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Community Commentary: Let shipwright finish his work

June 22, 2011

By Gordon Glass

About 10 or 12 years ago, the city of Los Angeles allowed a private foundation to use a city-owned parking lot on San Pedro's main waterfront street to build two, 90-foot wooden schooners. A chain-link fence provided public safety while encouraging public viewing of the construction process.

A construction crew of professional shipwrights and amateur volunteers worked more than two years to complete the Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson. Both ships are now sailing in the foundation's youth programs.

About 30 years before that, 24-year-old Dennis Holland began building a 90-foot wooden schooner in his Costa Mesa front yard, all by himself! For 12 years, he cut, shaped and assembled tons of wood, installed tons of metal ballast, painted thousands of square feet of surfaces — with only occasional help from friends — and finally launched the Pilgrim. Now renamed Spirit of Dana Point, she is also serving youth thorough the Dana Point Ocean Institute.

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His accomplishment was monumental — a 90-foot schooner is huge by any measure; possibly no one since Noah has done that alone.

Now he has undertaken another monumental task: saving the 95-year-old, 72-foot ketch Shawnee.

According to Transpacific Yacht Race historian Bob Dickson, Shawnee holds a special place in Southern California sailing history. In the 1920s, she was an entrant in the first Los Angeles-to-Tahiti race, earning a second-place trophy.

Again Holland is working almost alone: only his son is helping him.

Unfortunately, Holland, now a resident of Newport Beach, is facing opposition from some neighbors and the city. They feel his Newport Beach side yard is not the appropriate place for such a project, even though Newport Beach is famous for being a "sailing city."

The city has told him to promptly remove Shawnee, even though it is now in two pieces; the upper part of the hull is temporally separated from the rotted keel, while that part is being replaced. Until they are reunited, moving the boat would cause it to fatally collapse. But the city is fining Holland on a daily basis and is purportedly planning to take him to court. If it prevails, it would be a sad ending to a worthwhile project, and a sad historical footnote to the history of a "sailing city."

On the other hand, perhaps there is a positive solution: one that will turn the city into Holland's partner, not his prosecutor.

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