Vol. 3, Issue 32, August 7-13, 2008
By Nathan Wright
San Clemente Times
San Clemente’s Bob Smirl  has spent three decades caring for the Ocean Institute’s Pilgrim, a job that led to a part in a Spielberg’s Amistad.
He’s been eaten by a sea monster and has thrown slaves overboard to a watery grave. He’s taught Moby Dick and Billy Budd and served his country in the Vietnam War. And when he wasn’t acting, teaching or soldiering, San Clemente’s Bob Smirl was working on tall ships.
“If it’s wood, it’s my responsibility,’ says Smirl, standing in his workshop at the Ocean Institute at the Dana Point Harbor.
Moored behind him is the Pilgrim, a 130-foot wooden tall ship that takes thousands of visitors out to sea every year for educational exploration. Like anything wood-especially wood floating in the salty Pacific-the Pilgrim is susceptible to termites, rot, worms and even electrolysis.
“It’s always in a state of decay,’ he says. “It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain the Pilgrim.’
Smirl, 62, is one of a handful of shipwrights in California and is responsible for the care and upkeep of the institute’s two tall ships.
Even before retiring from teaching in Irvine last year he worked 20 to 30 hours a week at the institute, spending evenings and weekends caring for the Pilgrim and Spirit of Dana Point.
His three decades of service is surprising considering the longtime high school literature teacher never intended on a second career in woodworking or shipbuilding. After serving aboard the USS Ticonderoga in the Vietnam War, Smirl returned and majored in English at Cal State Fullerton, leading him to a 34-year teaching career.
In 1979, Smirl chanced upon a newspaper story that led him to his second career as a shipwright. “I read about the Pilgrim in the LA Times,’ he says. “There was a profile on the Pilgrim‘s caretakers so I went down to take a look.’
When he arrived he found the tall ship with a film crew aboard, filming Darwin on the Galapagos. Smirl joined the filming crew as an extra and ended up sailing around Catalina. In his time aboard he helped out with the ship’s maintenance.
He was later offered a volunteer position to maintain the ship, a job with no oversight or supervisor. “I’d be working and a friend would stop by and ask me to go sailing, and of course I went,’ he says. “There was nothing keeping me here. I told [management] they needed someone here they could fire.’
And so Smirl was hired for $10 an hour as the Pilgrim‘s shipwright, a responsibility he has continued for nearly 30 years. He never attended training or apprenticed to learn his craft; he, like many other shipwrights in the profession, learned through dedication. In fact, he had to.
“There aren’t many of us around,’ he says. “I know one in San Francisco and one in San Diego. If you’re a shipwright you have to be around ships, and there just aren’t that many of them.’ The tall ship has been sold and resold, eventually acquired by the Ocean Institute.
During those years, Smirl raised a family with his wife, Holly, an arts and photography teacher at Dana Hills High School. Their daughters, Heather, 28, and Melena, 24, were regular faces at the institute; Heather often worked side-by-side with her father.
Smirl has also had brushes with fame. The Pilgrim has appeared in many Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Spielberg used the brig to play four ships. “It’s pretty good to get four ships for the price of one,’ says Smirl. To change the identity, crews attached painted plywood to the brig’s exterior, changed deck furniture and the nameplate-it was the Tecora, the Washington, the Gentleman and the Providence. The nameplates now hang in a classroom near Smirl’s workshop.
Amistad also provided the shipwright with perhaps his biggest claim to fame: Smirl played a seaman who threw slaves overboard if they were too sick or weak to survive the voyage.
“I always wanted to play that part of the film for my students at the beginning of the year,’ he jokes. “You know, don’t mess with Smirl.’ But the slaves were naked, so I couldn’t show it.’
In another film shot on the Pilgrim, Smirl again was asked to play an extra, this time a sailor eaten by a mermaid that had transformed into a sea monster.
“There was lots of Hershey’s syrup used in that movie,’ he says. “That’s what they used for blood.’
I’ll try to find Bob in the movies. - Paul.