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San Salvador 60 Percent Complete After Two Years Of Construction

Evening Edition

Above: The first ship to land on San Diego's shores is being resurrected at Spanish Landing Park. Two years after the Maritime Museum began building the 200-ton, $6.2 million replica, KPBS video journalist takes a look at the progress.

— Just across from the San Diego airport, a parking lot is celebrating a major milestone: the two-year anniversary of when it was transformed into a 16th century shipyard.

In February of 2011, construction began on the San Salvador replica, which now looms over curious drivers passing by along Harbor Drive.

“It's something you don't see every day: a big old ship sitting out here in a parking lot,” said lead shipwright Peter Wilson.

Last year, we brought you the story of the San Salvador’s beginnings. Now that construction has been underway for two years, progress continues, but at a slower rate than the Maritime Museum had originally projected.

But, said Wilson, “in the last year we've made a lot of progress. A lot of progress.”

San Diego Maritime Museum employees like Wilson get help from a pool of more than 300 volunteers. In fact, volunteers now make up half the workforce. Some, like Don Faulkner, do it out of pure joy.

“I like it. A lot of things I could do simpler, easier and quicker maybe, but it's not as fun,” Faulkner said.

A statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stands at the Cabrillo National Monument, near where Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on San Diego's shores.

They're building an historically accurate replica of the first ship to land on San Diego's shores. In 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed the original San Salvador into what's now San Diego Bay and claimed it for Spain, becoming the first European to set foot here.

Blacksmith Don Faulkner creates chain links for the San Salvador.

As he prodded giant chain links in a fire, Faulkner explained that he and his colleagues from the Bandy Blacksmith Guild volunteer here every Thursday because it gives them an opportunity to use techniques from the 1500s.

The ship is being built very similarly to the way it would have been in Cabrillo’s day – almost exclusively of wood. But there are some exceptions: they’re using power tools, and the replica will include two diesel engines, refrigeration and plumbing.

No original plans of the San Salvador exist, so naval architect Douglas Sharp says the design process has taken 10 years. He’s been involved for five of them.

Naval architect Douglas Sharp helped design the San Salvador over the last five years.

“We looked at charts, ancient charts that had notions of what the ship would look like in the corner of the charts. We looked at votive models from cathedrals in Spain,” Sharp said.

In February last year, the ship’s ribs had all been placed. Now, scaffolding has been added around the ship, and they’re approaching a big milestone: the completion of the hull’s frame. So what's left?

“We obviously have to plank the outside of the boat, put the planking down on the decks, build up the sides, plank the sides,” lead shipwright Wilson said. “There's a lot of finishing work, which takes a lot of time.”

The finished San Salvador will be more than 100 feet long, have a 100-foot-tall mast and weigh 200 tons - that's 170,000 pounds of lead and 230,000 pounds of wood. It’s about 60 percent complete, with 20 to 30 people working on it daily. Five hundred years ago, Cabrillo built his ship in less than half the time, but he had the help of nearly 100 slaves.

Still, Maritime Museum President Ray Ashley said he’s pleased with the progress.

Maritime Museum President and CEO Ray Ashley said he's happy with the ship's progress.

“We're actually working with a smaller crew than we originally envisioned, and we're taking longer to build the ship than originally envisioned,” Ashley said. “But as a result, more people than we thought are getting a chance to see it, so we're quite happy with the pace of construction.”

Ashley estimates 15,000 visitors come see the construction site annually. School groups take educational tours daily, also visiting a special area that teaches about the Kumeyaay people – San Diego’s original inhabitants who Cabrillo encountered when he first landed.

The replica was supposed to be finished by the end of the year. Now, Ashley hopes it will set sail in the first half of 2014. But first, they need to raise another $1.5 million. In all, the project is expected to cost $6.2 million. Private donations and a major grant from the California Coastal Conservancy have made up much of the funding so far.

Once complete, the San Salvador will take paying customers on sailing trips around San Diego Bay and up the California coast. For now, you can visit the shipyard every day between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. to see the construction for yourself.

Naval architect Sharp says it’s well worth the $5.

“You come down, I'll get you right next to the ship," he said. "You put your hands on it, the ship will talk to you. It's a rare opportunity to not only experience shipbuilding, but to experience history: the history of shipbuilding, the history of San Diego, why we're all here, and how we came to be here."

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