San Diego's Ocean Beach

The Maritime Museum of San Diego

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Restoration Efforts - The San Diego maritime museum has restored three ships now at its docks, including the 1904 steam yacht Medea, which served in both world wars.

Helmsman - Dr. Raymond Ashley, left, took over the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 1995. The maritime expert and historian has since added educational programs to the museum's offerings.

Photo by: Jim Kelly

In 1995, when Dr. Raymond Ashley took the helm at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the waterfront was in crisis.

The death of the tuna industry in the late 1980s had driven the Portuguese community out of decades-old jobs in Seaport Village and back to its La Playa and Roseville refuges in Point Loma.

Vestiges of the 1990s recession continued to scar the Stingeree (today's Gaslamp Quarter) with empty buildings and angry vagrants. Metropolitan San Diego had little to offer the stray tourist beyond the elegance of Balboa Park.

Ashley inherited an institution echoing the despair surrounding it.

While fewer than 80,000 visitors passed through its doors, maritime craftsmen toiled to restore and preserve three historic ships, the ferryboat, Berkeley, the steam yacht, Medea, and their crown jewel, Star of India.

As a maritime expert, Ashley, who received his master of arts in maritime history from East Carolina University and his Ph.D in the history of science from Duke, kept the museum on the course of restoration while giving it an additional charter. He turned it into a nautical university.

The museum began weekday and overnight educational programs that continue today (see events section below).

Marketing exhibits ranging from pirate lore to Chinese maritime art, the museum produced 35 separate shows over the past 10 years, swelling annual attendance to almost 200,000.

In an interview after a "Tall Ships" event in September of 2005, Ashley was asked about a number of perceived problems.

First he was queried about the gaggle of tent merchants who overflowed the embarcadero at the festival.

"We tried to have as high a concentration as we could of arts and crafts," he said. "Particularly vendors whose wares reflected a maritime theme. We also tried to have a variety of food vendors because we anticipated visitors would spend a good part of the day here."

When asked if the food vendors took business away from surrounding restaurants, Ashley said they actually brought business to Anthony's and other nearby establishments.

He wasn't sure how they did this year, but Ashley said Anthony's has told him in the past that they do almost a month's worth of business during the five days of the festival.

Ashley was also asked to address concerns over merchant tents obstructing the view of the ships and unsightly fences. He said it was a good thing.

"With so many people attending the festival, you don't want people in cars focusing on anything other than driving when they're going along that stretch of road," he said.

The fence was also a simple matter to explain: "We put it up because the city required it and it was a safety barrier.

When the ships sailed into San Diego Harbor, they did so during the day when most people were at work. Again, Ashley was asked why they couldn't come in later in the day.

Ashley said this was really a matter of logistics. Because they are coming from Los Angeles, the ships have to rendezvous in the morning outside the harbor. Their entrance has to be orchestrated because there are a number of ships with different capabilities.

"The Coast Guard defines it as a marine event and they control it," Ashley said. "The ships have to maintain a fairly consistent speed as well as keep a certain distance fore and aft."

According to Ashley, the ships have to enter the harbor during the morning hours because it takes so long to dock an armada of that size. Also, they have to build customized boarding ramps for all the ships after they dock because the port wasn't set up for that many ships.

"It takes up to three hours to finish building the gangways because we actually have to create a tall ship harbor," he said. "If the ships came in after normal business hours as suggested, the staff would have to be doing this in the dark."

In spite of all the work the staff puts into creating public awareness of the museum, the institution still maintains a certain amount of underexposure. This problem was exposed by an inquiry that came to the museum in the recent past.

"We received a phone call from an individual who wanted to visit the museum but didn't know how to find us," Ashley said. "When we asked him where he was, he said he was walking around on Star of India."

Maritime Musuem of San Diego Events