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 BayWith 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: 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 BaySki 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. "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 MuseumOn "the big bay," the USS Midway Museum is open to the public for tours. (Photo: 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.

It All Starts Here

The center of San Diego trailer boating occurs at Shelter Island where a free 10-lane boat ramp provides the closest access point to the ocean. "It can be really busy at Shelter Island," notes Tony Olson of Vessel Assist San Diego. "It can get pretty tight there with a boat trying to launch and a tow vehicle and trailer at the top of the ramp waiting to back down the same lane. I remember there used to be a couple of sea lions that hung out at Shelter Island. One was named 'George' and they'd wait for fishermen to come in with their bait tanks still full of bait, hoping to get fed."

Zack Thomas says the Shelter Island ramp is preferred by boaters heading south, once they pass Point Loma. "For fishermen headed to the offshore grounds, to the Coronados Islands, off the Mexican coast, Shelter Island cuts three to five miles off the trip," he says. "The problem is that it's very busy, and it's in a small rip-rap basin with a single small passage out to the bay. Mid-afternoon on spring, summer, and fall weekends, when the private-boat fishing fleet gets back, it can get wild and wooly."

Near the boat ramp on Shelter Island is the Tunaman's Memorial, honoring lives lost when San Diego was the Tuna Capital of the World and employed more than 40,000 workers. It's still home to Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea products. The memorial's three fishermen and their catch bears these words, " Honoring those that built an industry and remembering those that departed this harbor in the sun and did not return." While no longer a tuna capital, many boaters leaving Shelter Island and other San Diego locations are tuned in to tuna.

Other San Diego Bay launch ramps include Glorietta Bay just south of the Coronado Bridge on Coronado Island and Chula Vista along the western shore on J Street where a multi-lane facility is available. It's not uncommon to see old car clubs gather here for a picnic, accompanied by their classics. A pair of interesting art installations are located here: a wind harp that makes a soothing sound depending on the direction (and velocity) of the wind; and wind oars, more than a dozen oars suspended in the air that rotate depending on wind direction and speed. Just north of the Chula Vista ramp is Pepper Park, set into the Sweetwater Channel that provides great access from the nearby freeway.

One caveat when using Pepper Park and Chula Vista: Be sure to know the location of Gunpowder Point along the western shore. There's lots of shoaling. Vessel Assist San Diego spends a lot of time there. Regardless of where boats are launched, many have fishing as their raison'd'etre. "Tuna fishing here is pretty legendary," says Olson. "We have the largest sport fishing fleet in the U.S. and I can tell you that trailer-boat owners go out quite often. It's not uncommon for us to be 60 miles offshore getting people. Our service area is 100 miles out here and tuna is the only reason to go out that far."

Help In Kelp

photo of Sunset Marine, BoatUS Cooperating MarinaA BoatUS Cooperating Marina, the crew at Sunset Marine offer discounts on parts to BoatUS members.

Tony Olson says many of their calls for help on the water come from an all-too familiar location. "If you're heading into the ocean from San Diego Bay, go out from Point Loma, hang a right, and you'll be in a big huge giant kelp bed. The kelp grows from the bottom, attracting fish, so that's where the fisherman are found, but there are a lot of people with stories about getting stuck out there, even seasoned anglers who should know better. Props get tangled in the kelp, or outboards and outdrives overheat if you get in the middle of it. We've brought folks in with damaged engines because of this. It's extremely common.

Dave Casady, Operations Manager at Sunset Marine, a BoatUS Cooperating Marina that offers members a discount on parts, says he's seen a lot of outboards that have run through the kelp beds. "A boater needs to pay extra-close attention when out fishing the kelp," he says. "Water intakes or pick-ups can become easily covered or plugged. A boater is always going to want to keep a close eye on their water-pressure and temperature gauges. One of the best indicators on an outboard is the tell tale that shoots a steady stream of water out the back of the engine. If that's not flowing properly, you may have an obstruction. If this happens, the best quick fix is to shut off your engine and tilt it up. Look for anything that may be covering up the pick-ups — kelp, plastic bags, and so on — that may be preventing the intake of water."

photo of Vessel Assist boat, San DiegoRobert Butler's Vessel Assist San Diego crew is known for helping out commercial and recreational boaters.

Tony Olson suggests passing Point Loma and going into the ocean for three miles and then turning right. By doing this, you miss the kelp altogether. One more piece of advice from Olson: "Pay attention to the weather. Our winds are usually from the northwest. But if it's out of the south, you're going to have confused seas out in the ocean. I've been there. We call it 'the washing machine.'" Olson suggests talking to folks unloading their boats at the launch ramp. They've been out there so they'll have some firsthand information about what to expect. If it's bad in the ocean, go to the bay. It's huge and the water is protected.

And if you just happen to ask Tony, he can to tell you if it's two above or two below. 

This article was published in the Summer 2011 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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