Ship Ahoy!

I paid a visit to San Salvador Village Sunday morning. This one was not located in Central America but rather at the west end of Spanish Landing Park on San Diego Bay. The San Salvador was the vessel that carried Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew into the bay just 50 years after Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, and the Village is the place where the Maritime Museum of San Diego is building a replica of it. Constructionstarted several months ago, but the facilities just opened to the public Saturday. We came away entertained and even amazed.

Not much was going on when we arrived. The museum’s sailmaker was sitting in the bright sunshine and stitching a sail for the Star of India.  Two volunteers were hammering at some metal work over an open fire. No one appeared to be working on the ship’s towering wooden frame, enough of which has already taken shape to hint at what an impressive creation it eventually will be. But Ray Ashley, the museum’s president and CEO, was walking around, and I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with him. Attractive signs throughout the site explain a lot of what’s going on, but Ashley is a walking encyclopedia of maritime knowledge, and he filled in many details. He explained, for example, that after its journey up the coast of what’s now California, the original San Salvador was sent on a voyage to Peru, during the course of which it disappeared.

When Cabrillo built the ship in Guatemala to use as a trading vessel, he did so without the aid of any plans. In those days shipbuilding was to a large extent an improvisional art. No drawings or paintings of the San Salvador have survived either, so creation of the replica has been no small challenge. “A lot of it is reverse engineering” based on archeological findings, “several hundred” drawings of other ships, and ship models from that period, Ashley said. The museum has settled on a design that won’t be strictly authentic; it will have an engine, for example, and certain safety features required by today’s Coast Guard. But all the public spaces will be a portal to the 16th Century.

We learned more about the 200-ton galleon that was interesting.  But the object on the site that electrified me was not any nautical fixture, but rather… a rock. Or more precisely, a papier mache replica of a rock. Ashley explained that the original lies out in the Jacumba National Wilderness in an area rich in Kumeyaay rock art.  But unlike the geometric abstractions on almost all the rocks there, the replicated boulder bears crude but unmistakable representations of sailing ships.  Ashley says the archeologists and historians who have studied it believe the images are hundreds of years old and are likely a Kumeyaay record of this first contact between the two vastly different cultures. He points out that that makes it the earliest depiction of a historic event anywhere in the United States.

I have long harrumphed at the fuss made by folks in Plymouth, Massachusetts over their rock. Its historic authenticity is suspect, and moreover, the Mayflower supposedly landed near it 78 long years after Cabrillo landed here.  So I was thrilled to see this founding-rock replica and happy to hear Ashley’s reassurance that the coatings applied to seal it should protect it well against the elements.

It’s hard to say exactly how long the ship construction should take. Technical difficulties have already pushed Ashley’s guess regarding its launch date to January or February of 2012. At least until then, visiting hours at the site are 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily.  Admission ranges from $8 to $14, depending upon one’s age and status.

About Jeannette De Wyze

Jeannette has worked as a journalist in San Diego since 1974. In 2007 she diversified, founding San Diego Insider Tours, a vehicle for showing visitors the special things that make San Diego unique.
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