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Maritime Museum Rebuilds 500-Year-Old Spanish Ship

The body of the ship will be 95 feet long and be comprised of tens of thousands of pounds of wood.
Katie Schoolov
The body of the ship will be 95 feet long and be comprised of tens of thousands of pounds of wood.

Historically accurate replica of Cabrillo's San Salvador will sail to celebrate discovery of San Diego

Sailing Back in San Diego History on the San Salvador
Maritime Museum Rebuilds 500-Year-Old Spanish Ship
At Spanish Landing Park just across from Lindbergh Field, you may have noticed mysterious wooden beams rising from behind the trees. It’s not a new playground or another waterfront art installation. It’s a unique construction project dating back 500 years.

On the Pacific coast of Mexico in the mid-1500s, a crew of at least 100 Spaniards and slaves cut down trees and dragged them to the water’s edge. There, they spent a little more than a year assembling a 100-foot-long sailing ship that was christened the San Salvador.

Nearly 500 years later, a larger crew is attempting the same task at Spanish Landing Park in San Diego.

An empty parking lot on the bay has been transformed into a 16th Century shipyard, where the San Diego Maritime Museum is resurrecting the San Salvador. It was the first ship to land on San Diego’s shores.


“It’s a huge undertaking,” says Bruce Heyman, who heads up the project for the Maritime Museum. “We’re using ten different kinds of wood. And then having the right team to be able to shape them and fit all of these pieces because the ship is literally a basket and they all have to sit and work together and be strong and stout.”

For a $5 admission, anyone can watch firsthand as volunteers and Maritime Museum employees build the historically accurate replica of the Spanish galleon. The site is open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Heyman says many San Diegans stop by to see what the ruckus is, but leave knowing the history of their city.

In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed his flagship into San Diego Bay, becoming the first European to discover what is now San Diego. He named it San Miguel and claimed it for Spain. Cabrillo was sailing from Mexico, looking for a quicker route to the Spice Islands.

A special exhibit at the construction site houses replicas of the dwellings and canoes used by the native Kumeyaay Indians Cabrillo met when he landed. The museum offers free educational programs for classes of K–12 students, which include both Kumeyaay and Spanish demonstrations, and sometimes even a visit to nearby Cabrillo National Monument.

“I think it will attract people’s attention to the history and our founding,” says Coronado resident Betsy Gill. “I’ve been here for 35 years but have never really paid attention much to any of that.”


The East Coast is home to replicas of the Mayflower and several ships at Jamestown, but the San Salvador will be the first age of exploration ship replica on the West Coast.

“I think it’s good that we’re getting attractions to the area that are something besides the zoo, something besides the beach, that we have a history,” says Gill.

At a keel laying ceremony on April 15, 2011, city officials echoed Gill’s sentiment. “The replica of the historic San Salvador ship will join the ranks of all the other cherished attractions that make San Diego such a wonderful place to visit,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.

The ship is being built on City and Port property, but the promise of tourism revenue brings support from all sides.

“This is going to bring millions, literally millions, of people out, and even more via the internet, to come see this really fantastic project,” Port Commissioner Scott Peters said at the keel laying ceremony last year.

So far, three-quarters of the $6.2 million needed for the project has been raised, thanks to private donations and a major grant from the Coastal Conservancy Commission. A donation page on the Maritime Museum website encourages people to help reach the approximately $2 million still needed.

The San Salvador replica is being built almost exclusively of wood: the way it was built in the 1500s.

Time-Lapse of San Salvador Construction

Measuring. Creating stencils. Cutting. Sanding. Applying finish. Drilling. Fitting. The list of tasks goes on and on – for what looks like endless piles of gigantic slabs of wood.

The wood is carefully chosen by lead shipwright Frank Townsend, some cuts coming all the way from Africa and South America. Only pieces with no imperfections are used.

