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3 DAYS BEFORE THE MAST : Volunteers Who Maintain Square-Rigged Brig Pilgrim at Dana Point Harbor Get Chance to Take Her to Sea

September 09, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

Sailing a classic square-rigged ship is not quite a lost art, but it's a rare enough skill that watching it practiced seems a privileged glimpse into a past era.

The Pilgrim is one such ship, originally a Baltic trader built in 1945 but re-outfitted to replicate an 1830s brig. Most of the time, she sits at her mooring in Dana Point Harbor, boarded by thousands of schoolchildren and weekend visitors each year.

In late summer, however, the Pilgrim takes to sea for an annual maintenance run to a San Diego drydock, and then a trip up the coast that gives the dozens of volunteers who tend to the wooden-hulled ship throughout the year a chance to sail her.

It's at sea that the Pilgrim comes alive, especially when the engine is shut off and the sails are unfurled.

I had the chance to sail aboard the Pilgrim during its voyage that left San Diego last Thursday for a jaunt to Santa Barbara via the Channel Islands, the first leg of the square-rigged brig's annual sail, which will bring it back to its permanent home in Dana Point Harbor in time for the city's annual Tallships Festival beginning Saturday. (More details, Page 4).

Friday and Saturday afternoons were beautiful sailing during the three-day trip, but the old wooden sailing ship came under some heavy weather while motoring, particularly during the second night of the voyage.

The Pilgrim had been rocked by heavy seas all night as we left Santa Barbara Island and sailed northwest, but when she hit the wind-swept gap between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands some time after 4 a.m., the situation became really wild.

Wind gusts kicked up to 40 knots, snapping the Spencer gaff, a spar that holds one of the sails on the foremast. Crew members had to go aloft onto the swaying mast to take the gaff down, while waves swept continuously across the ship, leaving the deck awash.

I missed the excitement of the snapped gaff entirely, having been sound asleep in the main hold. I slept despite the fact that my sleeping bag was directly on damp planking, a position I resorted to because the cot I had been assigned kept collapsing with the pitching of the boat.

My own watch that night, from 8 p.m. to midnight, had been eventful enough. The boat rolled, spray came continuously across the bow, and one large wave crashed across the poop deck and destroyed the navigation chart. Those who knew what they were getting into were decked out in full foul-weather gear; I wore a waterproof jacket, but my cotton pants and canvas shoes were soaked throughout the watch.

Those wet-and-miserable moments, however, were more than made up for by the sailing.

Setting the sails was a fascinating operation, one in which the rich vocabulary of the old seafaring days came suddenly into play.

There are miles of rope (rigging) aboard the Pilgrim, controlling the ship's 14 sails and tied off on dozens of belaying pins on racks that ring the ship's deck and the two masts. Each line has a specific name and a specific purpose, and when the "all hands" call comes to set sail, and the mast captains shout out to man the main braces or the t'gallant sheets, crew members move quickly to their assigned stations to haul away or ease away.

When the lines are set, the crew scrambles aloft and, dangling from the swaying yardarms like ornaments from a Christmas tree, unties the gaskets that lash the sails. Precision and timing are everything, and while there is often a small snag here or there, the operation is remarkably smooth for a volunteer crew that sails together but once a year.

This year's trip from San Diego was delayed and shortened by several days because repairs were more extensive than expected, a disappointment to many crew members who had set their vacations months in advance. The Pilgrim finally left San Diego on Sept. 2 for the three-day trip north.

The voyage to Santa Barbara is mostly by motor, with none or few of the sails set because the journey is into the wind. Sailing time is built into the cruise, however, even if it means a bit of backtracking. The subsequent leg from Santa Barbara to Marina del Rey, where the Pilgrim docks for several days, is reportedly the best sailing.

The one chance for the public to see the Pilgrim under sail is at the Tall Ships Festival, when she glides into the harbor in the company of an armada of classic and modern sailing vessels, which will this year include the 90-foot Swift of Ipswich and the 60-foot Witch of Wood, both of them classic square topsail schooners.

The Pilgrim has an overall length of about 130 feet, with just under 100 feet of deck. Named for the craft in which Richard Henry Dana sailed in "Two Years Before the Mast," the Pilgrim began its life as a vessel in the Baltic commercial trade, built in Denmark in 1945. (The original Pilgrim, built in 1825, was destroyed in a fire at sea in 1856.)

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