Remembering Captain Don Hansen
By Pat McDonell of the Western Outdoor News
January 25, 2022
Don Hansen Remembered
DANA POINT – Commanding the respect of people on both sides of a political issue is difficult, but for Don Hansen it seemed to come easy, as he treated everyone with respect even when he did not agree with them.
The measure of a man is how many people along the way he affected, and for Hansen it would be hard to gauge that impact in his decades of running boats, owning a landing, introducing fishing to generations of kids and public service.
Don Hansen, whose family came by train to San Clemente in 1939 from Iowa during the Great Depression when the young city had only 478 residents, passed away Jan. 5 but left a sportfishing and public service and family legacy that spanned more than seven decades.
Hansen’s life was a composite of family, a lifelong love of fishing, four years of service to his country in the Coast Guard (two years based at Guam during the Korean War), and who returned to attend college and obtained his captain’s license at age 23. He eventually brought the landing then based on the San Clemente Pier in 1966 to the new Dana Harbor. He built it into a 17-boat fleet of sportfishers and whale watching boats based at Dana Wharf Sportfishing.
In fact, when Dana Point Harbor was built, Dana Wharf Sportfishing was the Harbor’s first tenant in 1971, Hansen moving into the new digs with his four boats, the Clemente, Sum Fun, Reel Fun and the Sea Horse — the Sea Horse is the only original pier boat he owned still not in service at the landing. It was sold in 2002 when the landing’s flagship 95-foot Dana Pride was built by his oldest son, Michael Hansen, who relocated to Washington to oversee the construction. In all, seven boats are currently owned by the landing, the other 10 in the fleet are managed by the landing operated by his daughter Donna Kalez and son Michael.
Hansen was, above all, an astute businessman who knew full well the future and fortunes of sportfishing were in the new marinas, not coastal piers where customers would climb downstairs to a deck and hop onto a sportfisher that had been moored nearby. A skiff kept under the pier would take crewmen to the boats, which in turn came to pick up passengers. Wind, waves and tides made it tricky. Anyone now in their 60s remembers them.
At one time, the pier was home to 10 boats moored off the pier, fishing Easter to Labor day, the boats sent off for the winter to Newport Bay, Oceanside or San Diego. The “calm” months still posed issues for pier crews.
“When the weather was snotty, sometimes we ran the boats to Newport Beach and bussed them back to San Clemente,” recalled Hansen in a blog on yoursaltwaterguide.com. “It happened only four times that I recall in all the years, but that pier could get exciting.”
Yet, Hansen’s second home as a young man would be the San Clemente Pier for 25 years. His family knew of San Clemente through an aunt who lived there, and they visited the year before the family moved west. His father found work as a butcher and his mother waitressed. He began his fishing career at age 12 while attending La Palmas Elementary School when during the summers, pulling a wooden red wagon out to the fishermen. “I was a pest,” he said, and he would offer to haul their catch back from the end of the pier and up to the parking lot for the price of a tip, ranging from nickels, dimes and sometimes quarters.
“It was a great job for a kid… the boats came in and went out and you did your job. It got to be a little competitive.”
By 1952 he had worked his way into a deckhand role at age 18, but joined the Coast Guard for a four-year stint during the Korean War. For two of those years he was based in Guam, in the South Pacific. When he took his honorable discharge, Hansen took classes at Orange Coast College and by then had earned his captains license in the Coast Guard, So at age 23, he returned to the sea and the pier and ran the Mustang for owner Bob Miller and eventually worked for Nelson Cook and other owners at the pier landing known as San Clemente Sportfishing, helping build and run the sportfishers over the next decade.
In 1966, with the help of a customer who loaned him money, he bought the landing and rarely took a day off, starting his day at 4 a.m. and said he “loved every minute of it.” Meanwhile, he kept an eye on the harbor construction a few miles to the north, and put in a bid to move his business there in 1971. The rest is…. Well, more hard work. But it sure paid off.
The landing and tackle shop and marina at Dana Point now serve more than 50,000 fishermen and whale watchers a year.
He also helped jumpstart Dana Point’s Christmas Parade of Lights, and later created two marine education programs for kids: Dana Wharf Kids Club and Dana Wharf Kids Fishing Camp.
Each year during the holidays, Dana Wharf hosts military members and their families and gives Santa rides that benefit local charities.
“When I first started, I’d ask him why we have trips for free,” his daughter Donna Kalez said. “He said, ‘That’s how we give back.’”
While sportfishing was what drew Hansen to the sea, whale watching became a huge part of his legacy. Hansen is credited with introducing whale watching to the state and the sportfishing industry as a whole.
As Kalez pointed out, whale watching as a business in California was founded on the San Clemente Pier through the fleet. Hansen saw the thrill people had on fishing trips when they spotted grey whales on their annual migrations past the Dana Point headlands and mentioned it to local high school teacher and friend Phillip Grignon, and they began offering free trips to high school kids. They were so successful Hansen expanded it to paying customers to supplement the fishing business, and when he moved to Dana Harbor he started the Whale Festival, the longest event in the world, which in 2021 celebrated its 50th year. The center of the celebration and honors at the Harbor was Hansen.
“The family was so happy to see all those events for the 50th and to see him get those honors,” said Kalez.
“There’s just been an outpouring of love from the communities,” she said. “Right now I’m working with the city and county to make sure that dad’s services go well. It will be a huge crowd.” One personal touch at the event is every attendee will receive a copy of Donna’s children’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Captain Don. He did indeed have many adventures and successes on so many levels.
Hansen’s personal involvement ranged into public service on a local and national level, particularly in fisheries management.
z said her father remained active to the end. No. 1 on his list was family.
