Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Star of India Hailed as "Ambassador From a Past World"

Down on the bay, on North Harbor Drive, is docked one of the world's greatest treasures - The Star of India. Built nearly one hundred fifty years ago, this tall lady is the oldest active sailing ship

Down on the bay, on North Harbor Drive, is docked one of the world's greatest treasures - The Star of India. Built nearly one hundred fifty years ago, this tall lady is the oldest active sailing ship in the world. Independent producer Paul Alexander Juutilainen brings us the story of a vessel that's weathered the test of time.

Raymond Ashley, Ph.D., San Diego Maritime Museum, Executive Director: "The Star of India is the quintessential sailing ship, one of the few examples of what is perhaps the most significant technology human beings have ever created in the last two thousand years."

James W. Davis, Star of India, First Mate and Chief Rigger:  "Society would not be where it is today without ships. By providing our slices of history here, we have tethered that section down for the public."


Richard Goben, Star of India, Captain and Master: "The Star of India is actually in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest active sailing ship in the world. Since she was built in 1863, there is really no other older ship that goes to sea under her own power."

Ashley: "We take the Star of India sailing out every year because the ship is grounded in that history. By seeing her sailing, the ship becomes an ambassador from a past world."

Goben: "It's generally a rare privilege to be able to sail this ship, the chance to see the crew performing and maneuvering the ship is just something you can't find anywhere else."

Ashley: "At the time that this ship was built, she was originally launched as Euterpe. She was initially a general cargo carrier, from Europe to the East to Pakistan. She didn't do that for very long because in 1869 the Suez Canal eliminated that sailing ship route. Following that she entered the immigrant trade, where she carried immigrants from Europe to Australia, mostly New Zealand.

Goben: The Star of India was built in Ramsey, the Isle of Man, so it was a British possession. It wasn't until around the turn of the century that the Star became an American possession and sailed over to Hawaii and back. And then just after the turn of the century, joined the Alaskan Packers, sailing from San Francisco up to Alaska and back every year, helping to catch and can salmon.


Ashley: When she was acquired by the Alaska packers, they changed her name to Star of India because they had a theme going in naming all their ships the star of something. And they used her for several years, until 1923, in which afterward she was deemed basically just too old. It was costing more money to keep her going than the value they could extract out of the process.

Goben: The ship is unique because it was part of a large fleet of several thousand vessels that helped to develop the western part, and indeed, all parts of the world.

Ashley: Europe was transformed in a very, very short time to a launching pad for a world empire, empires of a kind that the world had never seen, oceanic empires that span the globe. What transpired was the most comprehensive exchange of peoples and gene pools and belief systems and technologies, plants, animals, and germs that has ever transpired in the history of the world. All of that was made possible by the one single invention, and that was the development of the oceanic sailing ship. And the very last one, original in material, pure in form, and still able to go to sea is the one we're sitting on right now."

Goben: "Over time as these vessels became obsolete because of the steam and the power vessels, they were just basically put aside and stored. Some of them were scrapped, many of them scrapped for World War II. Many of them were sunk for films about sailing ships oddly enough."

Ashley: "And undoubtedly that is what would have happened to this ship, except that a group of people showed up from the Zoological Society of San Diego who wanted a ship, a sailing ship, as the centerpiece for a new downtown aquarium. So they obtained the Star of India, brought her to San Diego, and not to long after that the Depression hit, and suddenly there was no more money. So the ship languished on the waterfront, slowly sinking into decrepitude."

Goben: "I remember seeing it dock side because it's certainly an icon downtown here. And at that point the ship hadn't sailed for more than 30 years. So it was definitely a museum and I thought that's what it would always be. There was a huge debate as to whether it could sail, and whether it should sail."

Ashley: "Captain Villiers, Alan Villiers, was a historian and also a seaman and he was scheduled to come to San Diego. They showed him the ship and he examined the condition she was in. For his lecture that night, a lot of the important people were in town, city council members, I believe the mayor, [and] apparently they were all sitting in front. Captain Villiers began his lecture by informing San Diego that he thought they were a fairly irresponsible and cultureless city, to let a historical treasure surpassing significance rot away in the waterfront. That was a big embarrassment and that was really the kind of thing that shocked the city into recognition of what it had and motivated them into a committee to restore the vessel. And that unfolded over the next 15, 16 years, and culminated in her sailing on July the 4th, 1976."

Davis: "I was not on the sail in 1976. The reason I wasn't on the sail, at least the reason they gave me, was that they would not take anyone under 18 years old, which I was. When I first started here was July '75. Being a sixteen year old, sixteen and a half year old kid, I knew that they were going to sail the ship in '76, the nation's birthday, July 4th. So that was the first time that she would have sailed since she was retired in the 20s. I went out to the end of Point Loma and watched her, and I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken because I had worked hard and I wanted to be on a maiden voyage. In a sense, a re-maiden voyage of the ship. I wanted to be part of that history."

