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A Voyage Via the Past

Dana Point's Tallships Fest Sets Sail to Launch Maritime Center


Naturally, the 1996 Tallships Festival will be positively awash in history. But this year's event, which begins this weekend in Dana Point Harbor, also looks to the future.

On Saturday, volunteers and staff at the Orange County Marine Institute, sponsor of the festival and home to the brig Pilgrim, will break ground for the facility's new Maritime History Center, a 2,400-square-foot complex that OCMI spokesman Dan Stetson says will "dramatically enhance" the Pilgrim's educational programs for youth.

The center is projected to open in the spring and will sit adjacent to the Pilgrim's dock. Its three structures will include additional administrative and storage space, but Stetson says its prime feature will be demonstration areas where students will have hands-on experiences like the ones shared by seagoing adventurers of yore.

"It's definitely not a museum with a lot of artifacts in a case," Stetson said. "There will be real equipment [like] rigging, lines and sails. You'll have the feeling of that you're in an old-time sailing warehouse and you're preparing for a voyage on a square rigger."

Groundbreaking takes place Saturday at a $100-per-person fund-raiser. During the festival there will be on display color renderings of the facility by its designer, Ray Wallace, who plans to attend. Wallace, an artist and an avid sailor, is the man who originally brought the Pilgrim from Denmark to Portugal in 1975 and refitted it as a square-rigger.

It was originally meant to be part of a seaside restaurant complex, but the venture failed and the Pilgrim languished in several ports before OCMI director Stan Cummings brought it to the institute in 1981. It has been there since, hosting educational programs, maritime-themed plays and concerts.

Stetson said the new center will allow OCMI teachers to take their lessons to greater heights than they can on board the Pilgrim via mock-up rigging that visitors can climb.

"Team work and cooperation were critical for the old-time sailors, and we want to develop those same fundamentals in our students," he explained.

Education also is one of the main themes of the Tallships Festival, which begins Saturday when the Pilgrim, accompanied by nearly a dozen period-authentic tall ships, returns to its home port.

The two-day event includes tours of the ships, music, displays and activities that celebrate the Dana Point area's maritime history.

The 130-foot Pilgrim is a working replica of the ship on which author Richard Henry Dana voyaged before writing "Two Years Before the Mast." The ship now serves as OCMI's floating maritime-history classroom. In his book, Dana documented his journey on the Pilgrim in its voyage from Boston to California to procure hides for the New England leather trade. Stops included San Juan Bay, now the Dana Point Harbor area, where locals from the mission and rancheros threw hides off the cliffs of Dana Point to Pilgrim crew members below.

The Pilgrim leads a parade of tall ships on Saturday, but those not content to stay ashore can sign aboard one of five schooners and join the entry parade or work as crew members in a schooner race. The parade cruise departs at 10 a.m. and enters the harbor around noon. The race starts at 3 p.m.

Both cruises are three hours long, and passage--$20 for all ages--can be booked through Dana Wharf Sportfishing. Passage aboard the Californian--$75 for the first ticket, $37.50 for additional tickets--can be arranged through the Nautical Heritage Society.

After the parade, most of the tall ships will be secured at the OCMI docks and at nearby Dana Wharf and will be open for tours. Shore-side activities include nautical displays and demonstrations, sea chanteys and other period music.

One element new to this year's fest is Mast Hysteria, a touring ropes challenge course inspired by the days when captains sent hotheaded sailors aloft into the rigging for a cooling-off period.

The seafaring timeout evolved into a form of shipboard entertainment in which sailors devised increasingly challenging courses. The ropes challenge has since become a popular character- and team-building exercise with groups such as Outward Bound.

At the festival, staff of Lake Forest's the Great Ropes will invite children and adults to don harnesses and other safety gear and travel its 20-foot-long course.

The challenge is accessible to all ages and can enhance self-esteem, said founder Ellie Ryan.

"The course is as physically challenging as you make it," Ryan said. "No matter how you handle it, our goal is to have everyone feeling better about themselves than when they walked through the gate."

* What: The 1996 Tallships Festival.

* When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* Where: Orange County Marine Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point.

* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Pacific Coast Highway (1) and travel west. Park in lot at corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Selva Avenue; free shuttle service to OCMI throughout both days.

* Wherewithal: Free.

* Where to call: For festival information, call OCMI at (714) 496-2274. To book passage on the schooners, call Dana Wharf Sportfishing (714) 496-5794. For the Californian, call the Nautical Heritage Society at (714) 661-1001.

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