Pilgrim from the stern at anchor in Catalina

A Tribute: Brig Pilgrim

A Simple Sunday Morning

The weekend is the time when things feel normal, lately. During the week, working odd remote hours and homeschooling my displaced progeny, Saturday and Sunday have been a respite from the looming threat of civilization wrecking pandemic. Staying inside except to go for a walk is fairly normal Sunday behavior for our household, as the week tends to fill up with appointments and girl scout events and sporting practices etc. We look forward to spending the day together, working on projects around the house, rushing for nothing.

The Water Rises

Cooking a late breakfast on this lazy Sunday, I did as I tend to do at all times of the day and night, my mind consumed entirely by my technology, and scrolled through my various social media accounts. Scrolling through my feed on Facebook a picture popped up which nearly picked up the tile floor beneath my feet and pulled it out like a cheap throw rug…

Facebook Post of Brig Pilgrim Sunk in her Moors

It is hard to describe what this compilation of photos represents, especially when seen casually without warning or expectation while frying eggs and bacon in the kitchen on a lazy Sunday morning. I posted to Facebook “I feel like I just lost a grandmother. This makes me physically ill to look at.” Objectively it is a boat sunk in its slip. Clearly it is the product of some mishap or accident. To the uninitiated it is clearly an unfortunate event. For me… It is the demise of an integral element of my origin story. It marks the end of an era, the closing of a chapter of my life I will never have the opportunity to open again.

What Is This Boat That Matters So Much?

Pilgrim under Full Sail
Pilgrim, In her Glory, Under Full Sail

The Brig Pilgrim was a scale replica of the ship sailed by Richard Henry Dana during his time as a greenhand sailor in 1834. His voyage was immortalized in his book Two Years Before the Mast. A major hit during the time Dana was unique in his point in history as a college educated and wealthy man who, through impetuousness of youth, experienced the demanding life of the ordinary sailor instead of the leisure of a pleasure cruise. Unlike the average sailor, who was not educated or wealthy, he was able to document a perspective of maritime life virtually unknown to anyone who was not a sailor themselves. Prior to Dana, the accounts of shipboard life and sea voyages were the memoirs and stories of naval officers and sea Captains and painted a much different picture of nautical life.

More Than Just a Boat

But, Pilgrim herself was history, not just a tool to teach it. The boat was built in 1945 and used in Denmark as a proper sailing ship to transport lumber. The engine was original, an ancient workhorse diesel monstrosity you kick started with a shotgun shell. But you didn’t start it if you didn’t have to, because at her heart she was a sailing ship. Re-rigged to replicate the ship from Dana’s voyage in the 70s it has lived in Dana Point for almost thirty years, nestled outside as the iconic figurehead of the Ocean Institute. The OI used Pilgrim as its set, bringing the book to life for fourth and fifth grade students. They came aboard and, during day programs and even overnight programs, interacted with the living history instructors who took on the roles of members of the crew. And it wasn’t just the 1830s, programs from post-revolutionary war to the gold rush explored California and maritime history in a hands on way.

It is where I learned to love history, to really understand it from a first person perspective. I worked for four years as a living history instructor and deckhand. Starting at nineteen I was fresh and new enough in the world to not just shape the experiences of those participating in the program, but was shaped by the program itself. For years I lived, breathed, ate and slept 19th century maritime. I devoured period literature, the Young Officer’s Sheet Anchor, learned marlinespike seamanship. Most of it wasn’t because I had to, but because I felt compelled to. I didn’t just play a sailor of the 19th century, there were times I was one, I was so completely lost in the environment the lines between the past and the present blurred for me. I remember spending so much time on the boats, so much time in character pulling extra shifts… fall front trousers and waistcoats felt more comfortable than jeans and a t-shirt. To this day I feel under dressed in “just my shirt sleeves”. We didn’t just do programs, we sailed her. We volunteered on Saturdays to maintain her. Like hundreds of others my very own blood and sweat and tears are in the rigging and timber of that ship.

More Than Just a Job

An incalculable number of experiences are forever ingrained in me from my time aboard. I can still recite the Captain’s first address to the crew “Now my men, we have begun a long and arduous voyage around the horn. If you do well, and do your duty like men… you shall fare well enough. If not, you shall fare hard enough I can tell you! That is all I have to say for myself.” A quote from Captain Thompson in the book. I remember the first time I rode the royal and put my initials on the main truck. I can recall the effortless naps taken in the bowsprit nets. Like yesterday I can remember swinging out by the barrel tackle from the main course during the fire drill. I remember dog watch, when thirty kids who were terrified to their core of the ship’s Captain gradually understood, on a completely unconscious level, what tough love really meant. The way I talk, my values, my work ethic were all shaped by my time aboard. I have never not thought about my time aboard Pilgrim. Despite having left in 2010 it is one of the few things I miss about California. It taught me so much, and in part, it is the reason I am where I am today, not just as a person, but as a reenactor. Much of the passion, commitment, and fervor I bring to Turnip of Terror exists because I learned how to have a tenacious commitment to excellence in history working and sailing Pilgrim.