Goben: "Just to be part of the event, I took a little sailboat, a little 25-foot boat,aAnd my girlfriend and I sailed out to watch the Star under sail for the first time. I was inspired by the beauty of it. I could hear the chants and the teamwork and the commands and just the whole spectacle. And at that time, of course, there were probably between a 1,000 and 1,500 private yachts out watching."

Ashley: "This really was the first large-scale historic preservation project in the city of San Diego. It was one of the first large scale preservation projects of an everyday object undertaken in America."

Goben: "Over a period of time the ship has brought about changes through the museum. And the whole museum has changed from a collection of artifacts to a living entity. It's very important that we not only preserve the ship, but preserve the old ways and how the crew worked together and the commands and that sort of thing."

Davis: "First Mate on the Star of India is a job which entails running a volunteer maintenance crew and being the lead on the crew selection process. This started with about 8 or 12 people coming in twice a month, back in 1986. So it's kind of grown and we're happy to see it. And we want to welcome you all again here to the museum. We now average about 120 to 140 maintenance people that come in first and third Sundays."

Goben: "The museum survives on volunteers. I know of no other place where you could have so many dedicated volunteers, and we really need that many if we're to keep the ship in sailing condition. We do some, what we call 'Square-Rigger 101.'"

Davis: "To become qualified on the sailing crew, you have to be able to pass certain requirements. A show of hands that have not passed their knots and belay. Ok, now you know what I'm talking about. It's knots and belay time, all right? So today, come on people, think it out, if it comes from above it goes under the pin, if it comes from below it goes over the pin, you know? They're going to check you out on all of that. You should be able to do it. You've been practicing, right?"

Crew: "Right, aye."

Davis: "Safety is our number one concern. When they're sending a sail up on Star of India, and halfway up that knot releases because no one knew how to tie their Boland correctly, that sail, which weighs hundreds of pounds, comes crashing down to the deck. We're very strict on it. So if you came up and you tied your knot and you kind of went, 'um, hmm, no, it's this way,' you failed. The climbing test is part of the abstract of trying to qualify for being a top man. 'David, lay aloft to the lower topsail.'"
David: "Very well, sir!"

Davis: "'Thank you!' Now whether they're on the deck or not, they really need to know what the parts of the sail are and where the rigging is. There's etiquette, there's command of stepping on and stepping off. 'Lay into the mast!'"
David: "Laying Aye!"

Davis: "Attitude is also a part of the qualifications in becoming a sail crew member. You have to be able to take orders."

Music: "The captain on the promenade, looking very savage; the steward and the cabin maid fighting 'bout a cabbage. All about the cabin floor, passengers lie sick oh! Steamers bound to go ashore, rip goes the physic!"

Davis: "It was a major amount of work to change the ship from being a museum to a functional ship. We try to keep this ship ready for sea within 90 days at all times."

Ashley: "I don't think there are many more aggressive examples of using an artifact to create an encounter than taking a ship like this sailing. The trend for museums is to use their artifacts in a way that is more interactive; people are more engaged with it. That involves not just collecting something, but describing it. And then the next thing on from that is not just to keep her sailing, but to use her everyday, actively, to take people on these voyages that only ships like this can conduct. And that is a more narrative form, it's storytelling."
Davis: "Man the afters!"

Goben: "The guests that sail with us ultimately just love the experience."
Davis: "Forward - how far off Anthony's!?"

Goben: "It's something that doesn't happen anywhere else. It's a long day, and it's a tiring day. But they're all just amazed at how the crew works together. The crew tends to be a little more organized than I teach them to be sometimes, in terms of setting the sails. And they're a little flamboyant. And the guests on deck are looking up, and they'll hear the command to 'let fall,' and at that point they come down off the yards and get ready to set at the same time. And that's very impressive. Even I'm impressed every time I watch that.

Ashley: We do this as a demonstration, a kind of performance art. It's kind of a quintessential San Diego day, to go out, get on a boat, your boat or a friend's boat, and somehow be out on the water the day the Star of India sails. Even if just the people read about in it in the paper, or watch it on film, the ship becomes an ambassador from a past world. What we'd like to see someday, is that this ship would be included on the list of irreplaceable treasures of humanity, identified as World Heritage Sites. That's a pretty bold thing to say because it means that this ship would be on the same list as the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal."

Davis: "She is our crown jewel. Oh, I get kind of teary eyed. She's been the home. If something happened to this ship, it would break my heart. Absolutely, just completely break my heart. And there would be such an outpouring of people like me that would come to repair it, to bring her back."

Ashley: "When the choice was either take the ship out and sink it or restore it, the city rose to the challenge, so it really was a success story for this city. And it has been now a contract from one generation to the next, to take care of this vessel and give her to the next generation in better shape than we found her."

Davis: "So for me, for my grandchildren, and for everyone else, the spirit is to show the people that put through and the stewardship that you have to pass that on. So my hope is for her to be sailing 500 years from now."

Music: "I thought I heard the old man say; John Kanaka-naka tuliae; there's work tomorrow but no work today; John Kanaka-naka tuliae; Tuliae oh tuliae John Kanaka -naka tuliae; we're bound away from Frisco Bay; John Kanaka-naka tuliae."