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The sailing ships at the center of San Diego’s film history

By Danielle Dawson,


SAN DIEGO – Walking in the Embarcadero area of downtown, it’s hard to miss the towering ships of the Maritime Museum lining the edge of the bay’s waters.

The museum has been a focal point of the San Diego neighborhood since its founding, collecting one of the largest collections of historical sea vessels in the country.

Most locals are quite familiar with the ships’ presence and history in the bay, but the vessels carry with them a lesser known history intertwined with San Diego’s background as an extension of Hollywood.

From the days of silent films to the first colored pictures, the bay has been at the heart of San Diego’s appeal to Hollywood , given the ease at which film and TV productions could access waterside filming.

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Established in 1948, the Maritime Museum has been around almost as long as the film industry has existed in San Diego, current Museum president and CEO, Ray Ashely, told

Since the first ship in the fleet was bought, the Star of India, the museum’s fleet has grown to include numerous vessels, from a Spanish galleon to an industrial steamboats, that have graced the silver screen – both before the organization owned them and after.

Among the ships that the Maritime Museum now houses, the most well-known for its use in the feature films is the HMS Surprise. Previously known as the HMS Rose, the vessel was heavily featured in the Academy Award-winning movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World .

At the time, it was one of the only operable replicas of an 18th century ship, Ashley said. The HMS Rose was specifically modeled after the English vessel from 1757 that met its demise during the American Revolutionary War.

As Ashely recounted it, the director of the film, Peter Weir, first saw the replica while in the West Indies. The vessel was on one of the many attraction tours it took, prior to finding its home at the Maritime Museum.

Weir decided to make the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World right then, according to Ashely, based on the book series by Patrick O’Brian. He convinced 20th Century Fox to buy the ship, allowing them to convert it into a replica of the 24-gun frigate based off the historical 18th century ship at the center of the books, the HMS Surprise.
The HMS Rose, which was used in the filming of the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World”, is seen during the film’s San Diego premiere November 9, 2003 in San Diego, California. The film was screened on the Broadway Pier in downtown San Diego. The film goes into wide release November 14, 2003. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

“The ship was an actor in the film, just like the Starship Enterprise in all the Star Trek movies… it’s a character,” Ashley said.

After the film was done, 20th Century Fox leased the ship to the Maritime Museum, later selling it to the organization.

It quickly became a fixture of the Museum’s vessels, known for its authenticity in historical reconstruction and attention to detail.

That accuracy is what has brought other productions looking to recreate historical seafaring, notably Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the company behind the Super Bowl XLIX TurboTax commercial, down to San Diego.

“A lot of ships end up being very specific,” Ashley said. “If you want to establish (the) time and place that events occur, most people have a generalized idea about the period of time being depicted by what kind of ship is associated with that.”

While the HMS Surprise is the most well-known of the ships used in films, many of the other ships housed by the Maritime Museum have been used by film productions looking to immerse viewers in a bygone time.

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The Californian, for instance, was used in the Steven Spielberg drama, Amistad. The 2013 historical thriller, Phantom, used the Star of India, the steam ferry Berkeley and a now scrapped submarine previously in the museum’s possession.

San Diegans can experience these working period vessels for themselves firsthand, as the ships are open for tours daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Maritime Museum. Several of the ships also make regular trips around the Bay for historical cruises and other sailing adventures .

Whether you’re a fan of seafaring epics or are a general history buff, the Maritime Museum has something to see for everyone.

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