Master shipwright Dennis Holland dies
Dennis Holland, a master shipwright who in his last years of life battled city officials over whether he could restore a 72-foot boat in his Newport Beach yard, has died. He was 68.
At home with family, Holland lost his battle with prostate cancer Monday night, said Eric Longabardi, a longtime friend acting as a family spokesman.
Holland became a local celebrity when he spent 13 years building a replica of a 118-foot Revolutionary War-era tall ship in his yard and launched it in the Newport Harbor.
The Los Angeles Times estimated that 2,500 people watched as the hand-crafted vessel touched the water for the first time in 1983.
Holland constructed the ship in front of his Costa Mesa home and dubbed it the Pilgrim of Newport.
“It looked like Noah’s ark,” 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.
Holland grew up not far from San Pedro. Born in Seattle, his family soon moved to Long Beach, a city that nurtured his love of all things nautical.
But Holland put down roots in Orange County. He graduated from Corona del Mar High School, where he met the girl who would become his wife, Betty.
Holland had an insatiable love for anything historical, 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 cancer into remission.
“Working on that ship was his therapy,” Longabardi said.
In 2012, Holland described his relationship with the Shawnee.
“Once you’re committed to a boat like her, it’s like a marriage. If there are obstacles, you don’t tear the marriage apart and say, ‘I just can’t make it work,’ ” he told The Times
“Some boats you sail to Catalina for the day, and when you come home you tie it up and walk away. The Shawnee has been a long-term romance.”
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 the city’s municipal code, city officials previously told the Pilot.
“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.
However, another piece of Holland’s handiwork is on public display.
The Ocean Institute still sails the Pilgrim of Newport, albeit under a new name, Spirit of Dana Point.
It also has a fresh coat of black paint, but the hull underneath remains straight from Holland’s hands.
“His legacy is that ship,” Longabardi said. “When everybody forgets about the Shawnee 50 years from now, that ship will still be sailing.”
Holland is survived by his wife, Betty; son Dennis Holland Jr., 28; daughters Julie Karges, 39, Heidi Eadie, 37, and Amy Holland, 31; and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 154 S. Shaffer St. in Orange.
Also, on June 1, the Balboa Island Parade will include a Pilgrim of Newport float in honor of Holland, Longabardi said.
In lieu of flowers, family members ask that donations be made to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation or the Irvine Animal Care Center.