Festival of Sail – Cannon Battles and Tall Ships on San Diego Bay
Summer may technically come to an end in late September, but most consider Labor Day weekend to be the season’s official closure with most schools starting the next week. Thankfully, San Diego’s Embarcadero goes out with a bang during the warm “last-weekend-of-summer” with not only a sand sculpting competition and an 1812 overture with fireworks, but also cannon battles and tall ship cruises at the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s Festival of Sail.
A small fee ($5 in 2013) grants visitors entrance to the Festival of Sail which includes numerous vendor booths, street food, beer gardens, over a dozen tall ships, and all of the Maritime Museum’s ships and exhibits.
The vendor area takes over the street portion of the festival. Walk around for a bit if you want to do a little shopping. If it’s hot, take a seat and enjoy some of the live music. Otherwise, make your way to the main event on the water, the tall ships!
Over a dozen tall ships and their crews are waiting along the water for visitors to come aboard. Take the time to explore each ship and ask questions of those onboard. Kids can have fun collecting all the stamps from each one of the ships.
Make sure to tour the museum’s collection including the Star of India, HMS Surprise, B-39 Submarine, USS Dolphin Submarine, and the Steam Berkeley Ferry. Start off with the submarines since only a few people can enter at a time and lines will quickly form.
Tip: Take a break from the sun and the crowds on the second level of the Steam Ferry Berkeley. Order a drink (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) from the bar, grab a seat next to one of the windows and watch the people and the ships go by.
At least twice a day, two of the tall ships take to the waters of San Diego Bay engage in a spectacular and loud cannon battle. While you can see the battles from the shoreline or the deck of many of the ships, the best view is from the cannon battle cruises offered by the Maritime Museum.
Even if you are not around for the schedule cannon battles, the ships out on the water sail by at regular intervals and “fire” at the docks. Head to the dock behind the Steam Ferry Berkeley and get up close with a few cannons that museum staff and volunteers will fire.
The dock’s cannon crew will also fire two Napoleonic cannons a few times throughout the day. Just make sure to cover your ears for those two!
Getting to the Festival of Sail
You can drive if you want to, but parking near the Festival of Sail is almost impossible. I highly recommend using alternative modes of transportation. Park at one of the trolley stations (Old Town is usually a good option) and take the Green Line to the County Center/Little Italy Station. Once off the trolley, walk a few blocks west to the festival.
Not quite ready for San Diego’s public transportation? Then consider using the car services offered by Uber, Lyft or Sidecar. They will drop you off right at the festival and when you are done, use their services to get you home.
The flag flying over the Star of India welcoming visitors to the annual Festival of Sail at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
The volunteer crew is prepping the sails aboard the Star of India.
The sails ready to catch the wind…if it wasn’t docked.
That would be a great vantage point to see San Diego.
The “Spirit of Dana Point” is a fine example of an eighteenth century vessel giving today’s children the chance to learn about life at sea. Originally named “Pilgrim of Newport,” it was the dream and work of Dennis Holland. The recreation of this replica of a 1770’s privateer used during the American Revolution was eventually purchased by the Ocean Institute in 2004 and joined her education fleet and renamed the “Spirit of Dana Point” in honor of the community that supports her worthy mission.
The “Exy Johnson” is one of a pair of twin brigantines, The “Exy” and “Irving Johnson.” They are state-of-the-art training vessels designed to meet the needs of the Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s TopSail Youth Program. These twin brigantines names after sail training pioneers, Irving and Electra (Exy) Johnson, continue to fulfill their mission of enlightening kids through sailing adventure. The Johnsons circumnavigated the globe seven times, using a new group of boys and girls who possessed only a sense of adventure and curiosity as their crew, each time. This legacy is still honored through the current youth sail training program offered by these twin brigantines. Length: 90′ Rig: Brigantine Built: 2003, San Pedro Home Port: Los Angeles, CA
The “Spirit of Dana Point” and “Exy Johnson” sailing together in San Diego Bay.
The cannon fire dissipates away from the Exy Johnson at the Festival of Sail.
The cannon crews (Maritime Museum staff and volunteers) prepare the cannons to fire at the oncoming ships. The rounds are an explosive wrapped in tinfoil. They create the big bang but don’t lob any projectile. Think of the shots as big cap gun charges.
These two Napoleonic Cannons, owned by the Maritime Museum, can fire off deafening rounds. Make sure to cover your ears when the fuse is lit.
The “Spirit of Dana Point” sails by the “Californian” which is docked. The “Californian” joined the the historic fleet of ships at the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 2002. She is the Official Tall Ship of the State of California and helps carry out the educational missions o the Maritime Museum by hosting hundreds of students year round, in a variety of American history, sail training and Youth-at-Risk programs. The general public can sail her on weekends, special event sails and adventure sail expeditions to Catalina Island. She was designed as a replica of the 1847 revenue cutter, “C.W. Lawrence.” Built long and lean, revenue cutter patrolled the California coast during the Gold Rush era and were a precursor to today’s Coast Guard. Length: 145′ Rig: Top Sail Schooner Built: 1984, San Diego Home Port: San Diego, CA
The brig “Pilgrim,” is a full sized replica of the 1825 hide brig immortalized by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in his American seafaring classic, “Two Years Before the Mast.” Today’s “Pilgrim” began her life as a Baltic schooner. In 1975, noted marine architect, Capt. Ray wallace, converted her to her current rig. In 1981, she was brought to Dana Point to become the platform for the Ocean Institute’s living history program (based on Dana’s historic voyage). In addition, she serves as a sail training vessel with her volunteer crew training and maintaining her throughout the year and sailing her every summer.
