today. Surely he would be flattered that the city that's arisen on the place he once called "the most romantic spot on the California coast" has been named for him. On the other hand, one imagines that he would be dismayed at the outcroppings of a civilization that seems to have risen from nothing, crowding over the harbor like something . . . really ominous. And one wonders how he'd react to the treatment of immigrant Latino workers. And then one remembers that he was something of a tourist. So of course he'd say, "I'm going to Disneyland!"