Pilgrim attracted the “right” sort of person. The correct kind of crazy gravitated to the maritime programs. I left the Ocean Institute to join the Army, but I couldn’t tell you the name of half the people I worked with. I can recall two names from my time in service, but I can rattle off shipmates and OI instructors and run out of breath before finishing the list. The people of the Ocean Institute, they are people I miss every day. They taught me so much. I will never forget those early mornings making Monkeys Fists on the bench outside the office in the dawn with Jake Feuer; I could never tell him at the time that he took on a father figure role for me. I took it as a point of pride when I was jokingly called a “Jake in Training.” Jake taught me what it meant to devote yourself to a job, when the job meant more than just work. He taught me how to fix my car. He taught me it is never too late to fall in love, and you don’t have to figure our life out when you’re twenty to have a successful one. Brent Rudmann showed me what it meant to lead not with fear, but with mentor-ship. Eric Martel showed me, for the first time, there’s a deeper level of friendship than I could have ever imagined. I remember the moment when Adam Hiddleston took me and Eric out to dinner while we were stuck in San Pedro boat-sitting pilgrim and I learned terrifying and intimidating administrators were people, too. George Mack taught me to sketch, how to do real historical research, and how to let things roll off my back and not take everything so seriously. I could list names, and stories, and lessons for another dozen pages. Sara Ludovise for giving me a chance in the “sciency” stuff. Sullivan, Kraus, Rebekah, Arnott, Clifford, Kat, Madeleine, Liz, Philpott, Bruce, Charlie, Bob, Derek, Burgart, Stacy, Jamie, Ted, Moriarty, Bryn… Arturo. This list can go on, and on. Pilgrim was the place where I learned life lessons from some of the most amazing people I’ll ever meet.

Feeling Hurts

And now the environment for future kids like me to have those experiences is gone, and it’s a tragedy. It has been ten years now, and somehow I always thought I’d have Pilgrim to go back to, someday. When I was bored, and retired, I could spend a month or two, now and again, visiting family in California and teaching programs. I took my daughter aboard when she was too young to remember, now I’ll only have photos for my children. It is hard not to worry about what went down with her. How many connections, experiences, and opportunities went with her? If the nexus which brought us together is gone, do I lose that link to my friends, already so distant, by both by geography and time, have I lost them, too? Do I need the physical ship to maintain a connection to that part of my past? I’ve never once underestimated how much of myself I put into that ship, even in my short four year tenure. How much of me went down with her?

It hurts, deep in my chest, exactly like it hurts to lose family or friends. There is a reason a ship is a She. She carries us in her belly, keeps us safe across the water. She is a living creature, brought to life by us and for us. And she’s gone. The USCG and insurance companies will do their inspections and their investigations. Systemic problems which come from being 75 years old and made of wood are likely to blame, but the details of what happened to her are not what matters most to me, at least not now in the wake of legitimate grief. She is gone, and that will never stop feeling like I’ve lost a family member. And after a day of struggling with feeling foolish about it, I am convinced it is not just okay to grieve like this for her, but it’s right to do so. I own it, as it represent just how real she was to me, and how indelible a mark Pilgrim and all her crew have left on me.

But it is a small consolation. It still hurts.  

This is why I feel hollow.

This is why I sat down this morning and without shame wept.

This is why we must never forget.

Never stop telling our stories.

Never stop singing shanties. 

Pilgrim is us now.

7 thoughts on “A Tribute: Brig Pilgrim”

  1. So thoughtfully written. I hope the community rises up to build a new replica of the Pilgrim to fill that harbor slip. The Pilgrim was and educational and maritime icon to our Dana Point Harbor. And we need a Pilgrim in that space.

  2. Hi Ari –
    I worked on the Pilgrim with many of those same folks – but I think I was a little ahead of your time. I gravitated towards the cook and 2nd mate roles though I remember the sense of accomplishment that I had the first time I made a 4th grader cry as the first mate. Thank you for your words – you have captured the same feelings that I have inside of me.

    I promise to keep telling stories and to keep singing chanteys!


  3. I always knew I made a difference by helping to bring Pilgrim to Dana Point and start the “living history” programs, but I never felt it so much as in reading this tribute.