It’s Saturday. Early. Too early to be out of bed on a chilly morning when I don’t have to be at work. But this is my favorite time of year for a dawn paddle. It’s glassy calm, peaceful, fantastically beautiful, and I’m nearly alone out here… for now. If I’m properly motivated – I’m not always – I’m on the water before sunrise. As I paddle down the outer channel towards the harbor entrance, the sun breaks over the distant hills in startling shades of fire. The majesty of this moment makes the bitter cold in my toes oh so worth it. I drift into a meditative autopilot, paddling instinctively towards the light.
At the harbor entrance I am spooked from my trance. The Sum Fun is heading out with its hardy group of winter anglers. Among them are my good friends Marcus and his young daughter Ally, who just hollered my name across the open water. Good thing, too, as I didn’t see their boat coming. This is Marcus’s favorite time of year on the water too, despite expecting little more than a few sand bass and perhaps fish tacos for lunch. As his father did with him more than 30 years ago, Marcus routinely boards the Dana Wharf boats for sportfishing trips with his kids. Those days on the ocean were formative to Marcus’s childhood, as he hopes they will be for his kids, and perhaps his grandkids. Dana Wharf was founded when Don Hansen signed among the very first leases in Dana Point Harbor in May of ’71, and got started operating his boats out of a trailer. He’s since passed the business on to his daughter Donna, who will carry it forward for Ally’s generation to share with their kids.
Despite the cold, Marcus and Ally and the others on the Sum Fun are hardly alone out on the water. In fact, this time of year most of the charters are booked solid searching for whales, in particular gray whales on their annual migration. This has been another marvelous whale watching season, with fin whales, Risso’s dolphins, blue sharks, and a few other uncommon visitors joining the grays in putting on a show. As Ally reels in a small rockfish, the catamaran Manute’a passes nearby, pursuing a spout its skipper saw in the distance. Among the excited whale watchers are Justin and Marie and their kids visiting from the legitimately cold Bozeman, Montana. Their kids have never seen the ocean before, let alone whales. Witnessing their unharnessed excitement serves to remind their skipper how special we really have it here, which is easy to forget when we get it every day. Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari team not only excels at treating their guests to the wonders of the ocean, they’ve also earned a national reputation for conservation. Their boats are often among the very first on the scene of distressed sea life, rescuing whales from entanglements, and sometimes pausing their business to do so. But today their triumph is delivering lifelong memories to Justin and Marie and their kids.
As the sun crosses overhead and the Manute’a turns back to port, a loud boom resonates across the water. On the horizon, a ring of smoke erupts from a tall ship’s cannon. The Spirit of Dana Point rounds the visiting Hawaiian Chieftain, firing at her portside in a thrilling simulated cannon battle, riveting her passengers with flashbacks to our maritime past. Perhaps second only to our reputation as a worldwide hub of whale watching, Dana Point Harbor is known for our two tall ships, the Spirit of Dana Point and the legendary brig Pilgrim, and the annual Tall Ships Festival hosted by our Ocean Institute. The O.I. was founded in 1977 to bring our maritime history and lessons in ocean conservation to kids and adults alike, and today enriches more than 250,000 visitors annually.
As the Spirit returns to dock, it encounters a swarm of small sailing vessels traversing the anchorage adjacent to the O.I. Pesky kids. At one end of the anchorage are the Westwind sailors, many of them new to sailing, learning from experienced kids who themselves learned to sail at Westwind, from experienced kids who themselves learned to sail at Westwind, who themselves… OK, stop. Westwind was founded in 1986 by Diane Wenzel, who has become an icon in Dana Point Harbor for educating thousands of kids in the ways of the ocean.
At the other end of the anchorage are the high school sailors, training for competition against the very best youth sailors from across Southern California. This is only the second year of the Dana Hills High School sailing team, and this weekend they travel to San Diego for the next regatta in the high school series. They are organized by Dana Point Yacht Club, which sponsors their coaching and vessels. DPYC was founded in 1952, before there was even a harbor here, to promote and perpetuate Dana Point sailing and the Corinthian spirit. Today DPYC proudly invests in developing the next generation of sailors. But at this moment, my two boys, Carsen and Riley, are tacking perilously close across the bow of the Spirit of Dana Point. Pesky kids.
As the sun sinks into the horizon, Marcus and his family retreat to the Wind and Sea Restaurant for dinner. I guess Ally’s little rockfish wasn’t enough to feed the family. Wind and Sea opened in 1972, shortly after owner Bob Mardian joined Dana Wharf’s Don Hansen in signing the very first pair of leases in our new harbor. It turned out that opening a restaurant was more daunting than starting a sportfishing business, and Don and his trailer beat Bob to opening day. But approaching 50 years later, Don and Bob and their cherished businesses remain cornerstones of Dana Point Harbor.
Across the restaurant, Marcus’s and my eyes meet. A nod and a smile. We both grew up here, and now we’re raising our kids here. That message is always part of our shared smile. I’d wave him over, but tonight’s a date night with my wife. As such, instead of hiking back up the hill to our house, we cross the bridge to retire to our boat.
Nordhavn Yachts is renowned worldwide for their rugged ocean-crossing power boats. Nordhavn calls Dana Point Harbor home, founded here after a pair of 20-something boat brokers grew tired of selling other builders’ boats and decided to design and build their own. Now 45 years later, more than 800 Nordhavns traverse the world’s seas. And one of those vessels proudly displays Dana Point across her transom. Ours.
After a typically bustling day in our harbor, a serenity has settled back in for the night. Only the clanking of boat halyards against their masts breaks the silence. It’s a sound I recall fondly from my childhood sleeping on my father’s boat. It’s my lullaby. Good night.
James Lenthall is a lifelong Dana Point resident and boater, and presently serves as president of the Dana Point Boaters Association, chair of the Dana Point Harbor Advisory Board, and as a director on the board of Dana Point Yacht Club.