The first thing you need to know about the history-focused harbor tour on the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s early 20th-century pilot boat is that the scenery is so captivating that you’ll want to take photos to capture it all.
The second thing you need to know: If you drop your cell phone overboard into the bay, it is gone forever, as our tour guide Dustin Carmichael from the Maritime Museum of San Diego explained. “But if you do drop your phone, let the captain know, and we’ll all gather around, throw flowers on the water, and sing a dirge,” he added.
All cell phones stayed safely onboard for our 45-minute narrated cruise around the bay, so I never discovered whether Carmichael just was joking about the dirge. But he was right about the views and the urge to take photos. On this sunny afternoon, the sunlight glinted off the water and leisure boats sailed by the Pilot as he told us stories of the bay’s past and pointed out the current maritime highlights of San Diego.
The cruise on the historic Pilot isn’t your typical tour, and the Maritime Museum of San Diego (MMSD) isn’t your typical nautical museum. As with most maritime museums, an extensive collection of model boats and educational exhibits add context to the actual ships, but that’s only a small part of the museum. What makes the MMSD unique are its six historic ships and three replica vessels floating along Harbor Drive. The ships are the museum, with displays detailing their history and what life was like aboard.
This gives you the opportunity to walk the decks of historic vessels, turn the wheel at the helm, and examine the nooks, crannies, and construction up close. Four boats regularly throw off the dock lines and go for a sail around the bay, giving visitors a real taste of maritime history.
From the tall ship Californian to the Dolphin submarine, each boat at the MMSD offers a unique experience.
Pro Tip: Buy your tickets in advance here!
1. Cruise Through Harbor History On The Pilot
San Diego’s history has always been tied to the bay, from the Kumeyaay’s tule boats to modern naval warships. The 52-foot long Pilot has seen a significant piece of that history, guiding nearly every commercial vessel that entered or left the bay between 1914 and 1996. It’s the oldest active pilot boat in the U.S., though now it spends most days giving the public history tours of the bay or hosting school groups.
On our history tour, we motored past condos and cargo ships, around the supports for the Coronado bridge, into the shadow of the towering USS Midway, and past the dry docks that work to keep the museum’s collection of historic and reproduction ships seaworthy. As we cruised, our guide shared the maritime history of the bay, inextricably linked to the settlement that grew into the San Diego we know today.
2. Sail The Tall Ship Californian
There’s nothing else like sailing a tall ship, from the creak of the wooden deck to the roughness of the ropes in your hands. The museum’s tall ship, the Californian, sets sail for 4-hour excursions most weekends and hosts educational programs for school children during the week. Guest sailors can help the volunteer crew sail the 130-foot ship, including raising and lowering the seven sails (7,000 square feet of canvas) and taking a turn at the wheel. Built in 1984, the Californian is a replica of the 1848 Revenue Cutter C.W. Lawrence, which once patrolled the West Coast during the gold rush era.
3. Sail Like It’s 1542 On The San Salvador
On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed the San Salvador and two other ships into what we call San Diego Bay (he named it San Miguel, after his smallest ship, but that’s another story). At the time, the West Coast was uncharted waters. Cabrillo sought riches and a passage to the Atlantic; finding neither, he sailed on. The San Salvador became the first European vessel to enter San Diego Bay.
After much research, the museum drafted plans for a replica of the galleon that would be as accurate as possible. The new 90-foot San Salvador was launched in 2015. Today, a dockside exhibit details life aboard, leaving the ship ready to sail. You can walk the decks, examine the design, and try to imagine sailors’ life at sea. For visitors wanting a real taste of 16th-century sailing, the San Salvador sets out on 4-hour weekend adventures.
4. Dive Into Research On The 555 USS Dolphin Submarine
The deepest-diving submarine ever launched, the USS Dolphin was designed for military and civilian research. It’s racked up an impressive list of accomplishments since being commissioned in 1968. Though it’s almost 152 feet long, it feels much smaller inside. Walking its narrow passages allows you intriguing glimpses into the spaces where the crew ate, slept, and worked. I’m fascinated by its retro and efficient interior design.
5. Learn About Maritime History On The Berkeley Ferry
The steam-powered ferry Berkeley, built in 1898, is where you’ll find the collection of model ships and exhibits about maritime history. Stroll its glossy wood floors to learn about cartography, steam and sail propulsion, the U.S. Navy in San Diego, and much more. Especially fun are the vintage postcards from the town and surrounding area. The boat also holds the museum offices, a research library, and a gift shop. The upper floor has been left much as it was at the turn of the century, with long wooden benches, decorative details, and lovely stained glass windows.
The 279-foot-long ferry can carry as many as 1,691 passengers — a capacity that saved countless lives after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. The ferry crew made numerous round trips on the Berkeley carrying survivors to safety.
6. Experience The Vintage Elegance Of Medea
At more than 100 years old, the steel-hulled yacht Medea has had nearly a dozen owners and a long and storied career. She served in both world wars under three navies and six national flags, cruised the Mediterranean with members of Parliament, and steamed through British waters as a pleasure craft.
Today, visiting the elegant 134-foot boat is like stepping back in time. The ship is furnished as it would have been in the early 1900s for its original owners, a wealthy Scottish family. Photos of the family enjoying the boat offer a unique window into the past.
7. Discover The Long History Of The Star Of India
Built in 1863 on the Isle of Man, the iron-hulled Star of India is the world’s oldest active sailing ship. In her long career, the Star of India has made 21 circumnavigations, served salmon packers in Alaska, transported immigrants to New Zealand, and shipped cargo to India. Below the 212-foot ship’s expansive deck, displays illustrate the boat’s many uses over the years.
Pro Tip: Take time to read the immigrants’ newspaper and journal entries — especially the story about the rats.
8. Go Fast On The PCF 816 Swift Boat
Officially known by the U.S. Navy as a Patrol Craft Fast, the boats were simply known as Swift by the sailors who operated them. Visitors can discover just how fast boats with twin 980-horsepower engines can be on a 75-minute narrated Naval history tour of the bay. Volunteers and docents share stories of what it was like to be a crewman on a Swift boat during Vietnam.
9. Explore A British Warship From The 1700s
The tall ship HMS Surprise is a detailed replica of a 24-gun British naval frigate from the 18th century, the era of the legendary Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Built in 1970, the ship sailed thousands of miles before becoming a movie star in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s a fascinating boat with incredible details.
Below decks, cannons (known as “guns” on a ship) share living space with the gun crews, who used hammocks and hanging tables between the cannons. Look close, and you’ll see each gun has a name. In addition, interpretive signs and displays on such essentials as armaments shed light on life aboard a warship. I especially liked the sign at the bow explaining the term “poop deck.”
Pro Tip: Look for the fish and rat in the biscuits bin, a realistic and educational touch that gives you a new appreciation for modern life.
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