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San Diego museum hosts vessels from different seas and centuries

SAN DIEGO — The bay is filigreed with all variety of Navy ships and pleasure craft. Since 2004, the decommissioned USS Midway — a 972-foot aircraft carrier — has been permanently in the mix.

But the coolest thing to board might be the Maritime Museum of San Diego: You can tour a multivessel collection in just a couple of hours and come as close as humanly possible to stepping into a Joseph Conrad novel, being with Russell Crowe on "Master and Commander" and getting a feel for Cold War submarine duty.

If your time is limited and your agenda in San Diego is filling fast — it always does — this is an easy side trip. The Maritime Museum is within walking distance of many downtown hotels and just a stroll up Harbor Drive from Seaport Village and other waterside attractions. By the time you reach the beautiful old Amtrak station, you'll be drawn to the enormous white sails.

That billowing sight is the Star of India, the museum's star attraction. The three-masted barque was constructed on Britain's Isle of Man in 1863 as the Euterpe, a wood-and-iron trader fit for the open seas. After a few hair-raising voyages — it was heavily damaged in a storm off the coast of India — the ship specialized in hauling people and freight from Britain to New Zealand.

It was built for speed, was never fitted with backup engines, and managed to hold its own while the sea lanes were increasingly dominated by motorized ships. Its fastest passage to New Zealand was a mere 21 days.

Different adventures followed. Between 1900 and 1920, rechristened the Star of India, it hauled fishermen and supplies from Oakland, Calif., to the Bering Sea, returning with tons of canned Alaskan salmon. Having outlived its usefulness, it was acquired in 1926 by the organization that runs the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. After decades of decaying on the San Diego docks, the ship was restored and made seaworthy in 1976.

How seaworthy? It goes out two days a year — to keep its Guinness Book of Records status as "oldest active sailing ship" — manned by a volunteer crew.

The sails, unfurled from their trio of masts and rising 21 feet, gleam bleached-white in the sun; the rigging looks fresh and tight; the wooden decks scrubbed, the wheel and capstan polished. The stairway down from the main deck has a Victorian elegance, and the officers' polished-wood quarters and mess area have the feel of a floating B&B, not a rough-and-tumble freighter. Quite grand for an old lady that circled the globe 21 times and was once trapped in ice off the coast of Alaska.

The good looks can be deceiving, though. The below-deck hold, devoid of cargo or passengers — doesn't convey how much the ship could transport nor how miserable life was for people packed like cattle on their long voyage to a new land.

But knowledgeable volunteers who swarm this ship and the others here are quick to tell you all you need to know and then some.

The dock to the Star of India takes you past the HMS Surprise, the full-size replica of a 24-gun British frigate from the times of the Napoleonic Wars. It was built in Nova Scotia in 1970 and eventually became a U.S. Coast Guard training vessel and PR photo-op on the East Coast. Decades later, it was spotted by 20th Century Fox, which bought it and sailed it to Southern California through the Panama Canal when the studio was laying plans for filming "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" — based on the swashbuckling best-sellers by novelist Patrick O'Brian..

The main deck is the star — where Captain Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and others headed when scenes called for all hands aft.

The obligatory figurehead perches on the prow; the ship's name is boastfully painted in gold on the stern. Walking it from end to end, below shadows cast by the sailcloth and webs of rigging, your imagination is ready for adventure.

Which is more than the ship physically is. The HMS Surprise floats but does not sail.

But the vessel's magic isn't lost on Crowe. In 2006 — two years after it docked there — he came aboard with some friends: He wanted to show them the ship he commanded.

Boarding the B-39 Soviet submarine is utterly different. You must pass through a Hula-Hoop-size opening on a land barrier to gain entrance: Space on the early '70s attack sub is so limited that the museum can't risk tubby tourists getting stuck within it.

The sub was decommissioned in 1994 and passed through Finnish and Canadian hands; a decade later it ended up there.

You don't understand how short 300 feet can be until you climb down the hatch into a slim thicket of institutional pipes, wires, levers and spigots — it resembles a dingy clarinet turned inside-out. Torpedoes with "CCCP" (translation from Russian: USSR) line the sides, with work stations and bunks wedged in here and there. This sub was diesel-electric powered, so it had that diesel odor and was louder than heck inside.

It was considered large in its day, but with 24 torpedoes and a crew of 78, every space was in use. The captain and the political officer had private cabins, each the side of a coat closet. Common seamen shared "hot bunks": When you woke up to start the workday, a crew member coming off duty would take the bed you kept warm. Only the paper sheets were changed occasionally. (Note: U.S. subs had "hot bunks," too.)

The B-39's "Foxtrot" class was made outdated by the Soviet's "Typhoon"-class subs — the ones in the Tom Clancy novel-turned-movie "The Hunt for Red October." But subs such as this one were front and center, submerged and on the attack, in Clancy's unfilmed "Red Storm Rising" thriller.

The B-39 undoubtedly shadowed the American's Midway, now parked several piers down the San Diego waterfront.

Among the visitors to the B-39 were a group of Russian tourists who had served on it.

The conning tower can't be toured these days, so its innards have been modified so visitors can still see through its periscope in the tiny control room. It points to the Midway, 500 yards south.

The Star of India transports you into the seafaring life of the 1800s. Think of it as a chance to step into a Joseph Conrad novel. - John Bordsen//MCT