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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

Dana Point, California

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Spending a few days with friends in California.

Dana Point, population 33,351, has one of the few harbors along the Orange County coast,

The city was named after the headland of Dana Point, which was in turn named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, which included a description of the area.

Two Years Before the Mast was published in 1840, having been written after a two-year sea voyage from Boston to California on a merchant ship starting in 1834. A film adaptation under the same name was released in 1946.

"The term "before the mast" refers to the quarters of the common sailors, in the forecastle, in the front of the ship. His writing evidences his later sympathy with the lower classes. He later became a prominent anti-slavery activist and helped found the Free Soil Party.

In the book, which takes place between 1834 and 1836, Dana gives a vivid account of "the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is". He sails from Boston to South America and around Cape Horn to California. Dana's ship was on a voyage to trade goods from the United States for the Mexican colonial Californian California missions' and ranchos' cow hides. They traded at the ports in San Diego Bay, San Pedro Bay, Santa Barbara Channel, Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay.

Dana arrived in Alta California when it was a province of Mexico, and no longer Spanish colonial Las Californias. He gives descriptions of landing at each of the ports up and down the California coast as they existed then. The ports served (south to north) the Mission San Diego De Alcaláá, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Pueblo de Los Angeles, Mission Santa Barbara, Presidio of Monterey and Presidio of San Francisco, and with their very small settlements and surrounding large Mexican land grant ranchos. He also describes the coastal indigenous peoples, the Mexican Califorrnio's culture, and the immigrants' and traders' influences from other locales.

The headland bluffs near Mission San Juan Capistrano presented an obstacle to taking the cow hides to the beach for subsequent loading onto the ship. So Dana, along with others of the Alert's crew, tosses the hides from the bluffs, while spinning them like a frisbee. Some hides get stuck part way down the cliff and Dana is lowered with ropes to retrieve them. The headlands, along with the adjacent present day city, took on Dana's name as Dana Point.

Being an intelligent and educated person, he learned Spanish from the Californian Mexicans and became an interpreter for his ship. He befriended Kanaka (native people of the Sandwich Islands—Hawaiian Islands) sailors in the ports, one of whose lives Dana would save when his captain would as soon see him die. He spent a season on the San Diego shore preparing hides for shipment to Boston, and his journey home. Dana also makes a tellingly accurate prediction of San Francisco's future growth and significance.

Of the return trip around Cape Horn, on his new ship the Alert, in the middle of the Antarctic winter, Dana gives the classic account. He describes terrifying storms and incredible beauty, giving vivid descriptions of icebergs, which he calls incomparable. The most incredible part perhaps is the weeks and weeks it took to negotiate passage against winds and storms—all the while having to race up and down the ice-covered rigging to furl and unfurl sails. At one point he has an infected tooth, and his face swells up so that he is unable to work for several days, despite the need for all hands. Upon reaching Staten Island (known today as Isla de los Estadoes), they know they have nearly come around the Horn. After the Horn has been rounded he describes the scurvy that afflicts members of the crew."

"Two Years Before the Mast was "conceived as a protest and written to improve the lot of the common sailor". The literary style provides a concrete description of a seaman's life to serve as a practical guide, and not as an adventure novel. His unpolished, laconic style achieved a literary quality, however, that influenced novelist Herman Melville, according to American essayist Wright Morris."

Dana described the locale as "the only romantic spot on the coast". Although Dana described the anchorage as poor, it is now a developed harbor and contains a replica of his ship, the Pilgrim. The Pilgrim is used as a classroom by the Ocean Institute, which is located at the harbor. This area is designated California Historical Landmark #189.

The harbor, built in the 1960's and dedicated on July 31, 1971, is home to a marina, shops, and restaurants, and is a point of departure for the Catalina Express, a transportation service to and from the City of Avalon on Catalina Island.

The entire harbor of Dana Point, including the Embarcadero Marina shops and restaurants, are set for complete demolition and redevelopment. The current vintage nautical style is being abandoned for a Tech Minimalist concept using metal roofs as well as Minimalist landscaping.

It was a beautiful day to just relax!

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