“We ended up using six semi-truck loads,” says Townsend. “That’s approximately 300,000 pounds of wood, and we probably came out with 10- or 12-thousand pounds on the boat. There’s a lot of scrap around.”

Bags of mulch are out at the construction site for visitors to take, for a suggested donation.

The only – although major – difference in how they’re building it today compared to 1542? Power tools.

“If Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had an AC outlet, he would have plugged a power tool into it and used it,” Heyman says. “But we also have much more rigorous standards that we have to achieve now.”

That’s because once it’s finished, the San Salvador will take student groups and paying passengers on historical sailing trips, following the route of Spanish exploration. But the replica will have some modern upgrades: think toilets, refrigerators, and two giant diesel engines. The full-scale replica will also carry about 20 people comfortably, while Cabrillo probably packed 100 people into his ship.

U.S. Coast Guard inspectors make weekly visits to the construction site to make sure safety regulations are being met.

“When you’re looking at the San Salvador from the side of the dock, it should look very much like 1542, with the exception you might see a fire hose or fire plug,” Heyman says.

For now, workers painstakingly carve and sand the wood using huge tools, many of which are lent to them for free from corporate benefactors. There’s a 7,000-pound ship saw with a 24-foot blade. Built in 1920, it’s on loan from the oldest shipyard in Southern California, Al Larson Boat Shop. Or a flatbed planer with a patent date of 1889.

Other materials have also been donated, such as 175,000 pounds of lead from Goodrich Aerostructures. This will keep the ship stable in heavy wind and waves – a big improvement from the big pile of rocks that Cabrillo used for this purpose.

The original San Salvador was lost at sea and no plans of it exist, so the museum consulted dozens of experts to reach a consensus on the ship’s appearance. That process started four years ago. But Heyman says this idea has been in the works for 20 years.

In the end, they settled on a 95-foot-long body with a mast that will rise 100 feet off the deck.

Construction began in February of last year.

“It’s really like a time machine in ways,” says retired plumber Roy Libby, who volunteers four days a week at the construction site. “Even though we use power tools, we’re using the same technology. And nobody here has built a Spanish galleon, so everybody’s relying on each other. And we’re figuring things out as we go along. It’s like an adventure.”

Libby has done so much of the hollowing-out of the wood that he’s been nicknamed Router Roy. He says this construction project is one of the few to not feel the pinch from the economic downturn.

“Actually, the economy right now, the bad economy, has been a blessing for us because a lot of guys, carpenters, between jobs have down time and donated their time,” he says.

At any given time, about 30 people are working on site. With just 13 paid staff members, volunteers almost always make up more than half the workforce. The Museum employees can use all the help they can get. Heyman estimates the project will require about 90,000 hours of work.

“I’m living my fantasy here,” says Libby. “I’m really proud to be here. For me, it’s like starting a new career in Spanish galleon building.”

The National Park Service, in conjunction with UC San Diego’s High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN), set up a webcam in May of 2011.

It’s been taking a photo of the construction progress every day since then. KPBS put together a time-lapse of these images that shows the slow but steady work at the build site.

“We’re hoping to be finished, have the boat in the water and commissioned and fully rigged by November of 2013,” Heyman says.

That’s almost three years’ construction time. It took Cabrillo less than half that time nearly 500 years ago. But he had help that isn’t available today.

“Unfortunately probably a lot of the 100 people he had helping him build it, many of them were slaves probably,” Heyman says.

Townsend, the lead shipwright, compares then and now.

“We don’t’ have that many slaves. We just surpassed 60 volunteers.”

For “Router Roy” Libby, volunteering is less like slavery and more of a win-win.

“The great thing about it is, the people here are supplying the expertise and the money to build the ship, and all I have to do is what I’m told and be diligent.

“I’m excited for it to be finished. I want to ride on it, and I don’t even mind paying because I want to continue to support the museum. It’s a wonderful thing for San Diego.”

Corrected: December 4, 2023 at 4:31 AM PST
Video by Katie Euphrat