Cabrillo’s San Salvador:  Fifteen Days of Historic Enchantment in Morro Bay

Written by Judy Salamacha

September 7, 2023

Susan Sirota, VP-Maritime Museum San Diego, and Captain/Dr. Ray Ashley, president of MMSD stand watch over MMSD’s San Salvador crew when they arrived and tied-up to Morro Bay’s South T Pier dock on August 8. More than 10,000 visitors toured for 10-days plus a respite from possible weather conditions due to Hurricane Hilary extended their stay from August 8-15, 2023. Photo by Judy Salamacha

It’s official! More than 10,000 visitors walked the decks of Maritime Museum San Diego’s full-scale replica of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s San Salvador, the first European to explore the Pacific coastline in 1542.  

Docked at Morro Bay’s South T Pier from August 8 through August 22, my duty station for ten of those days was standing at the ticket entry gate greeting, asking where folks were from, and offering nuggets of history I had gleaned during the San Salvador’s 10-day visit in 2016. Visitors would marvel at the riggings of the masts so far above us and ponder at a crews’ control to climb such heights in all kinds of weather. Cabrillo was recognized by most who visited – hungry for more details the docents would supply after crossing the plank to venture back into the year 1542. MMSD had prepared the vessel for visitors to experience a glimpse of life at sea in times when the only people they might have encountered were the Native Americans – in Estero Bay that would have been the Salinan Tribe.  

Morro Bay Maritime Museum was the host to welcome back the San Salvador. I’m proud to say our marshalled crew of over 75 community volunteers was well prepped by MMSD to answer visitor questions and then allow them their space and time to experience the wonders of Cabrillo’s Spanish galleon. From 10 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. every day, we strived to please our guests accommodating everyone who had a ticket, many of them sold last minute at our gate or at the museum, so all might have their time with the magical San Salvador. We labored to be flexible and understanding. Most visitors seemed to understand our challenges, especially when the four school tours would arrive and get us behind. Our guests – 99% of them – were patient and lovely to serve. We rewarded them with more stories and our sincere appreciation. Once off the Spanish galleon, they would wave goodbye thanking us for their chance to journey back in time. Many walked across the street to explore MBMM. Some had visited before but not since 2020. They were amazed that so much had been added to the exhibits. Donations demonstrated their thanks for the family friendly pricing of their San Salvador tickets. They bought memorial bricks and maritime treasures. Twice we had to reorder tour t-shirts. Our maritime books and children’s merchandise flew out the door – all to help MBMM continue to grow into the future.  

MBMM’s Bonnie Jones, Morro Bay’s current Citizen of the Year, provided three quotes she heard from guests:   

“The tour was so much more wonderful than I imagined. I felt like I was back in the 1500’s.”   

“I felt so emotional going through the tour. Had tears in my eyes. I want to know more about those years.”  

And our favorite that prompted an on-air giggle from KVEC’s early morning news commentator Andy Morris came from an 8-year-old boy, “This was the best day at my Nanas. I want to do it again.” 

Many from the business community thanked us for their late summer boost in business. Troy Leage, Harbor Hut Restaurant owner, personally walked to the museum and to the ticketing area and thanked us and encouraged more maritime activities in the future. Some are due soon. MBMM’s Memorial Salute to the Hondo Disaster is September 10, Rock the Waterfront at MBYC is October 11 and Morro Bay Maritime Free Family Fun Day is October 14 beginning at 10am right after Rotary’s Ducky Derby Challenge and kicked off by John Lindsey’s launch of a weather balloon. www.morrobaymaritime.org.  

Larry Newland, MBMM’s founding board president, was twice responsible for attracting the San Salvador to Morro Bay. Back in 2015 he was visiting MMSD and met Susan Sirota, VP of MMSD and “first mate” to Captain Dr. Ray Ashley. Larry had a dream to site a maritime museum on the Central Coast. Dr. Ashley, also president of MMSD, had a dream to build Cabrillo’s replica, sail the 1542 mission to discover a route to the Far East, and mostly provide a living history artifact representing Californians’ origin story. It took Larry more than 20-years to fulfill his dream. It took Dr. Ashley over 10 years to research, fund, and build the San Salvador. 

