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Hello to Bob Smirl, '64
Bob is a retired Irvine High School English teacher who now makes his home on the Central California coast.

SEE Bob’s photos:

http://www.shspoon.stirsite.com/albums/album_image/8971278/8174659.htmThe Shipwright

Aug 08, 2008
Vol. 1, Issue 27, August 8-14, 2008
By Nathan Wright
Dana Point Times

Bob Smirl has spent nearly three decades caring for the Pilgrim, a job that led to a part in a Spielberg’s Amistad

He’s been eaten by a sea monster and thrown slaves overboard to a watery grave. He’s taught Moby Dick and Billy Budd, served his country in the Vietnam War aboard a famous aircraft carrier and watched Irvine grow from grazing pastures to a thriving city. And when he wasn’t acting, soldiering or teaching, San Clemente’s Bob Smirl was working on tall ships.

“If it’s wood, it’s my responsibility,” said Smirl, standing in his workshop at the Ocean Institute in the Dana Point Harbor. Behind him is moored the Pilgrim, a 130-foot wooden tall ship that takes tens of 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 said. “It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to maintain the Pilgrim. It’s one of the priciest things you can imagine.”

Smirl, 62, is one of a handful of shipwrights in California and the man responsible for the care and upkeep of the institute’s two tall ships—and just about anything else made of wood he can build, repair or maintain. Even before retiring from teaching last year he worked 20 to 30 hours a week at the institute, spending his evenings and weekends caring for the Pilgrim and Spirit of Dana Point.

“There’s just nothing he can’t do, and he takes his time to do it right,” said Brent Rudmann, Ocean Institute program director. “If you want a roller-top desk in the captain’s cabin, he’ll make you a roller-top desk.”

The example is one of many that comes to Rudmann’s mind, but he believes it well illustrates Smirl’s work. “One of his famous phrases, which drives administrators crazy, is, ‘If it’s not going to be done right, it’s not worth doing,’ and that defines Bob,” said Rudmann. “He’s a perfectionist, and you don’t want less than perfection with someone who is doing this job.”

All of Smirl’s accomplishments over his three decades of service are surprising, considering the longtime high school American and British literature teacher never intended on a second career in woodworking or shipbuilding.

Born in Long Beach, Smirl enlisted in the Navy after graduating Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton and served aboard the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. In high school he took classes in drafting and electronics; in the Navy he worked on aircraft.

After returning to his civilian life, Smirl took advantage of the GI Bill and majored in English at Cal State Fullerton, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree before embarking on a 34-year teaching career at University High School and later Irvine High School.

“When I started teaching in Irvine it was pasture land, and if you wanted to go eat at a restaurant you had to drive to Tustin,” he said. He remembers an afternoon when a stray bull stopped in the middle of Culver and University drives, a traffic hazard of a time long passed in most of Orange County.

In 1979 Smirl chanced upon a newspaper story that unexpectedly led him to his second career as a shipwright. “I read about the Pilgrim in the LA Times,” he said. “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—as he would numerous times throughout his career as a shipwright—joined the filming crew as an extra and ended up sailing around Catalina Island. In his time aboard he helped out with the ship’s maintenance, work that piqued the interest of the brig’s ownership.

He was later offered a volunteer position to maintain the ship, a job with no oversight or supervisor direction. “I’d be working and a friend would stop by and ask me to go sailing, and I of course I went,” he said with a laugh. “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 and a love for the craft. In fact, he had to. “There aren’t many of us around,” he said. “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.”

Throughout the years the tall ship has been sold and resold, eventually acquired by the Ocean Institute. “When it was sold I’d just go with it,” said Smirl. While he only recently was announced as the full-time shipwright, he believes he may be the longest active employee of the institute.

In those same years, Smirl raised a family with his wife, Holly, an arts and photography teacher at Dana Hills High School. The couple’s daughters Heather, 28, and Melena, 24, attended Dana Hills and were regular faces at the institute. Heather often worked side-by-side with her father aboard the Pilgrim, experiences her father believes led to her career in architecture.

