If you've ever enjoyed a sail out of Dana Point Harbor or dinner at one of the marina's restaurants, thank the engineers. Before construction began in 1966, the site of the harbor was a shallow cove where water lapped against imposing cliffs and two promontories provided minimal protection from the open ocean. When seas were calm, ships could anchor at Dana Cove or send landing craft to its narrow strip of sandy beach. In fact, the cove and an adjacent promontory owed their names to sailor Richard Henry Dana, who collected cowhides there in 1835-36 and later wrote about his visit in "Two Years Before the Mast." When swells rolled in, however, the seafloor amplified the wave action. Surfers gave Dana Cove a nickname of their own: Killer Dana.
To transform Killer Dana into a place fit for kayaks, paddleboards, and Bermuda sloops, the Army Corps of Engineers designed two massive breakwaters that would enclose the cove and turn away its notorious swells. Construction crews began carrying out the engineers' plans in the summer of 1966. Workers dumped roughly one million tons of rock -- larger boulders hauled in by truck from a San Marcos quarry, smaller rocks transported by barge from Catalina -- into the water to form the harbor's breakwaters. They then sealed the gap between the two jetties with a cofferdam and pumped the cove dry. This allowed them to dig the marina's channels and build its concrete seawalls without the interference of seawater. (It also stranded the cove's abundant sea life. Fish and Game workers relocated abalone and lobsters from the old sea floor, but their old habitat was forever destroyed.)
Engineers also repurposed one of the cove's two rocky headlands, San Juan Point, as earthen fill for parking lots and picnic areas and carved three access roads into the cliff faces, connecting the harbor to the coast highway above. In all, construction crews moved three million cubic yards of earth. Major work continued well into the 1970s, but in 1971 the first boats sailed into their slips, and Dana Cove had become a harbor.