Cabrillo’s San Salvador Pacific Heritage Tour 2016 was set to launch with ports in place when Larry met Susan. “Where is Morro Bay?” he asked. She admitted when hosted at August’s Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting that she had literally forgotten about Morro Bay. Once Larry told her of Morro Bay’s strong Central Valley visitor attraction, our harbor was added to the tour. Larry shared with me when Dr. Ashley and Susan met with former City Manager David Buckingham, he negotiated two weekends and thus, a 10-day tour agreement was established.   

Please, understand, Morro Bay supporters that MMSD does not need to tour the San Salvador out of San Diego Bay, but Larry convinced them to return in 2023. As he offered his commentary about the ship to our 2023 guests, Larry would tell everyone that in 2016 MMSD shared revenue from tour ticket sales and with an additional small capital campaign, the donations from museum supporters, including community school children over the years – people who came out to visit the DSRV Avalon and tugboat Almain an adjacent parking lot – plus a significant donation by John and Joan Solu, allocated to MBMM through their efforts leading the Morro Bay Harbor Festival, we had a museum grand opening by 2017. And since the board of directors had incurred no debt, it voted to provide the community museum visits free to our generous community.   

Flash forward to 2023! MMSD returns for 10 days offering tours of the San Salvador. Again, MBMM shared ticket sales revenue knowing MBMM had the green light from City of Morro Bay to expand its footprint at 1210 Embarcadero. And truth be told Larry made the connection, but it took the leadership of Bonnie Jones to rally the board to be ready even when they sailed into Morro Bay Harbor two days earlier.   

Why did they return to Morro Bay in 2023? Susan Sirota, VP-Maritime Museum San Diego, said to me, “Because you (MBMM) asked.” I’m paraphrasing her comments during the two weeks we spent together. “Morro Bay was originally our sole destination on the San Salvador Pacific Heritage Tour 2023 until we added Spanish Days in Santa Barbara. Your community is so welcoming to us, and we wanted to continue supporting the expansion of your maritime museum. We love Morro Bay because you get it. Your community and visitors appreciate why we built the San Salvador – to share our California origin story with whoever would listen. In San Diego we are just another entertainment tour to visit.” 

She said that she and Dr. Ashley are sincerely pleased with the partnership established with MBMM and the City of Morro Bay.   

And with that endorsement allow me to thank our community and visitors for showing up. A few well-earned extra thanks go to all MBMM Board of Directors for acting as gracious hosts with a shout-out to Rich Pescatore and his mega-community of volunteers; Chris Vaile and Cathy Ryan for running the museum store on the pier and at the museum, James Costanza endurance at dockside ticket sales and Kendall Welsh for coordinating an amazing thank you Paella Party for the contributors who have kept the lights on and to David & Peggy Rogers for their collaborative beneficial painting of San Salvdors’s arrival in 2016. Mega appreciation for the Salinan Tribal members joining us on the dock to tell their native story. Thanks to our waterfront restaurants for welcoming our guests and crew from the San Salvador, including Top Dog Coffee, daily on the T-Pier, and French Café providing early morning coffee and pastries. Hats off to our local school personnel, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Newcomers, Soroptimists, MB Seniors and Visalia Seniors for bringing out groups to experience history first-hand. Thanks to Mayor Wixom and MB Council members, our Harbor Department and Harbor Advisory Board. Many thanks to Visit Morro Bay for approving a grant for MBMM to purchase media and complement our media buys with their out-of-area contacts.  Media support was critical from Estero Bay News, American General Media SLO & Santa Maria, including KVEC’s Dave Congalton and Andy Morris, KSBY-TV, New Times SLO & Santa Maria, and Dimes Media Corporation provided excellent promotional support. Thanks also to MBMM’s Jennifer Manduffie and Morro Bay Chamber Commerce’s Jody Hollier for their Social Media expertise. The San Salvador buzz was definitely out there.  

My apologies in advance to anyone I might have left out. And, yes, MBMM and MMSD are talking about a 10-day visit in our future!  

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