In typical years, thousands of people climb aboard ships docked in the San Diego Bay and let their minds be whisked away to a time when tall mast ships ruled the seas. But this isn’t a typical year for the Star of India or the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
“Basically, we’re coasting through this period like so many organizations are,” said museum president Ray Ashley, Ph.D.
His museum has only been open six days since the pandemic forced California to close many businesses and pulled the gangways from the museum’s ships.
“We pretty much had to stop everything in its tracks,” said Dr. Ashley.
He said the museum’s operating budget instantly dropped to 20%. They had to lay off 80% of their paid staff over the following few weeks.
“We’ll hire them all back if we can start things back up again, but that was a big deal,” sighed Ashley.
In the meantime, Ashley said the pandemic has allowed the museum to get a phenomenal amount of work done. Without tourists, families, and classrooms constantly flowing on and off the ships in the collection, Ashley said the staff has been able to conduct several maintenance and refurbishment projects that sometimes take months, even years, to complete.
“Well, we try to find silver linings, you know,” he smiled. “It’s not much of one, but there aren’t many. So, that’s a good one to have.”
Volunteers are shouldering much of the work. Tuesday, one volunteer was staining the wood on the Star of India. Another was mending a sail while hiding in the shade aboard the steam ferry Berkeley. Two other volunteers sanded parts of the Californian and San Salvador.
Dr. Ashley said they’ve been able to sustain themselves during the pandemic by relying on financial reserves, grants, and the occasional donations that still sail in.
“Like any other non-profit, a good portion of our budget depends upon donations,” he said.
In the meantime, he added the museum is trying to find creative and safe ways to allow visitors to explore their collection. He said the new Portside Pier right next door will also be a great draw once the pandemic ends.