Draped around a vast, sheltered bay, the San Francisco Bay Area has a rollicking maritime history, perfect for a summer change of pace when the temperatures creep higher. Soon after the cry “Gold!” rang out in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1848, the bay filled with ships bringing fortune seekers, the population zoomed, cities rose up, and one of the world’s largest ports began to grow, eventually becoming a major destination for World War II troops and wartime shipbuilding. Although today the bay is plied by cruise ships, yachts, passenger ferries and freighters, a heroic and colorful seagoing past is preserved on the Bay Area Maritime Trail.
A picture-perfect introduction to seagoing history can be found at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Bathhouse building. With its “streamline moderne-style” splendor of curved walls, green tile entrance, and iconic portholes, it’s surrounded by gardens, lawns, the cable car turnaround, and even a beach with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop. Constructed by the WPA in the late 1930s, the museum was, in fact, a bathhouse for swimmers and daytrippers who frolicked along the shoreline. Vibrant lobby murals, ship models and figureheads, photos, paintings, and dioramas are worth a look, and admission is free. You can peer through the telescope on the “bridge” to watch ships and sailboats on the bay and translate Morse code in the World War II–era radio room.
From the museum, across the cove, you can see the Hyde Street Pier lineup of vintage vessels that make up San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, America’s only floating national park and said to be the world’s largest collection of historic ships. Open to tour are the 1886 square-rigged “Balclutha,” a three-masted 1895 lumber schooner, a steam ferryboat from the late 1800s; a Gold-Rush-era paddlewheel tug and more. With kids in tow, plan plenty of time to clamber around the huge masts, the thick ropes and well-worn decks and to linger in the restored cabins, imagining, perhaps, a treacherous Cape Horn passage or a breezy run up the California Coast.
This year in August the annual Festival of the Sea at Hyde Street Pier will feature traditional, live music on three stages, and family-friendly fun such as knot tying, rigging and rope-making demos; plus, sail raising, history presentations and kids’ crafts.
Kids are also fascinated by the USS Pampanito WWII submarine, just up the street at Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf. On a scramble along narrow passageways and up and down steep stairs, you’ll see torpedoes, the engine room, sleeping quarters and the mess hall, and armaments on the deck. An audio tour features the poignant voices of sailors who served on the sub when she sank Japanese ships in the Pacific.
Pier 45 is also the home of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining, fully functional “Liberty” ships, part of a 2,710-ship armada that stormed the D-Day beachheads. Among the onboard sights are a diorama and maps of the Normandy invasion, the radio room, the bridge, and big guns on deck. In 1994, manned by a crew whose average age was 70, the O’Brien steamed across the Atlantic to England and France to help commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied attack from the sea that turned the tide of WWII. Of the more than 5,000 ships in the original D-Day fleet, the O’Brien was the only one to return 50 years later, and she still cruises around the bay on annual holidays