A piece of ancient sailing history is scheduled to visit Channel Islands Harbor on Thursday, Sept. 15, through Sunday, Sept. 18.

A replica of the San Salvador, the first European vessel to explore California’s coast, makes her maiden voyage to Channel Islands Harbor from her port at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

Ten years of planning, five years of building, at a cost of $6.8 million, the 98-foot replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon is, according to Dr. Raymond Ashley, president and CEO of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the closest anyone will ever get to being able “to know what it’s like to voyage in 1542.”

For Julia Chambers, executive director of the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, it’s exciting to have such a prestigious vessel in the harbor. “It fits so perfectly with our mission,” she said. “We’re here to bring maritime life and culture to everybody’s attention, and having a replica of this gorgeous ship is the very best way I can think of to bring it to life.”

The original San Salvador, according to Ashley, was built in Guatemala in 1539 and sailed along the California coast by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese captain sailing for the Spanish Empire. The ship purportedly sailed into San Diego Bay in September 1542. There is a monument at the tip of Point Loma in San Diego commemorating his voyage.

Ashley noted that replicating the San Salvador was difficult because “in 1539, there were no written plans. People had ship designs in their heads.”

Museum personnel had to explore many sources from that era such as Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, who specialized in sailing ships. They researched ship-building treatises and used reverse engineering of designs from as early as 1580. They also examined dimensions from old contracts of the Spanish government.

They were also fortunate to find some examples from archaeology, such as the recovered Red Bay Wreck (sank 1565) in Red Bay, Labrador, believed to be the Spanish Basque galleon the San Juan, and the so-called Pepper Wreck, the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, which sank off the coast of Lisbon in 1606.

The completed galleon combined Mediterranean designs with European forms. For its time, it was considered very efficient in the number of crew required compared to the cargo it could carry. The resulting 200-ton replica was considered so accurate, the architect, Doug Sharp, was actually knighted by the king of Spain for his design.

According to Chambers, the connection of the San Salvador to the Channel Islands Maritime Museum began more than two years ago when Ashley came up to give a talk during the museum’s 23rd annual President’s Day celebration.

“He mentioned it to me during that time,” said Chambers, “and once they started working on the annual schedule for its inaugural trip up the coast, they called and asked if we would like to have it for its maiden voyage, and we said absolutely, yes.”

While it’s fully rigged and can sail as it did in 1542, the San Salvador is also outfitted according to Coast Guard regulations to safely carry passengers and meet a schedule. The boat has two engines, modern radio, GPS and depth sounders. For authenticity, it also has period charts, an astrolabe, a quadrant, a ship’s log and a sounding lead.

The Channel Islands Maritime Museum is offering a package price for entry to both the museum and the ship. While at the museum, the public is also invited to view the extensive collection of ship paintings by such artists as Jan van Os, Ludolf Backhuysen, Willem van de Velde (the younger) and George Webster. Visitors can also browse past numerous ship models, including highly detailed works by master craftsman Edward Marple.

According to Kate Crouse, the CIMM’s collections manager and curator, seeing the San Salvador in person brings history alive in a deep and powerful way. “We have the age of exploration exhibit that talks about Cabrillo and Columbus and other great explorers,” she explained, “but here we have a replica of Cabrillo’s ship right outside that you can climb aboard; and to me that’s going to be incredible, to combine our collection with the reality of a current-day experience.”

For Chambers, the excitement of seeing the San Salvador has to do with coming face to face with real-life history and adventure.

“The San Salvador helps us to understand why Cabrillo would want to find a new place,” she remarked. “It’s the spirit of adventure and exploration. Hopefully it will encourage us to explore the world in our own way.”

Cabrillo’s San Salvador: The Pacific Heritage Tour comes to Channel Islands Harbor on Sept. 15-18. For schedule, tickets and more information, call 984-6260 or visit www.cimmvc.org.