San Diego Is All About Boats

By Beth Patterson

It's the eighth largest city in the United States, with 70 miles of Pacific Ocean beaches, a pair of protected bays with ten-lane boat ramps, the homeport of the Pacific Fleet, and one of two U.S. cities that hosted the America's Cup. Yep, boats are part of this place.

photo of Shelter Island boat ramp on San Diego Bay
With ten lanes, the Shelter Island boat ramp on San Diego Bay provides close access to the Pacific Ocean along with a great view of the city's skyline. Photo courtesy of Bryan Dove.

Vessel Assist San Diego's Tony Olson tells it this way: He was living in Arizona, working as a mechanic, and was making repairs on a Mercedes Benz. While trying to focus on the job, he could see the outside temperature on the dashboard was 114°. While making the repair to the car, he turned on the weather radio that's part of the Mercedes audio system and heard the marine forecast for San Diego: 72°. That's the moment he made the decision to seek a new venue. One year later, Tony was working for Vessel Assist San Diego.

"We have a saying around here," Olson says, looking out over San Diego Bay and the four docked Vessel Assist boats. "If someone mentions 'it's two below,' it means it's 68 degrees, two degrees below the average temperature of 70."

The weather is cited as the primary reason people live and visit San Diego. But there are a lot of secondary reasons too, such as boats. Not only is the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet based here, with more than 2,000 ships including the 1,092-foot nuclear-powered super-carrier USS Ronald Reagan, seven submarines and 2,000 aircraft, but charter fishing is an industry, and recreational boating is everywhere you look.

The Bays For Great Boating Days

photo of Ski Beach boat ramp on Mission Bay
Ski Beach boat ramp on Mission Bay is close to Sea World, where the Bayside Skyride towers are visible in the distance.

Two bays connect San Diego to the Pacific. Mission Bay is where jet skis are commonly found. Sea World is located here and it's not uncommon for boaters to pull up to a dock and get a view of whales and dolphins at work before a crowd. Four boat ramps, all free, are located around Mission Bay, including the South Shore Ramp with 10 lanes, Dana Bay and Ski Beach each with four lanes. Zack Thomas, author of "The Angler's Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja" (Trailering, August, 2008) has launched from Mission Bay a number of times.

"Mission Bay is the pleasure-boaters' bay," he says. "It has both five-mph zones and no-limit zones. There's no commercial or military traffic, no big wakes, less tidal current, and lots of beaches where you can just beach your boat for a picnic if you want." Thomas says the closest boat ramp to the ocean on Mission Bay is Dana Landing. He likes it because most of the time the ramp isn't crowded, there are four lanes, and there's a nearby deli, tackle shop, and mini-mart. Other nearby boats ramps include Ski Beach with four lanes and South Shores, a 10-lane ramp next to Sea World. D'Anza Cove has a four-lane launch ramp and is set into the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

Just to the south of Mission Bay is San Diego Bay. This is called "the big bay" by locals because, well, it's bigger; it even has its own website ( "The bays are very different," notes Thomas. San Diego Bay is big, heavily trafficked, and a little scary, even for fairly experienced boaters, with all the military and commercial shipping traffic, no speed limit, big yachts roaring through at 30 knots, sailboats zig-zagging across the channel, and so on. It's a neat place to be on the water, but you need to understand the rules of the road and be very vigilant. Also, unlike Mission Bay, there are very few places you can actually pull up to a beach."

"There's a lot of cool ships and submarines on San Diego Bay," says Tony Olson. "It's not unusual to see aircraft carriers, like the USS Ronald Reagan as 'Carrier Row' is on the starboard side as you enter San Diego Bay. That's part of Coronado Island, which is connected to the mainland by the famous Coronado Bridge, used in Harrison's Ford's movie 'Blade Runner.' Carrier Row is on the north side of the bridge and on the southside are all the missile cruisers. The U.S. Navy Seals train on Coronado Island."

aerial photo of USS Midway Museum
On "the big bay," the USS Midway Museum is open to the public for tours. Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum.

Olson says the recreational boater needs to be careful when passing near a Navy ship. "You want to stay 1,000 feet away from them when a ship is underway. In some cases that can be difficult to do because there are some narrow spots in San Diego Bay, but it's important to reduce to the minimum handling speed when they're going by. They also have port security barrier walls that that look like a fence that separates the moored and docked ships from recreational boaters. If you get too close to it and get hit by wake, that barrier can scratch your hull. Keep your distance."

The star of Coronado Island is the Hotel del Coronado, the largest wooden structure in the United States and the location for Billy Wilder's 1958 hit "Some Like It Hot" with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. Wilder later observed that Marilyn Monroe was so inspired by "the Del" that she, in his opinion, turned in one of her best on screen performances there.

The San Diego B Street Cruise Ship terminal is located along the northeastern shore of San Diego Bay. Every year more than 200 ships serving nine different cruise lines visit the port carrying passengers from all over the world. Nearby, USS Midway Museum allows visitors to walk the deck of the 972-foot aircraft carrier that served in Vietnam. Dennis Conner's America's Cup Harbor is located next door to the huge Shelter Island boat ramp.

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