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The Late Brig ‘Pilgrim’ in Happier Times

Here’s an update on the sinking of the Pilgrim, the full-scale replica of the merchant brig made famous in Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

Brig Pilgrim sailing in light air with full sails circa 2000
Brig Pilgrim sailing in light air circa 2000.
© 2020 Alice Watts / Ocean Institute

After heeling to starboard and settling to the bottom of its slip on March 29, Pilgrim’s owners, the Coast Guard, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and a private vessel assist group labored unsuccessfully to salvage the vessel. They announced on April 6 that the maritime icon of Dana Point will be demolished.

​Built in 1945 in Denmark as a three-masted Baltic trading schooner named Joal, Pilgrim was re-rigged in 1975 as a brig in Lisbon, Portugal, by the designer of the Disneyland tall ship Discovery. She then sailed across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and all the way to Southern California.

Pilgrim the Movie Star and Floating Classroom

Since her 1981 arrival in Dana Point Harbor, Pilgrim has served as a floating classroom, teaching 400,000 fourth- and fifth-graders about the sea, California history, and her historic namesake. A bona fide movie star, Pilgrim appeared in films including Amistad and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.

Pilgrim afloat in her slip
Pilgrim afloat in her slip.
© 2020 Ocean Institute
Pilgrim with her hull full of water, resting on the bottom
Pilgrim in her final resting place.
© 2020 Ocean Institute

Photos of Pilgrim in Happier Times

Thanks to Alice Watts for sending these photos from her time sailing aboard Pilgrim. Alice was also first mate aboard the scow schooner Alma for many years, teaching the ropes to thousands of school kids. Alice says, “We sailed with the Pilgrim in the ’90s as part of a training program at Hyde Street Pier on the CA Thayer and later for the Balclutha. The Pilgrim went sailing in as close to the traditional manner as possible. We in San Francisco were able to become part of the crew to gain personal experience that would greatly enhance the character on our program in S.F. We sailed points between San Diego and Marina del Rey over the years, and always included the Channel Islands. It was so wonderful to be able to have that experience.”

Brig Pilgrim sailing in light air circa 2000
Brig Pilgrim sailing in light air circa 2000.
© 2020 Alice Watts
The crew of Pilgrim working the lines on deck
Daily chores.
© 2020 Alice Watts
Capt. Jim working on the bowsprit circa 2000
Capt. Jim working on the bowsprit circa 2000.
© 2020 Alice Watts
Captain Jim climbing to the tip of the bowsprit of Pilgrim
Capt. Jim at the tip of the bowsprit.
© 2020 Alice Watts
Pilgrim is docked in front of a southern California hillside
Pilgrim dockside.
© 2020 Alice Watts


  1. Joseph DiMatteo 4 years ago

    I certainly hope the rest of the story gets told. I wonder what she was insured for, if at all, and what the investigation shows the cause of the sinking was. What will happen to the funds planned to be used for her next haul out that was planned? It will be interesting to see if the reasoning for demolishing her is made public in light of another classic sailing ship, the Wander Bird/Elba 5, that recently run down and sunk by a freighter. The last I heard of that tragedy is the plans are to refloat and repair the Elba 5 – why not the same for the Pilgrim?

  2. Pat Gadbois 4 years ago

    What caused the sinking problem?

  3. michael cropper 4 years ago

    Who made the decision to demolish the Pilgrim? And why can’t she be refloated and pumped out?

  4. Howard Graybehl 4 years ago

    I had the privilege of belonging to the crew and sailing aboard the vessel for the past 15 years. I do not offer official comments from the Ocean Institute but, I can offer some observations.
    To answer these questions directly…The decision to scrap and demolish was made by the US Coast Guard and the Ocean Institute after numerous unsuccessful attempts were made to refloat the vessel. Unfortunately, the age of the wooden hull made refloating a very difficult and very dangerous operation. Wood plank hulls just don’t act like other construction materials when no longer afloat and the hull experienced excessive pressures around the internal structural members, the deck and the hull planks. It will be impossible to determine the actual cause but there are plenty of assumptions and unfounded opinions being expressed; but; none of which can be proven or supported by evidence.
    The ship will be greatly missed by all who visited it as school children, the community and, the working crew.

    • Mike Surber 4 years ago

      If they can re-float the Wasa which was in exceedingly worse condition. I find it very hard to accept. That a ship much younger & in much shallower water can’t be salvaged. Un-step the masts & rigging. Which of course would greatly reduce her weight & improve her balance. Flotation bags are used nearly daily to raise ships much larger. Short of that. After salvaging all re-usable fittings, masts & rigging. Would only leave a hull needed to rebuild the Brig even more authentic to Dana’s ship. Actually I think I saw recently where the “Bill of Rights” was for sale. A fund should be started for “Friends of the Pilgrim” thousands of people have spent time on her. From school & boy Scout events (Including my youngest. Who has now been in the Navy for over 16 years. If those thousands would donate even &5.00 each. They’d have plenty of funds including the funds that had been set aside for the scheduled haul out & repair. As well as what the insurance will pay. I’m quite sure they had to have quite a bit of insurance because the public was allowed on her.I would certainly donate more than $5.00 if it was guaranteed to go towards a re-build or replacement ship.

    • Joseph DiMatteo 4 years ago

      And if she is not refloated and hauled it guarantees the cause of the sinking can’t be determined. Was she insured? Hopefully Lat 38 will publish the official USCG findings.

  5. Lee Greenberg 4 years ago

    Would appear to be exceedingly salvageable. Some Kenyan built a boat with a half-million soda bottles and we can’t raise a wooden boat in shallow water with exposed gunnel? Float bags to get it off the bottom, slid it over a large piece of plastic film, pull up the corners and pump out the ”diaper”. So common they have a nickname for it.
    Lee Greenberg
    Burning Waters Misadventure Park and Marina
    21 Pierce Lane

  6. Mike Loesch 4 years ago

    I remember Pilgrim fondly from my days as a youth sailing on tall ships. She will be missed by so many people. I am currently sailing across the pond from Southampton, UK to Halifax, Canada. After reading about this tragedy I am reminded of a song from one of Nova Scotia’s favorite sons, Stan Rogers, about a ship that suffers a similar fate as Pilgrim has. The song is “The Mary Ellen Carter” and to the current and former crew of the Pilgrim I would encourage you to listen to it. My favorite part is the fourth verse which goes like this:
    And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
    With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
    Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
    And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again
    Rise again, rise again!
    Though your heart it be broken and life about to end
    No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend
    Then like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

  7. Jana lopez Adler 2 years ago

    How sad I remember doing an overnighner on the Pilgrim and having to read a Richard ‘s book two years before the mast first . And I remember sleeping below below the top deck .

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