Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Aboard the Pilgrim

After reading Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, I couldn't wait to see the replica of the small brig he sailed from Boston around Cape Horn to California.  The original Pilgrim was built in 1825 for the sum of $50,000.  The owners were able to cover that cost in only one voyage when it returned to Boston loaded with valuable hides.  After that, it was pure profit.  Pilgrim met her demise in 1856 when she burned and sank.  Today, a replica is moored at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point, California.  It is open to the public for tours every Sunday.  During the week it is used as a living history classroom for students.

Although I loved the book, especially the descriptions of the California coastline and Dana's encounters with the people he met, I tended to skim over the nautical parts.  I had hoped seeing the boat would help me understand the rigging, but it is so complex, it's amazing a city boy like Dana was able to figure it out!  What's the difference between the royal yard and the skysail yard?  A trussel tree and a cross tree?  What is a ringtail halyard or a top-gallant studding sail?  My travel buddy and I lucked out on the tour we signed up for--we were the only two on it!  The poor tour guides really had to work hard to answer all our questions, but they did a remarkable job.

The truth is, as Dana writes in his book, rarely is a ship at full sail.  During the two years he was at sea, it only happened once on the way home, and actually, he was on a different ship, the Alert.

Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are very few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail.  A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two or three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time.

In 1835, Richard Dana took a break from college to sail to California as an ordinary sailor.  This is something many educated young men did at the time, but it made for awkward situations.  They were neither officers nor common sailor, not fully trusted by either group.  However, Dana was a very likable fellow and the men opened up to him.  It was clear, however, he was not absolutely honest in his writing.  I felt he held back at times being the "gentleman" he was.  His worst fear was that his adventure would last longer than two years and his dream of becoming a lawyer would not happen.  It almost didn't, but I don't want this post to be a spoiler.  Read the book!
Seeing how small she was really made the book come alive.  There were three officers, six common sailors and a steward, cook, carpenter and sail maker all on board.  During the voyage to California, the boat was filled with leather goods, foodstuffs and ironware.  Every nook and cranny was taken, so the men had to sleep wherever they could find room, often on a coil of rope.  They ate standing up or on deck.  It was a rough, tiresome life, to say the least.

The Ocean Institute actually takes the Pilgrim sailing once a year.   A very lucky volunteer crew gets to go on this adventure.  I tell you, if I lived in Dana Point, I wouldn't mind polishing, scrubbing, painting or climbing a mast, all for a chance to sail on this historical vessel.  As our guide said, "She's a different ship at sea.  Buoyant.  Light.  Graceful.  A sight to behold!"

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