“He was awesome as a father and grandfather and checked in on everyone constantly, every day by phone, with his kids and with all of his 15 grandkids, calling them every day. We always spent his favorite holidays together, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we had lots of big gatherings despite Covid,” said Kalez. “We were so lucky to have him with us through the holidays. That’s just how we have always celebrated. My dad also loved listening to Let’s Talk Hookup (co-hosts Pete Gray’s and Rick Maxa’s radio show on 1090-AM Saturdays and Sunday mornings) on the weekends and he loved his football like no other. He was so happy his beloved Rams were doing so well. He was a huge Rams fan.
Don Hansen introduced old and young to beauty of the sea with his sportfishing, whale watching business:
Founder of Dana Wharf
Don Hansen, who introduced whale watching to Orange County, fought to keep sportfishing sustainable and thrived on community outreach, died Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the age of 87.
Hansen, highly respected across the state for his experience, wisdom and leadership in the fishing industry, spent his life advocating for the public’s ability to experience the ocean, whether it be by catching their first fish while out on the ocean or seeing the earth’s largest animal, the blue whale, up close.
He founded Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching in 1971 in Dana Point Harbor, and before he retired, a fleet of 17 vessels had given so many people the unique opportunity of a day on the water watching dolphins and seals, whales and even the occasional orca. The family business continues to be a backbone of the community….
In honor of Captain Donald Keith Hansen:
Founder of Dana Wharf
Donald “Captain Don” Hansen, 87, of Dana Point, CA was taken home by our Lord on January 5, 2022.
As the founder of Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, Don was the Captain of many ships, the most important of which is his family. He is survived by his children: sons David Hansen (Kelly), Michael Hansen (Deanna), Jeff Jonas (Elizabeth); daughters: Jenifer Gressett (David), Jane Graff, Donna Kalez (Mark); and grandchildren: Zac Hansen (Talia), Sean Hansen, Jake Graff, Jason Graff, Alexis Persons (Blake), John Gressett, Erik Gressett, Shannon Herrera (Christian), Shane Hansen, Christine Jonas, Bennett Jonas, Cameron Jonas, Tess Jonas, Julia Kalez and Emily Kalez. Don loved his family intensely and was proud of them all. His 15 beloved grandchildren were the lights of his life. Family and friends take comfort in knowing he has gone to Heaven to be with his precious Ann and all his dear friends who preceded him in death.
Born April 10, 1934 in Iowa City Iowa, Don came to San Clemente in 1938 to visit his Aunt Agnes. Soon after, his family decided to move to San Clemente. He loved it, made it his home and spent the rest of his life there. As a young child his first job was hauling fish off the San Clemente Pier in his little red wagon for tourists. It was there, watching the fishermen come and go, where his love for the ocean began. Spending summers in high school as a deckhand for the San Clemente fleet prepared him for the captain he would become.
A Korean War veteran, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard at the age of 18, just before the start of the War. Don earned his U.S. Coast Guard license in 1953 when he was just 19. Of his four years in service, two were spent stationed in Guam. Don cherished his time in the Coast Guard and loved to attend Memorial Day Services every year in both San Clemente and Dana Point.
Upon his return from service Don worked for San Clemente Sportfishing, eventually buying the business. Realizing an opportunity to use his fleet to also share the beauty of whales and dolphins, Don along with his friend Phillip Grignon (a San Clemente High School teacher) began using the boats to take local students to witness the majesty of whales at sea. Thus, whale watching in Orange County was born. In 1971 when the Dana Point Harbor first opened, Don renamed his business and moved it to the Harbor. Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching soon earned its reputation as an international magnet for marine recreation, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021.
Don was so proud to work with his daughter Donna and son Mike in the family business and cherished what they and their employees (some of whom have been with Dana Wharf for more than 30 years) built together. The company has grown to include sportfishing and whale watching in both Dana Point and Oceanside Harbor. Under Don’s leadership, the Hansen team has continually been active throughout the community. Charitable works, volunteerism and helping the community were all pillars of his identity. His ethics and integrity afforded him a seat at the tables of many community and governmental organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as in state, county and city arenas. His voice conveyed sincerity and a resolve to do what is right and reasonable.
Don served as Vice President of the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC), Chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, Chairman of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee, and on the boards of many other organizations including his local hospital. The word “served” doesn’t do justice to the decades he spent in each position and the effort he put forth toward the betterment of family, fleet, and community.
Don received many awards and words of recognition for his work over the years–too many to list–but a few recent highlights include receiving the Coastal Conservation Association of California’s (CCA CAL) highest honor, the 2021 Anthony Hsieh Conservation Award in recognition of decades of tireless work and dedication to improving California sportfishing and making angling accessible to everyone.
The originator of whale watching in Orange County and a founder of the Dana Point Festival of Whales, Don was delighted to have celebrated the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2021. This year’s 51st annual event will be dedicated in his honor.
Don loved his fleet and spent his life defending and promoting public access to sportfishing and for championing the awareness of the awe-inspiring whales and dolphin his fleet and passengers witnessed daily off the coast of Dana Point. His leadership never slowed, his humor never dulled, and his caring never stopped.
Don’s family, and friends too numerous to list, are deeply saddened by his loss but take comfort in knowing he is no longer suffering or in pain. They were blessed to have spent a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas with Don who was very happy and at peace. Heaven has another angel.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, please make donations to one of Don’s favorite charities:
Fish for Life https://www.fishforlife.org/donate-to-our-cause/
Captain Rollo’s Kids at Sea http://www.captainrollos.org/donate-2/
Coastal Conservation Association https://ccacalifornia.org/donate/
Gray Whale Foundation https://graywhalefoundation.org/donate/
A celebration of Don’s life will be held 11:00 a.m. on January 29 at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California. ( Burial at Sea will follow at approximately 2pm at the Dana Wharf docks )