On your way to or from Pomona, California, take a turn south to “sea” these ships at San Diego’s Navy Pier.
By Richard Bauman
When it comes to great ship museums, San Diego has two of the best in the United States “” the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum. Between them they provide an opportunity to tour eight treasured vessels. If you have not yet stopped to visit these facilities, add them to your list, perhaps when you visit FMCA’s international convention in Pomona, California, next February.
The USS Midway Museum
We’ll start with this museum, because it has just one ship. But, oh, what a ship: the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
The Midway is world-renowned because of its involvement in American military actions in Korea, Vietnam, and during Operation Desert Storm. At 1,001 feet in length (longer than three football fields, end to end), it weighs 69,000 tons and its flight deck covers more than four acres. It was the first ship built that was too big to pass through the Panama Canal, and it held the honor of being the biggest ship in the world for approximately 10 years after it was commissioned in 1945.
On each voyage the Midway was home to more than 4,000 sailors. Various aircraft filled its hangar decks and repair areas, and it carried thousands of pounds of ordnance and fuel for both the ship and its aircraft. It had numerous repair and machine shops, galleys, dining areas, laundry facilities, and engine rooms.
Enormous as it is, when you explore parts of its hangar deck and second deck, the ship doesn’t feel all that spacious. Bunks line the passageways, and the crew’s mess area has a low ceiling, all of which gives one the feeling of being confined. Bombs and rockets were often moved from the magazine to the hangar deck right through the mess area.
After visiting the main engine room, most visitors come away with an appreciation of how precisely the fuel, boilers, and turbines had to be controlled to move the huge ship through the world’s oceans. And why the ship used approximately 100,000 gallons of fuel oil each day.
The Midway was commissioned in September 1945, and its first voyage was in November 1945 “” too late to see action in World War II. In addition to its use in battle, the ship served a long stint, from 1973 to 1991, as a home away from home for U.S. military personnel in Yokosuka, Japan.
From the time the ship was launched until it was decommissioned in 1992, the Midway went through several renovations. There’s little similarity between the original ship and the one on display today. The flight deck configuration, the type of aircraft carried, and the way those planes were launched and recovered are all different now.
More than two dozen historic planes are now displayed on this carrier. You can see examples of aircraft from different eras, including a Korean War F9F Panther, an A-4 Skyhawk, and a World War II-era prop-driven SNJ Trainer.
It takes at least two hours (some online guides say three) to see the entire museum. A free audio tour provides a guided narrative of the three decks open to the public, plus tales of historic events, and personal recollections and anecdotes from enlisted crew and officers who served on the ship. An Express Tour is available for those in a hurry.
The ship is at Navy Pier between the cruise ship terminal and Seaport Village. Follow Harbor Drive south past the Maritime Museum. Limited parking is available on the pier due to construction, and metered parking is available along North Harbor Drive and the Pacific Highway. Have up to $3 in change with you. Or, park in area lots. It’s best to take a towed car, but RV parking is available in the metered spots on Pacific Highway a block east of Harbor Drive.
The USS Midway Museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors (62 and over), students, and military (active military only with valid ID); and $8 for youth ages 6 to 17. For more information, contact the USS Midway Museum, 910 N. Harbor Drive, (619) 544-9600; www.midway.org.
The Maritime Museum Of San Diego
It’s an easy walk north from the USS Midway Museum to the Maritime Museum. For more than 50 years, the Star of India (originally named the Euterpe) has been this museum’s central attraction. In fact, for much of that time it was the museum’s only ship, but several other restored vessels have been added.
Built in 1863 on the Isle of Man and made from iron rather than wood, this is the oldest merchant vessel still afloat in the world. The Star is a tall ship. With a main mast 124 feet high, and two slightly shorter masts, it boasts more than 19,000 square feet of canvas blowing in the wind when it’s in full sail. All of this is balanced on a ship 212 feet long, with a beam of 35 feet.
During its working years, the Star of India made 21 voyages around the world. It survived numerous disasters, including a collision with another ship and a mutiny, both on its maiden voyage. At other times it was run aground; experienced a fire; was trapped in an ice floe for two weeks; and nearly sunk in a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. The storm is described in the ship’s log: “Winds of gale force, seas mountain-high. Ship labouring (sic) and straining in a most distressing manner. Shipping great quantities of water.”
Aboard the Star you come face-to-face with the realities of ocean travel in the 1800s. There are just a few “first class” passengers’ cabins, tiny compartments about 6 feet by 5 feet. The beds are short and narrow, with no room to stretch out. One tiny porthole per cabin allowed a bit of daylight and fresh air into those quarters.
Take the steep staircase to the “tween deck,” the space between the upper deck and the hold, and you can get a sense of sea travel for those not fortunate enough to be in first class. This space was intended for cargo, but on many voyages from England to New Zealand, it was filled with emigrants. Today on the “tween deck” are various displays, such as a collection of miniature ships in bottles.
