Saturday, May 18, 2013

A four-hour sail on San Diego's Californian recalls sailing's glory days


Sailing on the Californian is as close as I'll get to "going down to the sea in ships."
Fortunately, we went "down" in the best sense of the word:  out into the Pacific Ocean and safely back.
For this sailor -- with hundreds of hours on small sailing vessels and nearly 100 large-ship cruises -- the pride of San Diego's Maritime Museum feels like the real sailing deal.
Getting the sails ready then putting them back after
the sail is not for cowards or those afraid of heights!
This beautiful 145-foot long vessel is the state's official tall ship and she was the jewel in our crown of a glittery day of touring the Maritime Museum.  The 1984 ship is built in the style of the famous cutters which patrolled California's coast during the 1849 era gold rush. My sailor beau, child of the sea since birth, encouraged the Californian's adventure sail, a four-hour journey aboard the ship he's admired since it was built. I'd not expected to be so thoroughly entertained, but the location is a lure I couldn't resist.  Moored along the waterfront on the Embarcadero, it is one of the delights of the venue. The museum  sports more than a dozen boats and ships, a nicely researched and well curated array of nautical paraphernalia in a traditional indoor museum, and plenty of action outdoors as "pirates" stroll and repairmen do their endless work.
 Cookie found the submarine
Among the treats and surprises:  a vintage upright piano, lovingly cared for and donated by a local family who documented its seafaring background aboard a ferry.
We enjoyed a chocolate festival aboard the gorgeous ferryboat Berkeley, toured the Dolphin submarine (interesting for its design but too claustrophobic for this reporter), watched repairmen working on the tall ship Star of India, and the HMS Surprise, which has starred in several films, including "Pirates of the Caribbean."
A motley but enthusiastic group of us -- writers, teachers, builders, students and seafaring tourists -- spent a couple hours at the other ships of the museum before boarding the one that actually took us out on the water.Then it was onto the Californian and out into the bay to help hoist the sails and sail the ocean blue.  Despite a bit of rain and the wind -- sailors love wind -- the sun shone enough to take the chill off the day, and the mostly volunteer crew did yeoman's job of entertaining us with trivia about sailor's food, gear, health and hygiene, the workings and responsibilities on ship.
Of the ship's six massive sails (more than 7,000 square feet of canvas!), the unusual square sail was  Keller's favorite.  The launching, sailing and retrieving it -- watching all the work that goes into it -- thrilled him.  It took a half-dozen people to get her going -- two climbed up the rope ladder to the yard arm to undo her sheets.  And after our journey was over,

 The ship's cannons were blasted to welcome us back to shore! Nothing is boring aboard the Californian.

four limber crew climbed up and helped tie her back. Not for sissies or victims of vertigo!  Adjusting her sails along the route took many people on both sides of the ship.  Sailing, and doing it right, is a labor intensive process. And safety is a concern, so our captain reminded us of where to stand and sit, lest we feel the wrath of the proverbial "boom." No injuries, no accidents, terrific fresh air!
Keller was delighted to help keep the Californian
sailing, since he has sailed for all his life and loves it!
Most of the passengers were enthusiastic about helping, under the watchful eye of adept volunteers.  And when we returned to the harbor, we had the excitement of hearing and watching two of our cannons salute the shore and congratulate us on our safe return. The sound will shiver your timbers!
The Californian, as a "newer, old style ship,"  is 140 tons, created in the style of her ancestors.  But whether actually vintage or not, the maintenance of the museum's vessels and keeping them all in good repair is a challenge akin to the endless painting of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.  The work is never done.  Moisture, salt, attrition and wear and tear create dust, rust and decay so the wood and metal are constantly being polished, scraped, shored up.
One of the mates, Katharine, describes shipboard
life as it might have been a couple centuries ago.
  The Californian is available for charters and school sails.  She even goes to the Channel Islands, including Catalina Islan for a kayaking adventure. Others of the ships are able to be rented for special events.  The Berkeley, Star of India, Surprise and Californian all are available at various rates.
The museum is sponsoring Pirate Days this weekend, two days of kid-friendly, fun filled events this Saturday and Sunday on San Diego Bay.  On tap are carnival games, re-enactors, giveaways and prizes, scavenger hunts and pirates of course. Ahoy, maties. Enjoy. And remember to explore, learn and live!
More at or call 619 234-9153.

COMING WEDNESDAY: San Diego is gearing up for a fabulous festival -- its 20th -- of Jewish history and culture, with plays, art, food and music centered around the Lyceum Theater! And the swinging Manhattan
Transfer is still going strong, recording an album a year for 40 years, and delighting our audience at a recent Balboa Theatre performance, part of their current tour. What keeps this tightly knit quartet running and going strong?  A fabulous pianist is part of the answer. The group's enormous talent shines through, as individual singers and ensemble participants.
publishes Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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