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Heave Ho

October 27, 1985

From "The Boutiquing of California's Coast" by John McKinney, originally published in "Unknown California" (MacMillan, 1985) .

I find Richard Henry Dana's memorial overgrown with weeds and overlooked by motorists whizzing by on Highway 1. His little bronze plaque abuts a cyclone fence separating the gated, guarded, residential community of Monarch Bay from the highway. If you remember your California history, you'll recall that one October day in 1835, Richard Henry Dana, a young sailor on the Alert, lowered himself over the 200-foot cliff that now bears his name to retrieve some cowhides he and his fellow sailors were attempting to toss down to their ship. Later, Dana described his adventures in an eloquent passage in "Two Years Before the Mast," one of the greatest books ever written about life on the high seas and a California classic.

I wonder why California's earliest and most enduring literary landmark stands forgotten among broken bottles and burger wrappings. Why has Dana been marooned so far from his beloved sea and more than two miles north of his famous point?

As I stand with Dana's memorial in the shadow of Monarch Bay's walls, the sun, which I cannot see, drops toward the ocean, which I cannot see, showering golden light on sandstone cliffs, where I cannot legally walk. I stare at California Historical Landmark No. 169 and review what has been an awful day of walking Orange County's coast, a day so disheartening I'm compelled to rethink my dream of hiking the entire California coastline.

My day's hike began at Doheny State Beach. Hiking up-coast along water's edge I soon reach the southern breakwater of Dana Harbor. On the cliffs overlooking the harbor, the bulldozers are busy, making building pads out of bluffs. Lantern Bay is the name of the development--198 expensive homes, two hotels and a New England seacoast village shopping center.

I walk across the acres of hot asphalt comprising the Dana Harbor parking lot. The sight of the huge plasticky and antiseptic marina takes the wind out of my sails. A favorite surfing spot of my adolescence has been totally destroyed. Before Dana Cove became Dana Marina, better surfers than I rode waves as big as 25 feet and called the place Killer Dana. More often, though, the waves came in smaller, less radical sets, and we surfers loved Dana Cove, for it had everything a beach should have: white sand, aquamarine water, a lack of truant officers.

The marina builders did not completely overlook Dana, however. Along the concrete promenade I discover a statue of young Richard Henry, bare-chested, notebook in hand, his back to the sea. The sculptor has captured him in midstride, making Dana appear to be struggling to loose himself from his pedestal and flee the marina.

Leaving Dana to his fate I clamber up collapsing sandstone cliffs and past a closed restaurant that is collapsing with the cliffs onto the beach. Atop these cliffs is supposed to be Dana Point. I seem to remember, from childhood, a little wooden observation tower, complete with 10-cent telescopes. The tower has vanished, which may be just as well, because if the telescopes were up here today, all they'd view is a wall of residences.

I find a vacant lot between two expensive homes and squeeze through to the cliff's edge. Ah, this is more like it. A superb view! I marvel at the severely deformed, light-colored shale and Monterey sandstone beds of the point, the translucent, Capri-like waters swirling below. My mind paints pictures of Dana and his fellows hefting those stiff heavy hides stripped from the backs of tough Mexican cattle and heaving them over the cliff. I imagine other sailors on the beach, retrieving the plywood-like hides, balancing them on their heads and fighting the surf to the waiting longboats, which delivered tall stacks of them to the Alert, anchored a hundred yards offshore. For an instant, history comes alive for me and I smile at how these majestic headlands impressed young Dana. "The only romantic spot in California," he wrote.

A man walking a Doberman interrupts my reverie.

"This is private property," he announces.

"Yes, I know."

"Well--you'd better move on."

I briefly contemplate how satisfying it would be to toss his hide over the cliff, but move on peacefully.

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