Last Updated on October 17, 2023

It’s not surprising that the sunny Southern California coastal city of San Diego enjoys a rich maritime heritage. The huge US naval fleet in San Diego and the mighty USS Midway, now a downtown ship museum, showcases the massive Navy presence in the area supporting this rich sea-going heritage. Looking deeper, you’ll see that San Diego’s maritime history extends well beyond the naval history of “America’s Finest City.” 

There’s the old tuna boat fleet that hardy Portuguese and Chinese fishermen took to the sea. This same fleet served admirably as a critical supply line to the hundreds of remote Pacific outposts that were key to the US Navy’s war effort against Japan.

The San Diego Bay and Harbor Island host thousands of boats of all shapes and sizes. Shelter Island with its sleek yachts pays homage to America Cup racing.

San Diego Maritime Heritage

The best and most diverse tribute to San Diego’s maritime heritage is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Established in 1948, the museum sits along the downtown Embarcadero. This fascinating assemblage of nautical treasures is one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels in the United States. 

Ten diverse and well-preserved historic ships and replicas line both sides of the pier and alongside the Embarcadero quay wall welcoming seafarers of all ages. 

These legendary vessels range from steamship to sailing merchant, and racing yacht to modern submarine. The centerpiece of the museum’s collection is the Star of India, an 1863 iron bark, but every vessel on display offers its own unique exhibits and experiences on board.

This museum, however, is more than just ships to explore and get salty maritime knowledge. The Maritime Museum of San Diego maintains the MacMullen Library and Research Archives aboard the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley.

This large ferryboat is chocked full of exhibits, ship models of all ages and sizes, and a host of static maritime industry and engineering displays that highlight the evolution of ship building, propulsion, and design.

Current Collection of Museum Ships

Star of India, 1863 Merchant Bark

Close up of 'Star of India' at Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Close up of ‘Star of India’ at Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo by Michael Kompanik

This historic vessel is queen of the Embarcadero quay wall — her masts and sails towering over the waterfront. She is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still afloat in the U.S. and the oldest still regularly sailing.

During special events, you may see the captain and crew in period costume performing routine maintenance or training young future mariners the sea-going skills necessary to operate this unique sailing ship.

Berkeley, 1898 Ferryboat

Hailing from the San Francisco Bay area where she operated for over 60 years, the Berkley served during the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, ferrying refugees across the bay to Oakland. She was the first propeller-driven ferry on the West Coast and at the time of her launching in 1898, she became the largest commuter ferryboat in the U.S. with a 1700-passenger capacity.

Berkeley was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and California State Historical Landmark in 2000. The vessel is a museum ship of its own right, housing a separate museum.

As a retired naval officer and lover of nautical history, I could have spent an entire day aboard the Berkeley admiring the many nautical models of merchant and naval vessels from battleships and aircraft carriers to cruise ship and various famous ships from the sailing era to modern times.

Californian, Replica 1847 Cutter

Designated as the official tall ship of the state of California, the Californian is a 1984 replica of the United States Revenue Marine cutter Lawrence, which operated off the coast of California during the 1850s.

Originally built and operated as a sailing school vessel based in Newport Beach, CA, this picturesque tall ship now represents the Bear Flag, proudly flying the state flag of California up and down the West Coast and in ports as far away as Hawaii, Mexico, and even the East Coast.

Acquired by the Maritime Museum in 2003, the Californian was completely overhauled and still functions as an educational platform for sail training and sea education programs in various ports up and down the California coast.

America, Replica of the Famous 1851 Yacht

This nautical racer is a replica of the first American yacht to win the coveted international sailing trophy now called the America’s Cup. The original America was a 19th-century racing yacht that showcased U.S. shipbuilding skill and racing prowess winning the 1851 Royal Yacht Squadron’s 53-mile regatta around the Isle of Wight, defeating her nearest rival by 18 minutes. With this victory went the trophy and the Squadron’s “One Hundred Sovereign Cup” which became now and forevermore, the “America’s Cup.”

Financed and manned by a syndicate of New York Yacht Club members and built in Brown’s shipyard in New York City, the America was built on the lines of a pilot boat, the Mary Taylor (1849). Designers James Rich Steers and George Steers veered from conventional design, giving the America a concave clipper-bow with the beam of the vessel at midships — the fastest and most seaworthy of its day.

Medea, 1904 Steam Yacht

Medea is a nicely preserved goddess that proudly served in both World Wars. The yacht was constructed in Scotland for William Maccalister Hall of Torrisdale Castle in a record 51 days at Alexander Stephen and Sons shipyard at Linthouse on the Clyde by John Stephen.

Purchased by the French during World War I, Medea was renamed Corneille and fitted with a 75mm cannon to function as a convoy escort.

Between the wars, she was privately owned by members of British Parliament and put to work by the Royal Navy during World War II, anchoring barrage balloons at the mouth of the River Thames to protect the waterfront from Nazi bombers.

