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Replica San Salvador Ship Nears Completion

Reported by Katie Schoolov

San Diegans will soon be getting a tangible tie to their past. KPBS video journalist Katie Schoolov has been following the four-year re-construction of the historic ship, the San Salvador. Now, despite delays, she says it's 96% complete.

Four years into the monumental task, reconstruction of the San Salvador is almost complete. The 200-ton Spanish Galleon brought the first European, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, to San Diego Bay nearly 500 years ago. Now, despite delays, it's expected to launch by the end of May.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Down one of San Diego's most iconic trails, at the tip of Point Loma, there's a tall stone statue looking out over the Pacific. Every year, about a million people from all over the world pay him a visit, even though many of them don't know who he is.

"He's a man of mystery," said Cabrillo National Monument park ranger Debbie Sherman. "No one really knows much about him."

That man is Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. In September 1542, the explorer sailed into what's now San Diego Bay, aboard his 200-ton Spanish Galleon, the San Salvador. He claimed the land below where his statue now stands at the Cabrillo National Monument for Spain, becoming the first European to set foot on the West Coast.

Fast-forward nearly 500 years, and the San Diego Maritime Museum is re-launching a reconstruction of his ship. Sherman said the ship will boost Cabrillo's name recognition and help educate the public about California's history.

"It's going to be the new ambassador to San Diego, and everybody's going to know who Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is now," Sherman said.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

People are shown visiting the Cabrillo National Monument where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's statue gazes out over the Pacific, April 10, 2015.

Construction started on the big wooden vessel in April 2011. Research and planning went on for three years before that.

"At one point we thought it would take us two years to build, but it's been a long time since we've believed that," said Ray Ashley, president and CEO of the Maritime Museum.

Despite the delays, the San Salvador is now about 96 percent complete, Ashley said.

"The longer we take to build it, the more people get to see it," Ashley said. "Building it like this, where the public can see it, it's been like this theatrical performance that's been unfolding over the last four years."

Ashley estimates that 1.2 million people came to visit the ship while it was being built at Spanish Landing Park along Harbor Drive over the last four years. Every weekday, a slew of volunteers and six or seven paid shipwrights have been working on the ship.

"It’s a bucket list job," said shipwright Don Davis. "I just walked around the boat and looked up and went, ‘I actually built that.' I’ve never built anything like that in my life. Not quite like this. It’s a Spanish Galleon."

Davis, 72, drives 130 miles each day from Fallbrook to work on the San Salvador.

"Granted it’s not the actual ship, but it’s as authentic as you can get. It’s the real McCoy," Davis said. "I’m sure this is going to wind up in movies, educational programs and that sort of thing."

The reconstructed San Salvador will star in a new orientation film for the Cabrillo National Monument. The ship will need to be sailing by the Fall, when they're planning to film in the Channel Islands.

There's still work to be done on the inner workings of the ship, but the exterior is pretty much complete. Davis and his colleagues have built the ship almost entirely of wood and other materials that would have been available in the 16th century. It'll be 92 feet long and weigh about 230 tons when it's finished.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

San Diego Maritime Museum president and CEO Ray Ashley at the San Salvador construction site, April 10, 2015.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Volunteers help remove scaffolding from the Sn Salvador at Spanish Landing Park, April 10, 2015.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

A painting by Richard DeRosset depicting the San Salvador when she sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542, on display at the Cabrillo National Monument, April 10, 2015.

"I don’t even look at this as a replica," Davis said. "We built this thing the same way the Spanish would have built it back in 1542. We used some better tools – if they would’ve had the tools they would’ve used them too, but they didn’t. But we also don’t have 300 guys working on the boat like they did."

The original San Salvador was built in 1539 on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and Cabrillo used slaves to get the job done quickly. Today, an estimated 400 volunteers have given some 90,000 hours toward the construction.

"Being able to walk on a ship that’s the closest thing we’ve ever had to the vessel Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego on is a dream," said Sherry Lorch, who has been volunteering on the San Salvador for more than a year. "In a way, I think we’re all living out a dream, an adventure. I think we’re all seekers."

The workforce is two-thirds volunteers, and Ashley said that's made for slow progress because the daily number of workers is unpredictable. But all that free labor has its benefits, too. The project is on budget at $6.2 million. Ashley said a recent audit showed that if they'd paid for all the skilled volunteers and donated materials, the actual cost of the San Salvador would have been $11 million.

Much of the cost has been paid for by private donors and special fundraisers. A period costume gala back in September raised $191,000 and drew some special guests, like María Ángeles O'Donnell-Olson, the honorary consul of Spain in San Diego.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The Maritime Museum held a period costume gala at the San Salvador construction site at Spanish Landing Park on September 27, 2014. The party, which they called a Fandango, raised $191,000 for the reconstruction project.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

A homemade "launch planner" dial pokes fun at the many different options the Maritime Museum has considered for launching the San Salvador, at Spanish Landing Park on April 10, 2015.

"I think that this is as important as the East Coast and the arrival of the Mayflower," O'Donnell-Olson said. "There is not only one way to look at history, and many different nations contributed to the making of this great country."

Ashley echoed O'Donnell-Olson's sentiments.

"In fact, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, on the San Salvador, sailed into San Diego Bay 78 years before any Pilgrims set eyes on Cape Cod, and 65 years before Jamestown," he said. "We’d like to add another origin story to the national narrative…and since this is the embodiment of that, this ship, it helps it."

Once it's seaworthy, the San Salvador will take kids on educational sailing voyages up the California coast. It will have enough bunks to take a full classroom of kids on overnight trips. Pending Coast Guard approval, it will carry 49 passengers.

When at it's home port, it will be docked near the Maritime Museum's other ships. For now, though, it's still at it's construction site at Spanish Landing Park. And you'll need to wait until it's in the water to get up close to it again. The site has been closed to visitors since mid-April, when the San Salvador was scheduled to launch. But Ashley said launching the ship has been harder than they thought.

"If we had built the San Salvador in a shipyard that had slipways and cranes and travel lifts, our efforts to launch the ship would be fairly simple," Ashley said. "But as you can see, we built her in a parking lot in a park. And therefore taking one of the most complex and heavy objects that anyone could have built 500 years ago and moving it over the road to a launch point and making a public event out of it: that proved pretty difficult."

Ashley said they now plan to launch the San Salvador by the end of May, without any public fanfare. Once it's finally in the water, the public will be able to watch as they put on finishing touches that can only be completed once she's afloat, such as adding two miles of rigging and raising the masts. Then, once the San Salvador is actually complete, Ashley said they'll hold a big public ceremony for the christening.

"It'll be just right below that curvy angular part: that's what gets whacked," Ashley said, as he gazed up at the ship he affectionately refers to as a "150 ton Steinway Piano." He hopes that champagne bottle will hit the San Salvador by the end of this summer.

Explore The San Salvador

Click on the buttons to explore the San Salvador and learn about the modern-day ship and the original from 1542. Sources: Naval architect Doug Sharp of Sharp Design; San Diego Maritime Museum.

Creation of the San Salvador

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