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First Mate Keeps Pilgrim Shipshape

February 20, 1988

Bob Smirl is a landlocked high school teacher during the week, but on weekends and during the summer his task is to keep the tall ship Pilgrim shipshape. Smirl first signed on for duty on the boat eight years ago, shortly after the brig arrived in Dana Point Harbor. He came aboard as a volunteer but was later hired by the Orange County Marine Institute as a rigger.

The ship, a former Baltic trader that was re-outfitted as a replica of the brig on which author Richard Henry Dana sailed in "Two Years Before the Mast," was then decaying at anchor. First Mate Smirl organized volunteers to get the vessel back in sailing trim, combining a core of several experienced seamen with a crew of as many as 40 green but willing hands.

Since then, restoration of Pilgrim with volunteer labor has proceeded at full speed . The public can view the work today from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. when the Orange County Marine Institute offers guided tours of Pilgrim as part of its annual Whale Festival. The institute is at the west end of Dana Point Harbor, 35502 Del Obispo Drive.

Smirl's comments were taken from an interview with Times staff writer Rick VanderKnyff.

I learned to sail when I was in high school, sailing dinghies. I came from a Navy family, so it was pretty much expected that I go Navy, and I did during the Vietnam War. Later, I sailed a lot of boats in races and was the skipper of a Sea Scout program at Irvine High School.

But my first love has been wooden boats, and especially tall ships. Actually, I trade off a lot of possible sailing time for harbor time working on square riggers. Probably the most ethereal moment in my life is when I've got the watch aboard Pilgrim at night; the captain's asleep, I've got the con (control of the watch), I've got my 10-man crew at their various positions around the ship, full moon, effervescence in the water, we're ghosting along at night, we've got the glow of the oil running lamps lighting up the ship--it's a very romantic setting.

The ship has been sailed on a regular basis for the last three years. We're now embarking on our fourth year of sailing, and this is probably the life-saving venture of this whole project: that we actually sail it. If we relied on volunteers to come down and just maintain it for the public here in the harbor, it wouldn't look near as good as it does now.

In addition to our maintenance program, which is ongoing every Saturday, we have to have a training program. We actually hold classroom sessions, chalk talks on sailorly topics such as naming the parts of the ship, the rigging, marlinespike seamanship, knowing the basic knots and splices. We teach basic navigation--an enormous vocabulary has to be learned by each of them.

We give conventional written tests as well as practical tests, where they have to perform the applications. And even though there might be 30 or 40 volunteers that come down, we can sail with just 20 at a time, and usually go to the 20 best people who have put in the maintenance time as well as proven themselves to be sailors.

There's a whole subject in the skills involved. For one thing, it's an anachronism. The tall ships are out, basically. This, from what I understand, is one of the only, if not the only, square-rigged wooden sailing ship on the West Coast that's sailed on a regular basis.

I can name on one hand the number of riggers that are able to comprehend a square rig. They know their lines, and you tend to draw from these people when you need them.

The one thing that square riggers tend to have in common is a desire to remain traditional whenever possible, which isn't always easy, especially on the Pilgrim.

Even when we're under way, we generally don't operate under electricity. Our lights are all kerosene lamps; even our running lights and stern lights are kerosene.

There's a genuine pride that comes from all of this that I truly believe others sailors in modern yachting can never experience. Knowledge of the old seafaring ways is something you just can't buy.

If I had the choice of riding in the space shuttle or being the mate of a square-rig ship, I'd definitely choose being the mate of a square-rigged ship any day.

Reflections showcases county people with an interesting life story and allows them to tell it in their own words.

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