Dennis Holland dies at 68; boat builder fought to restore ship at home

Dennis Holland, a legendary Orange County boat builder who simultaneously battled cancer and city hall as he tried to knit together one last vessel, has died. He was 68.

The master shipwright lost his years-long fight with prostate cancer Monday night. He died at home with family, not far from the skeleton of the 72-foot boat that consumed the last years of his life as he argued for the right to restore the ship in his Newport Beach backyard.


Holland became a local celebrity in the early 1980s after he spent 13 years building a replica of a 118-foot Revolutionary War-era tall ship in his yard and launched it in Newport Harbor. An estimated 2,500 people watched as the handcrafted vessel touched the water for the first time in 1983.

Holland built the ship in front of his Costa Mesa home and dubbed it the Pilgrim of Newport.

"It looked like Noah's ark," family friend Eric Longabardi said.

Holland spent almost two decades sailing the Pilgrim around Newport Beach and San Pedro before selling it to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point in 2001.

The ship still sails there, under the name Spirit of Dana Point.

Holland was born Sept 4, 1945, in Seattle and moved with his family to Long Beach. He had an insatiable love for anything historic, especially if it came from the sea, Longabardi said. Along with that drive came a seemingly boundless energy as a craftsman.

For seven years, Holland, his wife and their children lived aboard the Pilgrim of Newport as it was being built. They rented out their house to earn extra money to put back into the ship.

"He wasn't a rich guy," Longabardi said. "He basically did it piece by piece, dollar by dollar."

About five years after selling the Pilgrim, Holland set his sights on a new project.

Instead of working from scratch, he turned to a boat in need of restoration called the Shawnee. He'd admired the 1916 sailboat since he first caught a glimpse of it as a child.

When the owners moved it to Newport Harbor and it fell into decay, Holland finally had his chance to own the Shawnee. He offered to restore it in exchange for title to the boat.

In 2006, Holland moved the Shawnee into his backyard, this time in Newport Beach.

As he embarked on the restoration, doctors discovered that Holland was suffering from late-term prostate cancer.

Nevertheless he continued, at one point battling his disease into remission.


"Working on that ship was his therapy," said Longabardi, who is serving as spokesman for the family.

In 2012, Holland described his relationship with the Shawnee.

"Once you're committed to a boat like her, it's like a marriage," he told the Los Angeles Times. "If there are obstacles, you don't tear the marriage apart and say, 'I just can't make it work.'"

But when the work dragged on, neighbors complained, and the city sued Holland, saying a residential neighborhood wasn't the place for a 72-foot ship undergoing long-term restoration.

In 2012, Holland agreed to dismantle the Shawnee, and an Orange County Superior Court judge appointed an official to enforce a deadline.

By December 2012, everything down to the Shawnee's ribs were stripped and hidden from the neighbors' view, according to Longabardi.

"It took a lot out of [Holland]," he said. "And I don't think it was any coincidence that when that fight finally ended, in the beginning of 2013, that his health quickly went from not so good to a lot worse."

Nevertheless, forcing Holland to dismantle the Shawnee was never personal — it was always about enforcing Newport Beach's municipal code, city officials previously said.

"I am sorry to hear that Mr. Holland passed away," City Atty. Aaron Harp said in an email Tuesday. "Despite his differences with the city, I found him to be very amiable."

It's unclear what will happen to the Shawnee now. The ship's keel remains in Holland's backyard.

"What he wanted to do was just be left alone to work on his boat, to do what he loved until the day he died," Longabardi said.

Holland is survived by his wife, Betty; his son, Dennis Holland Jr.; daughters Julie Karges, Heidi Eadie and Amy Holland; and 10 grandchildren.