For more than seven years, one of Orange County's most famous ships, the Pilgrim of Newport, was docked in San Pedro. But last year the Pilgrim sailed back home. For Pilgrim fans such as Dana Parker of Cypress, that's good news.
About this time of year, when the California gray whales begin their migration down the coast, Parker likes to take his Cub Scout pack to go whale-watching aboard the classic clipper, which is a replica of a 1770s sailing ship.
Now, with the Pilgrim of Newport back in Newport, fans like Parker don't have to go so far to take part in one of Southern California's most unusual whale-watching cruises.
What makes the cruises different is the Pilgrim itself. Most whale-watching trips take place on a modern-day motor yacht, but the Pilgrim is a classic sailing ship, a one-of-a-kind creation built single-handedly by Costa Mesa resident Dennis Holland over a period of 13 years. The vessel is a 114-foot wooden brigantine that weighs 75 tons and carries 82 passengers.
When the boat was launched in Newport Beach in 1983, more than 2,000 people turned out to watch. For a few years after that, the Pilgrim of Newport drew lots of gawkers and many paying passengers as it plied the waters off Orange County. Then, in 1986, the boat sailed up to San Pedro, where it became a popular tourist attraction and charter boat.
"We're glad to be back in Orange County," says Holland's wife of 25 years, Betty.
The boat, which last month celebrated its 10th birthday, is part of the county's history. Holland, now 47, began building the ship in 1970 when he was 24. For 13 years, he worked on the boat in the family's front yard. When he finished the hull in 1974, he and Betty lived inside it while Holland continued to work on the vessel's exterior.
"I was seven months pregnant with our first child when we moved aboard," says Betty. "We lived in the hull for nine years."
The couple's first child, Julie, is now 19. The other children are Heidi, 16, Amy, 12, and Dennis Jr., 8. And although the Hollands no longer live aboard the boat, the Pilgrim is still very much a part of their lives.
Since the ship was launched, Holland has run the boat as a charter vessel, taking passengers to Catalina and on short coastal excursions.
Beginning Jan. 1, the ship will once again offer its popular whale-watching tours. "Whale-watching, under sail, without a motor, is great," says Holland, who estimates that as skipper of the boat he goes whale-watching about 50 times each season and never gets tired of it. "It's so quiet, you can actually hear the whales," he says.
He points out that passengers get to participate in the sailing of the ship. "It's a different experience than just riding out on a boat," he says. "Most people have never been on a sailing vessel like this before and they get to hoist the sails, take part in it. Most have never experienced that quiet before--when you turn the engine off."
Frequent Pilgrim passenger Parker says that his Cub Scout pack always has a good time.
"We feel it is very beneficial to the Scouts because it is a relatively inexpensive way to relive a bit of America's history and learn a little about marine animals--whales, porpoises and such. And if you are an admirer of craftsmanship, the Pilgrim of Newport is an amazing example of an expert shipwright's work. She is an awesome ship."
Whale-watching season aboard the Pilgrim of Newport will run from January through March. Public cruises will be offered on weekends at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. During the week, groups may charter the vessel for special excursions.
Whale-watching cruises last about three hours. Tickets for weekend trips are $15 per person and $9 for children. For information, call (714) 642-4875.
Some words of warning: Don't get the Pilgrim of Newport confused with the Pilgrim that is moored in Dana Point. The only thing the two boats have in common is their name. Dana Point's Pilgrim is a 129-foot near-replica of the brig that carried Richard Henry Dana Jr. up and down the California coast. It is operated as a floating classroom by the nonprofit Orange County Marine Institute and is a permanent public attraction. The Marine Institute does not offer cruises; its ship remains permanently berthed.
But there are other classic sailing ships in Orange County that do offer whale-watching cruises. A sample follows:
* Spike Africa. The 58-foot schooner, skippered by owner Monika Sloan, has been offering whale-watching sailing trips for seven years. This year Sloan is doing something different. She has contracted with naturalist Doug Thompson to conduct daylong environmental cruises that will run on Jan. 23, Feb. 6 and March 6 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $45 per person and passengers should bring along a sack lunch.