Kerry Sawdon, 11, spun the tall ship's wheel and peered straight ahead at the compass as the Californian, a 140-foot replica of one of the country's first revenue cutters, slowly turned and headed out to sea near Dana Point.
As the sails began to fill, Kerry smiled with the satisfaction of a job well done. Like the 40 or so other paying passengers aboard the majestic ship, Kerry was not just along for the ride. Sailing aboard the Californian, the state's official tall ship, is a hands-on experience designed to carry each participant back to the days when hundreds of tall ships plied the waters off the California coast.
Like Kerry, others aboard the ship pitched in to heave lines, hoist sails, clear the decks and steer a steady course.
The Californian is owned and operated by the nonprofit Nautical Heritage Society of Dana Point. It is a full-scale replica of an 1849 revenue cutter, named the Lawrence, that was one of the fastest and grandest of the cutters that sailed the West Coast. The cutters, part of the Revenue Marine Service, were there to catch smugglers and collect customs fees from cargo ships.
The Californian, which was built by the Nautical Heritage Society in 1983 and launched in 1984, sails the West Coast--like its predecessor the Lawrence. But rather than look for smugglers, the Californian serves as a training vessel for modern-day sailors. So far, more than 3,000 of them have participated.
"We've been offering these programs for 5 years and do them out of 34 ports up and down the coast from Eureka to Chula Vista," says Steve Christman, president of the Nautical Heritage Society.
Most excursions aboard the Californian last several days and cost several hundred dollars. There are some day trips such as the one Kerry Sawdon signed up for, however. These are offered at $65 per person, including lunch. The day cruises fill up fast, according to Christman, with some people booking as far as 6 months ahead of time.
The society is now accepting reservations for 1-day trips that will be offered in Dana Point in September, after the ship returns from its annual "Goodwill Cruise."
The "Goodwill" trip, which begins in April, includes stops in Hawaii, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Because the Californian does not spend that much time in any one of the ports on the route, it is necessary to plan well ahead should you want to book passage for one of the popular day cruises scheduled at these spots.
Larry Kaml began planning his trip last fall, when he asked his wife, Shirley, to buy him a special Christmas present--a ticket for an excursion aboard the tall ship. Larry, who works at Disneyland as an attractions host aboard the Columbia, also a replica of a historic sailing ship, said he wanted to see what a "real sail" would feel like. Shirley not only bought a ticket for her husband, she also bought one for herself. She also decided that eight other Disneyland employees, most of whom also work aboard the Columbia, might like to come along.
"We are all crazy about ships, so when we found out about this, we decided to come, too," says Chris Lambert, one of Larry's co-workers. "This is a unique experience because you don't just sit around. You get to actually do things. This is the closest thing you can get to doing some real sailing--without being a sailor. "
"Besides, we don't get to hoist the sails aboard the Columbia," says Matthew McNabb, another co-worker. "In the early days, they did hoist the sails, but the boat actually started sailing and they were afraid it would jump its underwater track and derail. You don't have to worry about derailing out here," he said as he looked out at the empty expanse of ocean.
Beverly and Dick Pfund traveled from their home in Oswego, N.Y., for a trip aboard the Californian. The Pfunds, like the Disneyland group, have a personal interest in tall ships. "We're building our own back in Oswego," Beverly says.
"And we wanted to be able to get some ideas," Dick adds. "That's why I am taking pictures of all the details on this ship." The Oswego ship would be the first schooner built in Oswego in more than 100 years, according to the Pfunds. It, in much the way the Californian is, would be used as an educational tool.
Educating people of all ages about the nearly forgotten art of sailing tall ships is the primary purpose of the Californian trips, says Christman, who was instrumental in directing the drive to build the $1.5-million vessel.
"We not only want to teach people to sail the tall ships, but we also want to introduce people in general to the marine environment," he says. "That's why the Nautical Heritage Society was founded back in 1981: to give people a better idea of how to use our ocean environment.
"If we don't start taking care of it now, we won't have it in the future."