In the twilight hours of Sunday, March 29, the Orange County Sheriff answered a 911 call about a sunken vessel at Dana Point Harbor. They immediately contacted Dana Point deputies who responded to assess the situation. Upon arrival, deputies saw the 98-foot Pilgrim’s wooden hull completely submerged, with its mast leaning to one side in its slip. A large oil sheen surrounded the ship on the water.
Shortly thereafter, local authorities showed up with the county’s OSPR-granted boom trailer to contain and recover the released red dye diesel fuel and oil from the iconic, replica tall ship.
The Office of Spill Prevention and Response awarded a boom trailer to the Orange County Sheriff Department. They received the equipment trailer in November 2019 to help protect their natural and economic resources from oil spills.
“It was never a matter of if we have a petroleum incident at the harbor, but when,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Baugh.
The Orange County community is familiar with oil spills, having experienced one of the largest crude spills in California from the American Trader in 1990. Since that time, the county has looked for funding to purchase containment equipment.
OSPR’s grant program offers up to $35,000 for an oil spill equipment mobile trailer to local government, Native American tribal organizations, and special districts so they have response equipment staged locally for a fast response.
Environmental Scientist David Lyons remembers getting a phone call from the wildlife officer on call about the Pilgrim with instructions for him to deploy as soon as possible. Lyons was the first to arrive on scene from OSPR’s southern field response team, made up of a wildlife officer, an environmental scientist and an oil spill prevention specialist.
“Lots of people from the community were at the scene wondering about the Pilgrim’s fate,” said Lyons. “Everyone who knows the Dana Point area knows about this ship.”
The nearby Ocean Institute owned and operated the Pilgrim, a 1945 replica of a historic ship that sailed in the 19th Century, known for fur trading in North America. One of its sailors, Henry Dana Jr., the areas namesake and writer of the book, Two Years Before the Mast, is about a two-year sailing expedition on the Pilgrim from Boston to California. Hollywood made a movie based on the book with the Pilgrim as its backdrop in 1946.
Unlike the original ship, the replica had a diesel motor, fuel tanks and oil on board. The Ocean Institute used the replica tall ship to offer thousands of school-age children overnight expeditions to teach them about life as a sailor working and living on the high seas.
Lyons said Dana Point Harbor where the ship sank is near environmentally-sensitive, rocky intertidal and tidal areas, a break wall (a wall that breaks the surf to create the harbor) where many birds and wildlife haul out and forage. Wildlife refuges, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area and offshore kelp forests are also among the environmentally-sensitive areas near the harbor.
OSPR Oil Spill Prevention Specialist Jim Kiatos, also responded. He identifies contaminants and quantifies petroleum released into the environment during responses.
“The fast response of the Orange County Sheriff deploying their newly-awarded containment boom played a key role in preventing a major spread of the oil,” said Kiatos. “If we had to wait for an oil spill response organization to arrive, the petroleum might have done more damage.”
Wildlife Officer Anastasia Norris as the state on-scene coordinator oversaw the work of cleanup contractors and the handling of the contaminants and salvage operations. All members of OSPR response team work with federal, local agencies and owners of the petroleum released during oil spill cleanups.
This response occurred during the Covid-19 stay-at-home order as many bystanders and responders kept their distance. Clean up responders maneuvered as best they could to maintain six feet social distance from each other made especially challenging on the narrow dock that surrounded the sunken vessel.
After the cleanup contractor performed oil skimming operations at the slip where the Pilgrim moored, the responders began work to refloat and remove fuel from the tank and seal the sunken vessel. Responders used high capacity pumps to float the vessel and a crane barge to lift her. Divers observed how unstable the old, heavy wooden hull had become. After several lift attempts, Wildlife Officer Norris along with the US Coast Guard representatives, local authorities and the Ocean Institute decided to demolish the Pilgrim out of safety concerns.
The outpouring of emotion from onlookers and others on social media about the demolition of the Pilgrim rang.
“I saw a woman crying in the parking lot near the Pilgrim’s slip once news spread about the demolition,” Kiatos said.
Responders were able to retrieve various key parts of the tall ship to remember her by, including a bell, one of the masts and a cannon.
Members of the southern response team also reminisced:
“When I arrived on scene, it was a very sad site because as a kid, I participated in one of the overnights on the ship doing night watch, rowing in synchronization with my classmates and eating hard tack and stew,” said Norris. “It was actually a really cool experience.”
Lyons recalled touring the Pilgrim while visiting the Ocean Institute during a marine biology class.
“It was a sad thing to happen to the Pilgrim, and it was just one more bad thing to happen in 2020.”
“When I came to California 30 years ago, I noticed the Pilgrim right away and always associated the boat with Dana Point,” Kiatos said.
To learn more about the Ocean Institute’s Pilgrim, go to https://www.ocean-institute.org/general-information/about-pilgrim
To learn more about OSPR’s response grants, go to https://wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR/Local-Government-Outreach