In the ensuing years, Medea had several international owners before being purchased and completely restored to its original condition by Paul Whittier who donated her to the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 1973.

Pilot, 1914 Harbor Pilot Boat

This vintage 52-foot wooden diesel-powered craft was launched in 1914 in San Diego, serving as the first powered pilot boat in San Diego harbor. Built in the local boatyard of Manuel Goularte, she served for an impressive 82 years as the official pilot boat of San Diego Bay while never experiencing more than three consecutive days of downtime.

Employed by the US Coast Guard during World War II, she served our nation as both a military pilot boat and patrol boat, earning six-month service chevrons.

Pilot was donated to the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 1996 and underwent extensive restoration after her many years of hard work. Semi-retired now, Pilot occasionally accompanies other historic vessels like the Star of India in and out of the harbor. She also hosts educational tours of the San Diego Bay.

PCF-816, 1968 Patrol Craft Fast  

Perhaps better known as Swift Boats, these 50-foot, all aluminum, shallow-draft naval vessels were designed to patrol coastal areas and conduct riverine operations as part of the brown-water navy. They were very instrumental in the Vietnam War, interdicting Vietcong arms shipments and inserting South Vietnamese forces and US Navy SEAL teams for counterinsurgency missions.

The Maritime Museum’s PCF 816 was one of ten PCFs used to train Swift Boat Sailors at Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California.

In February 1971, the U.S. Navy donated two of these boats, PCF 816 and PFC 813 to the Republic of Malta (renamed P24 and P23, respectively). The vessels were engaged in coast guard duty, smuggler interdiction, harbor security, and search and rescue.

Now an integral piece of the Maritime Museum’s collection, this powerfully fast vessel is available for special 75-minute narrated San Diego Bay tours.

For more understanding of the Vietnam brown-water navy operations, visit the nearby US Navy Amphibious Base Coronado where a Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument displays three different riverine vessels used by the US Navy in the war including a Swift Boat.

HMS Surprise 

'HMS Surprise.'
‘HMS Surprise.’ Photo by Michael Kompanik

Ahoy matey!

This ship is my absolute favorite as it brings out the swashbuckling pirate in me. HMS Surprise is a 1970 replica of a Napoleon era Royal Navy frigate. She has been featured in Hollywood’s “Master and Commander” and in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, attesting to her star quality as a living testament to the buccaneering days of iron men and wooden ships.

The ship is an accurate replica and surprisingly small. It’s absolutely fascinating to see how these salty sailors lived and worked aboard these versatile warships under sail. It should come of no surprise (pun intended) that I found myself imagining a British seaman and a swarthy pirate engaged in a life-or-death sword-fight amidst the ropes, kegs, and planked decking of this splendid vessel.

USS Dolphin (AGSS-555)

As a former submariner, this submersible has great interest to me. Launched in 1968 and decommissioned in 2007, this diesel-electric submarine was the US Navy’s last operational conventionally powered submarine. Developed as a Navy special project, this small deep-diving research and development submarine operated with a crew of just 23 men.

Dolphin employed a unique pressure hull design and performed a wide variety of missions serving as a test platform for acoustic deep-water and littoral research, near-bottom and ocean surveys, weapons launches, sensor trials, and engineering evaluations throughout her nearly 40-year career.

As I toured her, I contrasted Dolphin’s tiny, cramped spaces against the roomier and larger nuclear ballistic missile submarine I served on board during my early years in the Navy.

San Salvador Replica 1542 Galleon

'San Salvador' Replica.
‘San Salvador’ Replica. Photo by Michael Kompanik

One of the newer additions to the museum fleet, the San Salvador is an authentic replica of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s galleon — the first European ship to visit San Diego Bay in 1542. Cabrillo’s flagship, San Salvador was a 100-foot, full-rigged 200-ton galleon with a 10-foot draft that explored the coast of California a mere 50 years after Columbus discovered the New World.

Painstakingly researched and constructed in San Diego by the Maritime Museum of San Diego, this full-sized, completely functional, historically accurate replica of the original is a masterpiece of authenticity reflecting the nautical engineering and ship building practices of its period.

The replica was constructed in Spanish Landing Park in San Diego in full view, allowing the public to watch a live recreation of 16th century shipbuilding.

Started in 2011, she was launched in 2015, and is now berthed among the Museum’s fleet of historic and replica ships. San Salvador began receiving visitors in late 2016 and now sails regularly on public sightseeing tours.

Visiting the Maritime Museum

The waterfront museum is open daily from 10am to 5 pm. One ticket provides admission to all historic ships.

A word of advice for those fascinated by these fabulous vessels that once plied the Seven Seas: arrive   early and take full advantage of learning and enjoying any scheduled demonstrations or special activities. And allot plenty of hours for touring.

You might not get lost at sea, but you will definitely get lost in time.