Morro Bay Maritime Museum

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Morro Bay Maritime Museum

Fitted for purpose

The retelling of Morro Bay’s Maritime culture

It’s 1988 and I am sitting in my kayak alongside my friend Brent Roberts who is sitting in his kayak at Coleman Beach on the Morro Bay waterfront. Brent is telling me about his dream for a maritime museum for the town. He mentions all the history of the fishing industry, the abalone divers, and even the Navy. “We need to preserve that and have it available for the public,” he says. As we paddle out into the bay I look back at the waterfront and in my mind’s eye I can see the past; fishing vessels tied up to the docks, divers working in the rich waters, and even that time during World War II when Morro Bay became a Navy town.  “Yes,” I think, “We need a Morro Bay maritime museum.”

Thus began the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association whose members have worked over the years to bring to life Brent’s dream. That dream brought forth volunteers who gathered artifacts and photos that have been displayed in a large tent out on the south T-pier during every Harbor Festival. Interest grew and plans were drawn up for a structure to house the growing collection. But getting a site was proving difficult.

The mission statement of the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association states that it is to provide an easily accessible educational venue for maritime history, science and technology. Over the years this has been carried out with CCMMA sponsoring visits to Morro Bay by a variety of tall ship replicas. The CCMMA brought the state’s tall ship Californian, Hawaiian Chieftain, Lady Washington, Lynx, Bill of Rights, and best of all, the Endeavour, a magnificent tall ship replica from Australia, to Morro Bay. 

“We were the first to arrange for these sailing replicas to come here,” Larry Newland, President of CCMMA said, “and because of that hundreds of school children as well as adults had the opportunity to learn about maritime history.” 

More than 10,000 people got to tour the Endeavour and many volunteers took advantage of acting as tour guides, docents, and some even got to sleep overnight on the vessel. “That event showed us that the public has a real interest in the culture of times past and would welcome an interpretive maritime center,” Newland said.

The Association has been lucky to be able to obtain vessels to display in the museum. The tugboat Alma was one of the first donated in 1995 by the Kelsey family, owners of Sylvester’s Tug Service. It was built in 1927 in San Francisco and is typical of the small wooden tugs that worked in harbors along the west coast during the first half of the 20th century.

When World War II was thrust upon this country vessels that plied the coastal waters here were anxious about possible attacks from Japanese submarines. Such an occurrence happened on December 23, 1941 when the Union Oil tanker Montebello was hit by a Japanese torpedo and sunk off the coast of Cambria. 

The Alma was anchored off of Cayucos and upon hearing explosions went to investigate and found survivors from the tanker in lifeboats. They rescued 22 men from those boats. Much of this history can be read about in the publications “Morro Bay’s Yesteryears” and “War Comes to the Middle Kingdom.” 

At present the Alma rests in dry dock in the City’s small craft storage area and is need of tender care. Newland indicated that a grant from the Hind Foundation has been obtained for restoration and he expects it will be on display by next year. 

 A second vessel, the Spindrift, is also part of the Association’s collection. Built in 1933, it’s one of the only surviving Monterey style boats used from the 1920s through the 1960s. It too was built in San Francisco and has a hull that is a derivative of the Mediterrean Felucca style that was brought to this country by Italian fishermen. 

A visit to the Embarcadero adjacent to the power plant in the Front Street parking lot will show you some of the progress made by the Association.  Here an interpretive kiosk will give you information about the museum and the association’s plans. “The city is really on board,” Newland commented, “and we have a memorandum of understanding in regards to this site. Phase one has been getting our outdoor display of small boats established.”

Already on display is a 30-foot Coast Guard Surf Rescue vessel and the 50-foot Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle “Avalon”.  “Many people don’t realize that Morro Bay was a naval station during World War II,” Newland explained, “so obtaining a vessel like the Avalon for the museum fits our purpose.” 

The Avalon arrived in Morro Bay in June of 2012 after more than a year of planning and preparation. It is one of only two rescue submarines built for the Navy and was designed to rescue crews of downed submarines. It was used for research and conducted training with Navys around the world. More than $10,000 was raised to obtain the vessel and bring it here. Many volunteers were involved in the process including Congressperson Lois Capps and Morro Bay mayor Bill Yates, who wrote a special request letter to the Navy for the Maritime Museum.

“Phase II of our plan is for a 1500 square foot building that will serve as an interpretive center,” Newland said. Architect Jim Maul has drawn up the plans for this building that will sit where the Coast Guard Surf Rescue vessel is displayed now.  

The CCMMA is now working on obtaining a long term lease with the city for the site and upon receipt of that will put forth a capital campaign to raise the approximately $400,000 needed to complete Brent Robert’s dream. Roberts passed away in 2005, but I am sure he is watching the progress of the Morro Bay Maritime Museum.

Both the Morro Bay Maritime Museum project and the Alma restoration project are seeking financial donations and experienced metal fabricators who are willing to donate their time, steel or both to help construct display cradles. Please contact Larry Newland for more information at or visit their website

— Ruth Ann Angus

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