San Diego museum to unveil replica of explorer ship San Salvador

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diegobay in 1542, and his flagship, the San Salvador, is set to do so again this week.

Carpenter Robert Phillips works on the rudder assembly of a full-scale replica of the San Salvador, the flagship of Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo.(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

When explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his flagship San Salvador pulled into San Diego Bay on Sept. 28, 1542, he was not just trying to impress the locals with the grace of his three-masted galleon.

He was on a business trip, in hopes of opening up the West Coast of America for Europeans.

And so it is fitting that the full-size replica of Cabrillo's flagship, which took more than $6.2 million and four years to build, has a business-style goal when it makes its long-awaited public debut Friday afternoon.

At 150 tons, measuring 92 feet in length, 24 feet in width, lovingly constructed with wood from Suriname, Nigeria, the Pacific Northwest and Georgia, the San Salvador is set to lead the parade of tall ships, the traditional opening of the annual three-day Festival of Sail.

Officials at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which sponsored the replica project, hope the fully functional San Salvador, once it takes its place among the museum's other historic ships along the Embarcadero, will "transform" the area into a nautical theme park.

While San Diego, with its zoo, beaches and (at least for the moment) NFL team, does not lack for tourists, museum officials envision the San Salvador adding to the city's allure as one of the spots where modern America began.

Mark Montijo, the Maritime Museum's vice president and chief administrative officer, likes to point out that Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay 78 years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.

San Diego has long laid claim to the legacy of Cabrillo, considered by historians as the first European to set foot in California. A 13-foot-tall statue of the explorer adorns the Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula; a festival each year reenacts Cabrillo's wading ashore at Ballast Point.

Cabrillo is in the "DNA of San Diego," Port Commission Chairman Dan Malcolm told a gathering when the San Salvador replica was moved by barge from Spanish Landing near Lindbergh Field to a boatyard in Chula Vista, from which it will launch to lead the parade.