The Alaskan Packers Association bought the Star of India in 1902, and for 21 years it sailed between Oakland, California, and Bristol Bay in northwestern Alaska, hauling professional fishermen north and then bringing them and their catch home. In 1923 the company considered the ship obsolete and it was destined for scrap.
But citizens of San Diego rescued it “” halfway. They purchased it in 1926, but it was never restored. Finally, in the late 1950s, work to save the ship began, and in 1976 it returned to the sea. Since then the Star of India has been sailed at least once a year, making it the oldest active ship of its kind in the world.
The newest ship in the flotilla is a B-39 Soviet Submarine. Open to the public since 2005, it’s one of the last diesel-electric submarines to be built. Unsophisticated by today’s standards, it nonetheless has been described as “low-tech but lethal.” Much of its active duty (1974 to 1994) was spent shadowing U.S. and NATO warships throughout the world’s oceans. This was part of a fleet of subs the Soviet Navy called Project 641, classified “Foxtrot” by NATO. It once carried 24 torpedoes, and a crew of 78.
You enter the B-39 from its deck via narrow stairs, directly into the forward torpedo room and its maze of pipes, valves, gauges, and torpedoes. Nearly everything is painted white, red, or beige. Signs and instructions, all printed in Russian, can be found throughout the ship. Wear is also evident. For example, painted rails and hatchways are rubbed to bare metal. The generally poor level of workmanship throughout the sub, from low-quality valve handles to the rough interior surface of the hull, surprises visitors familiar with U.S. sub construction and maintenance.
Crew accommodations were cramped and primitive. The passageways are narrow, barely wide enough for one person. The officers’ cabins, including the captain’s, are tiny “” perhaps 5 feet by 7 feet. So totally utilitarian is most of the sub that it’s easy to miss its few refinements, such as polished wood paneling in all officers’ cabins and in the officers’ and enlisted men’s dining areas.
Before boarding the sub, you’ll have to slip through an example of the sub’s tube-like hatchways. The sub has four such hatchways, each about 32 inches in diameter. None are easier to get through than the one at the sub’s entrance. If you can’t get through it, you shouldn’t board the sub.
Berthed adjacent to the Star of India and the Soviet sub is a “movie star,” the HMS Surprise. It was in the feature film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A replica of an 18th-century British frigate, the Surprise is smaller than the Star of India, at just 179 feet long. Its lower deck is fashioned after the gun deck in the movie, and many props used in the movie are displayed there. Prior to its film debut, the HMS Surprise (originally christened in 1970 as the HMS Rose) served as a sail training vessel on the East Coast for more than 30 years. The museum acquired the ship in 2004.
A few steps away is the Berkeley, an 1898 steam ferryboat, which at first glance seems out of place with the likes of a battle-ready submarine, a huge merchant sailing ship, or even the Surprise. The Berkeley traversed the waters of San Francisco Bay for 60 years, carrying passengers from one side of the bay to the other. It has elegance not found in the museum’s other vessels, and some say this is the best remaining example of a 19th-century ferryboat.
The upper deck feels and looks almost like a church. It can hold 800 people who sit in rows of polished benches, resembling church pews. At ceiling level around the perimeter of the upper deck are stained-glass windows. Light coming through those windows reflects off of the polished wooden floors, adding to the feeling of a sanctuary. Maybe that’s why the Berkeley has been the site of thousands of weddings since the boat’s restoration in 1973.
On the main deck are numerous maritime exhibits, and visitors can take a stairway to the engine room. The Berkley’s engine works, but only in demonstration and by means of hydraulics, not steam.
Not to be overlooked are the museum’s smaller vessels, which include the Medea, the Pilot, and the Californian. Each has been restored to pristine condition and each has its own unique history. They aren’t always open to visitors, however, since they are used for rides, educational purposes, and VIP excursions. The Medea is a 1904 yacht that has a long and fascinating history. It was not just used for leisure, but was pressed into military service on more than one occasion. Inquire via the Web site or by calling to learn more about how you can sail on the tall ship Californian yourself, or take a shorter excursion aboard the Pilot, which once was a shuttle for boat pilots in San Diego harbor.
Admission to the Martime Museum of San Diego includes the historic ship collection as well as permanent exhibits that cover the history of shipbuilding, area commerce, and more. It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults; $9 for seniors 62 and over and $9 for active military personnel with valid ID; and $8 for children ages 6 to 17. You may be able to buy tickets online at a lower cost; visit the Web site, www.sdmaritime.com, to learn more. For more information, contact the Maritime Museum of San Diego, 1492 N. Harbor Drive; (619) 234-9153.
When the USS Midway Museum opened in 2004, some people were concerned that the town wasn’t big enough for two maritime museums. Many thought admissions at the Maritime Museum would shrink. But just the opposite has happened. Apparently folks drawn to the USS Midway are also drawn to the Maritime Museum’s eclectic collection of boats and ships.
If possible, visit both museums when you’re in San Diego. Be warned, however, that it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring all the ships, boats, and exhibits at these museums. Happy sailing!