Smirl has also had small brushes with fame. The Pilgrim has appeared in many Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Spielberg used the brig to play not one ship, but four. “It’s pretty good to get four ships for the price of one,” said Smirl with a laugh.

To change the ship’s identity for the film, crews attached painted plywood to the brig’s exterior, changed deck furniture and, of course, the name plate. The Pilgrim shed its own identity and transformed into the Tecora, the Washington, The Gentleman and the Providence. The nameplates now hang in a classroom near Smirl’s workshop; money paid by the film company purchased many of the power tools still used to maintain the tall ship.

Amistad also provided the shipwright with perhaps his biggest claim to fame: He 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 joked. “You know, ‘don’t mess with Smirl.’ But the slaves were naked, so I couldn’t show it.”

In a 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 said. “That’s what they used for blood.”

But all the films are just a few flashy moments in a career mostly filled with hard work and dedication. A career that, unfortunately for the institute, might be near its end. With Holly’s recent retirement from teaching, the Smirls put their San Clemente home up for sale and Bob is planning on shifting his attention to building his beach house in Cayucos, a coastal town just north of Morro Bay.

In this one occasion, the poor housing market may help the institute keep one of its prized employees, according to Rudmann. “One day he is going to retire and the place will never be the same,” he said.








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Molly Glaser on July 28, 2013 at 9:22 PM said:

Best and toughest English teacher I ever had. Loved his class!!! This comes from a college grad with and English language and lit degree :)
Mary Catherine Egan on July 28, 2013 at 9:09 PM said:

Mr Smirl was my teacher for a couple classes @IHS ! He was an excellent one that I fondly remember. ..over 30 years ago!
Jim Bucheister on June 22, 2013 at 6:52 AM said:

Hey Smirl - you were the center for the 64 varsity football. As QB i recall getting the snap from you a couple thousand times. I wont go into the details. Never a fumble though lol.
El Vaquero on July 10, 2012 at 9:39 AM said:

Mr. Smirl was my high school honors English teacher over 15 years ago. I still remember his lessons and stories. He was one of those rare teachers that had a passion for his profession and inspired students to share in it.

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Many thanks to Bob's sister, Karen Smirl Keef.


Got to talking today with old pal Paul Shepard, '64 and I decided to cover the whole '63 varsity football team, from the '63-'64 school year. Here goes installment #1, the fellow some called "Smirly".  How about some memories and comments?
Far as I know, Bob is still an English teacher and sailor. 

Nimble-Fingered Southland Seamen Teach Students the Ropes
By SHEARLEAN DUKE, Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. 
June 29, 1990 <---------- NOTICE THE DATE, Lancers. (A lifetime ago .. )

Robert Smirl specializes in knots, lashings and whippings. But don't get the wrong idea. Smirl is not a specialist in mayhem; he's a seaman who can tie hundreds of sailorly knots and whip a raggedy line into shape faster than you can say "marlinespike."

Knots, lashings, whippings, splices, seizings and other things you can do with rope are Smirl's specialties. He is one of only a handful of traditional marlinespike seamen in Southern California.

Technically, a marlinespike is a small metal tool used to separate strands of rope or wire, but in the world of boating, marlinespike is used to describe the entire process of working with rope.

As every boater knows, as soon as you buy a boat--either power or sail--rope becomes very important. You use it to tie your boat to the dock, to hoist a flag, to tow another vessel, to raise a sail. And in some cases, you can even use it to save your life, like the famous sailor Steven Callahan did when he was lost at sea for 76 days and used lines and lashings to repair his ruptured life raft.

Rope, which aboard ship goes by different names depending upon its uses, is an essential part of a seafarer's life, and it has been a part of Smirl's life for the past 28 years.

Smirl, a 44-year-old high school English teacher, has been working with marlinespike since he bought his first copy of the "Marlinspike Sailor" when he was 16. Since then, he has taught marlinespike seamanship at Saddleback College and currently is teaching a course at Orange Coast College. Every summer, when he isn't teaching, he works as the first mate on the Pilgrim II in Dana Point. (continued below your comments)