October 09, 2022

Museum Review - San Diego Maritime

The day before the Miramar airshow, the Fatherly One and I headed into downtown San Diego to see two things: the USS Midway, which I'd been to before, and the San Diego Maritime Museum, which I hadn't. They're within easy walking distance of each other, so it made sense to try and combine them, starting with the Maritime Museum.

Type: Maritime museum and museum ship collection
Location: San Diego, CA
Rating: 4.2/5, An interesting and diverse collection of museum ships with good staff and exhibits.
Price: $20 for normal adults


The San Diego Maritime Museum has a number of ships of different eras, focusing mainly on sailing vessels, as well as museum exhibits. This sounds suspiciously similar to another maritime museum I visited a few months back, but unlike its counterpart in San Francisco, this one is done very well. The ships are well-maintained, the exhibits are interesting, and there are plenty of friendly staff. In fact, the National Park Service should just hand over the keys and their budget, and go find something useful to do with their lives.

Berkeley's boiler room

Their collection is interestingly diverse, ranging from a replica of a Spanish galleon to the US Navy's last diesel submarine, but with an emphasis on sailing vessels, many of which are regularly taken to sea. The centerpiece is the ferry Berkeley, built in 1898 to carry passengers between San Francisco and Oakland. Her upper deck remains more or less as built, including holes in the seats through which hot air was piped to keep the passengers warm, while the main deck has been stripped out to house the museum spaces. These look to be excellent, covering a wide variety of nautical topics, from fishing and navigation to a wide collection of models. Particularly interesting were the set of military models, some from the Department of the Navy's collection, and as gorgeous as the ones at Carderock. The engineering spaces are also open, and done very well, with lots of labels and a boiler that has been opened up more than any I've ever seen.

The Fatherly One mans the controls on Dolphin

Access to the other ships is mostly through Berkeley. The first you'll come to is Dolphin, a research and development submarine that served from 1968 to 2007. Her primary role was testing equipment for other submarines, a boring job, but a useful one. Most notable was an incident in 2002, when a failed gasket meant she nearly sank. Rehab work took until 2006, when budget cuts saw her decommissioned and turned over to the museum. She's tight even for a submarine, but the upper deck is quite open, with only a few spaces glassed off. Signage is good, even if there's less discussion of her unusual history than I might have wanted, probably because it's mostly classified. Tied up next to Dolphin is PCF-816, a Vietnam-era patrol boat that they regularly send out on tours of the Bay. Time constraints meant that we didn't get one, but it should be good if it's done anywhere near as well as the rest of the museum.

A view from the poop on San Salvador

Aft of Dolphin are the two sailing ships, San Salvador and Californian. San Salvador is a replica of the Spanish galleon first used by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to explore the coast of what is now California, and it's striking how small she is, particularly when you know she's actually bigger than, for instance, than the ships Columbus sailed with. Californian is also a replica, this time of a Revenue Service Cutter that was the first vessel of the US Government stationed on the Pacific Coast. She's also small, but quite pretty, and you can get a good idea of how this kind of ship worked. There are a few smaller vessels scattered around the pier as well, either afloat or hauled out, and various exhibits about the ships.

HMS Surprise is towed in, past the cruise ship Disney Wonder

Two other vessels that we didn't get to go aboard also bear mentioning. The first is HMS Surprise a replica of an RN frigate from the Napoleonic Wars. She's best known for her role in the film Master and Commander, but she was out for work, and was actually brought back in while we were there, but obviously wasn't open that day. The other is B-39, a Soviet Foxtrot class diesel submarine. Lack of maintenance meant that she had to be sent for scrapping recently.

Star of India, with tentacle on the mast visible

The last vessel present is Star of India, an iron-hulled square-rigger built in 1863, and the largest of the museum's sailing ships. She's the oldest sailing vessel that regularly goes to sea, but while there's plenty onboard about her, there's also a lot of stuff about sea monsters, including several inflatable tentacles on the masts. I am not a fan. But there is plenty of stuff to see, as the hold is now a museum, and the topsides are still pretty original.

There was also a very cool yacht, M5, tied up next to the museum

On the whole, the Maritime Museum is well worth a visit, with the caveat that Midway is better and if you're the sort of person who likes to read all the signs, you definitely should not attempt both in the same day. We were there for a little over two hours, and moved pretty fast. It could easily have stretched an extra hour if not more, and we barely had enough time aboard Midway as it was. I would recommend checking out the carrier first, and then going to the Maritime Museum if you still have time.


  1. October 09, 2022Sister Bean said...

    I think you missed an edit on the Dolphin section. You’re welcome.

  2. October 10, 2022Philistine said...

    Clearly the San Diego Maritime Museum has expanded quite a bit since I was there in... 2004. Yikes.

    That may explain why I was able to see all of both SDMM and Midway in one day - 20 years ago there was just a lot less to see. I remember Star of India, HMS Surprise, and Berkeley, and a couple of other, much smaller vessels - I think a harbor tug and a private motor yacht of some description - but none of the others mentioned here. And I appear to have missed the entire museum career of B-39.

  3. October 10, 2022bean said...

    I suspect that half of it was SDMM expanding, and the other half was Midway expanding. That would have been right after she opened (I suspect that may have had to do with your presence, actually) and they'd added some stuff that I'm pretty sure wasn't there in 2016.

    (Motor yacht is still there, swept under "other misc." Don't recall the harbor tug.)

  4. October 14, 2022Doctorpat said...

    I was there maybe 7 or 8 years ago, and likewise was able to see the SDMM and Midway in one day.

    I went through the HMS Surprise, Berkeley and B-39. The others weren't there yet/at the time.

    B-39 - the only sub I've been in. VERY tight and cramped, but I don't know how this compares. And yes, there was a lot closed for "for repair" that now it seems never happened. :(

    HMS Surprise. Once again quite cramped in places, but I expected that. The bits I found most interesting were the "movie bits". Ie. the parts modified for film making. eg. The tiller on the deck that the actors stand at and make dramatic turns on isn't actually connected to anything. There is a modern control room below decks where a professional actually controls the ship while the actors can't hurt anything.

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