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Love On The Rocks: Visiting Dana Point

Editor-in-Chief Peter Swanson takes a closer look at why Dana Point is a literary landmark, engineering marvel, and sybaritic delight.

Southern California is one of those places best visited by sea. So many attractions, so many fine restaurants, and yet so much wretched automobile traffic—that’s why coming by boat is truly liberating. What better way to outflank the freeway and set a course for the literary landmark of Dana Point?

Recreational ports everywhere are repositories for life’s finer things, but the California coast is largely lacking in natural harbors, so it should be no surprise that this state’s marina districts seem to incorporate a greater-than-average share of distinguished amenities. For the boat, Dana Point offers superb shelter against the Pacific Ocean at its worst; for those on board, this nook in the “California Riviera” is a center for fine dining, boutique shopping, and a well-regarded educational institute.

The basin at Dana Point can accommodate 2,400 boats.

The basin at Dana Point can accommodate 2,400 boats.

Dana Point Harbor is a remarkable man-made basin situated on the southern side of a bold sandstone cliff 220 feet high. The harbor is oriented roughly east-west, with its entrance in the southeastern quadrant. Entrance is straightforward with off-lying rocks marked with lighted whistle buoy.

Sound signals are important here because, unlike the East Coast, fog happens all the way down to the latitudes of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. If approaching Dana Point in fog, augment your radar and plotter by radioing the coast guard and asking for activation of a fog horn at south light of breakwater entrance, so says the U.S. Coast Pilot.

None of this great infrastructure existed in the 1830s, and at that time, coming by sea was also easier; overland travel to this barely populated frontier region was difficult in the extreme. Richard Henry Dana, whom Dana Point is named after, visited back then while serving as a merchant seaman on the brig Pilgrim.

Pilgrim came here to purchase cattle hides (jokingly referred to as California banknotes) from the local Spanish ranchers to supply the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The crew would toss the hides off the cliff for the ship’s boats to carry out to the ship, which would be anchored a couple miles offshore in what was then called San Juan Bay.

Dana later described all this in his classic book Two Years Before the Mast, which was the 19th-century equivalent of a bestselling exposé; the 1840 book described the travails and systemic mistreatment of ships’ crews. That message wasn’t what later endeared Dana to the local powers that be, but Dana was an East Coast celebrity (back before California learned how to make its own) and his book included a single sentence that had great public relations potential.


Henry Dana, you see, had described San Juan Bay in his book, including his somewhat negative impressions of the Spanish inhabitants, but in that mix he included the observation that this was “the only romantic spot in California.” Thus, after statehood, the rugged headland was rechristened Dana Point, a name later extended to include the entire community.

For enthusiasts of all things nautical, the harbor is a fascinating example of marine engineering, particularly when one considers the challenge of sheltering boats in what had long been a legendary locale for surfing. Doheny Beach, which begins just south of the harbor was one of the places the Beach Boys sang about in “Surfin’ USA,” and the project essentially killed one of the coast’s best surf breaks by blocking the waters surfers had dubbed “Killer Dana.”

Here’s how Dana described the Killer Dana-area in his book:

“The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks, which run out into the sea.”

The engineers brought bargeloads of rocks hewn from Catalina Island and used them to build a massive two-sided breakwater connecting the headland and the beach. Water was pumped out of the enclosure and heavy equipment was used to create the boat basins and artificial island, which forms an inner wall of protection against surge. Once the structures were complete, rocks were removed to create an entrance. A small beach, which locals call the “Baby Beach,” was left in the northwest corner of the harbor to absorb any swell intruding when seas run from the southeast. When that happens, there is some surge, whose effect is limited to the commercial docks on the outside of the east basin.

Started in the late 1960s and dedicated in July 1971, such a harbor would probably be impossible to build today because of insurmountable government permitting hurdles. But outside the United States, you will find numerous man-made ocean harbors, and few are as good as Dana Point’s.

The east and west basins are separated by a 45-foot-high bridge connecting the shore to the man-made barrier island. The island does double duty as a park and location for marine businesses. The east basin (controlling depth: 10 feet) is home to more than 1,400 vessels, while the western one holds about 1,000 (depth: 8.5 feet). Dockage is reserved for up to 42 transient craft up to 40 LOA, with a face dock for vessels up to 65 feet. Berthing assignments are made through the Orange County Harbor Patrol Office, which monitors VHF channel 16 around the clock.


Step off the dock and you will find more than 40 shops and restaurants without even leaving the waterfront. The boutiques range from touristy to eclectic. And the funkiest dining establishment is a bar and grill called Turks, the retirement enterprise of the late Hollywood strongman Turk Varteresian, who acted in more than 60 movies and television shows. Vartesian died in 2000.

Returning cruisers will find one less eatery on the waterfront, however. In December, Pacific Asian Enterprises, the builders of Nordhavn trawlers, consolidated its two Dana Point offices and moved into the space once occupied by a waterfront restaurant that fell victim to the economic slowdown. It seems altogether fitting that some of the earliest Nordhavn designs were drawn on cocktail napkins a the restaurant’s bar.

For repairs the Dana Point Shipyard occupies the eastern extreme of the harbor. It has a 25-ton Travelift, a marine hardware store, and a full-range of technicians. At the opposite end is the Ocean Institute, a marine science and maritime history organization. It operates a full-size replica of Pilgrim.

The parks within the harbor district and just outside its boundaries are often host to concerts and other entertainments. Last May, for example, Greg Allman, Joan Osbourne, Buddy Guy, and Los Lonely Boys performed at the Doheny Blues Festival at Doheny Beach State Park. The harbor is also host to an annual July 4 spectacular. Point being, if your itinerary includes Southern California in the warmer months, it would be best to call ahead. Transient berths tend to go fast during special events.