Once an enemy and now a friend, this Russian sub is an experience. Just make sure you are limber and are not afraid of close (and I mean close) quarters. One of a fleet of diesel electric submarines the Soviet Navy called “Project 641,” B-39 was commissioned in the early 1970s and served on active duty for more than 20 years. 300 feet in length and displacing more than 2000 tons, B-39 is among the largest conventionally powered submarines ever built. She was designed to track U.S. and NATO warships throughout the world’s oceans. B-39, assigned to the Soviet Pacific fleet, undoubtedly stalked many of the U.S. Navy’s ships home ported in San Diego. Now, less than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War, she is berthed on San Diego Bay amidst her former adversaries. Soviet Project 641 submarines, classified as “Foxtrot” by NATO, are essentially larger and more powerful versions of German World War II era U-boats. Low-tech but lethal, she carried 24 torpedoes while she was on patrol-some capable of delivering low-yield nuclear warheads. B-39 carried a crew of 78 and could dive to a depth of 985 feet before threatening the integrity of her nickel steel pressure hull. The Soviet and then Russian Federation’s navies deployed these submarines from the mid 1950s through the early 1990s. They played a part in many of the Cold War’s most tense moments including the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The “USS Dolphin” now permanently sits among her old friends the “Star of India,” the “HMS Surprise” and the “Berkeley” at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. The deepest diving submarine in the world, “Dolphin” is responsible for many “firsts”, but is not primarily associated with any specific historic event or time frame during her nearly forty years of service. Rather, it is her unique, extreme deep-diving capability that sets her apart and has continually placed the vessel at the forefront of undersea naval research during her entire career. In November 1968, she set a depth record for operating submarines that still stands. In August 1969, she launched a torpedo from the deepest depth that one has ever been fired. Employed by both Navy and civilian researchers, the submarine is equipped with an extensive and impressive instrumentation suite that can support multiple missions. Since the boat’s commissioning in 1968, it has amassed a startling record of scientific and military accomplishments. The boat was designed to be easily modified both internally and externally to allow the installation of special military and civilian research and test equipment. A recent example of this modification for research and development was “Dolphin’s” test run of the Navy’s newest sonar system. She is presently configured to conduct extensively deep water acoustic research, oceanic survey work, sensor trials, and engineering evaluations.
The “Berkeley” is an 1898 steam ferryboat that operated for 60 years on San Francisco Bay. A California State Historic Landmark, and a National Historic Landmark. She is, in a word, “irreplaceable.” “Berkeley’s” importance to the Maritime Museum cannot be overstated. Aboard the vessel are the museum’s offices, a major maritime research library, workshop, model shop, the museum store, special events venue with room for 800 guests, and numerous dry storage and archive areas. The ferryboat’s lower deck and main deck contain many important exhibits and displays, including her fully restored triple expansion steam engine, which, although no longer steam-operated, today performs for visitors with the aid of hydraulics and compressed air. Berkeley’s engine room is unique worldwide. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Berkeley carried thousands of survivors to safety. Her captain and crew, not knowing the fate of their own families, worked night and day to help victims escape the burning shores of San Francisco. Their unwavering and unselfish efforts saved many, many lives. The upper deck of the ferryboat has played host to thousands of weddings, corporate and other special events since her arrival in San Diego in 1973. Berkeley has a unique historical and architectural significance that is reminiscent of the Victorian Age. She is the finest example of a 19th century ferryboat afloat. The Berkeley’s hull underwent a revolutionary hull restoration process during the spring of 2003 that is expected to last for 50 years and may serve as the benchmark for the preservation of historic iron and steel hulled ships around the world.
Since the Berkeley no longer uses steam to power itself, the skyline is kept free of smoke and the sky remains as blue as ever.
The interior of the Steam Ferry Berkeley is a great place to escape the sun and relax on one of the benches that San Francisco earthquake survivors once sat upon. During the Festival of Sail, it is a nice respite from the crowds. Grab a beverage of your choice from the bar and grab a window seat to see all the boats and people sail by.
This life boat sits aboard the Steam Ferry Berkeley most likely to never be used. I took this photo mostly for my dad, a native San Franciscan who would love to move home.
It’s great to see all the people that will come out dressed to the nines to support the Festival of Sail. This British Officer (odd because he accent sounded American) made sure the crew and the ships passengers all stayed in line. If not, his trusty musket might persuade them.
While not swabbing the decks, this sailor helped the visitors learn more about the HMS Surprise and its starring role in “Master and Commander” starring Russell Crowe.
Of course, no naval event is complete without a legitimate ship’s worst enemy, pirates. I approached him to ask why he would show his face around so many upstanding citizens and he pointed his pistol at me. I took the hint and walked away, glad to still have my life. Lesson learned, never ask a pirate a stupid question.