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Five Best Boat Excursions in SoCal

Watch Huell learn about wooden boats on "California's Gold."

We spend so much time in southern California's interior that it’s possible to not really grasp its coastal character, where bluffs and cliffs give way to caves and sand and, finally, the tide.

Judging only by maps, GPS, and freeway signs, it’s not always entirely clear whether you’re traveling north… or west.

And to understand life in SoCal, you’ve got to become acquainted with more than just its deserts, mountains, valleys, and beaches. Sometimes, you’ve got to get off of the land and onto the sea.

Whether you’re interested in learning more about global military history, local coastal defense, or international trade relationships, here are five of our best seaworthy excursions – some of which are aboard some pretty historic ships.

Sometimes, it’s better to see SoCal from the deck of a boat rather than from behind a windshield.

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1. The Wild Goose, Newport Beach

Registered as a historic landmark, you can actually take a cruise on the yacht that was John Wayne’s home-away-from-home from 1962 to 1979, though its history goes back long before that. The Wild Goose was built in 1942 for the U.S. Navy as a World War II Minesweeper, the USS YMS 328. She was only in active duty in Alaska for about three years and got mothballed in 1946. Starting in 1948, she changed hands – and names – a couple of times before The Duke bought her for $110,000. After that, he made some dramatic customizations – including raising ceilings to accommodate his tall 6'4" stature. And thankfully, the owners after Wayne (a lawyer, a banker, and the City of L.A.) wanted to keep it mostly as he’d left it. Now, the 136-foot boat is currently owned and operated by Hornblower Cruises, which continues to keep it in pristine condition. His Master Stateroom is much as he left it, with original furnishings – including the bed he actually slept in with his third and final wife, Pilar. Much of it is unmistakably both western rustic and Hollywood glamour. Another stateroom on the Middle Deck has been converted into a library, which houses a poker table that actually did belong to Wayne, though it wasn't originally located on this boat.

The Wild Goose gives a pretty luxurious ride. You barely feel anything as you glide through the Newport Bay, thanks to its two G.M.C. Cleveland 8-268-A straight eight cylinder diesel engines with a total of 1,000 shaft horsepower. The Wild Goose's wheelhouse is largely original, including the wheel itself and a couple other pieces of vintage nautical equipment. That means you can walk around and explore the public areas, which are filled with paintings and archival photographs in tribute to The Duke’s memory, without spilling your drink or getting seasick. Be sure that when you need to hit the head, you visit the Red Witch and Poseidon restrooms. And keep your eye on the view, as well – especially when The Wild Goose passes the house on the bay that John Wayne once called home. Although the yacht is available for private charter, it sets sail every year for brunch and dinner cruises in celebration of John Wayne’s birthday. Although the exact date is May 26, celebratory cruises occur from late April to mid-June.

wild goose
Sandi Hemmerlein 
wild goose
Sandi Hemmerlein 

2. LAMI TopSail, San Pedro

The Port of L.A. is home to two historic wooden brigantines – a.k.a. “tall ships” – that can be chartered for private parties, and the proceeds go to a good cause. The Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s TopSail Youth Program, established in 1992, provides both education and adventure upon each of the Official Tall Ships of the City of Los Angeles, the Exy Johnson and Irving Johnson, for kids interested in maritime and STEM careers – particularly those who are considered “at risk,” at a disadvantage from an economic or educational standpoint, and could benefit from some team-building and leadership experience. Both of the tall ships are considered “teaching boats,” so most of their time spent off-shore is on a family cruise or en route to a kids’ camp excursion.

However, there are opportunities for the general public to come aboard and see the cannons (sorry, no gunpowder) up close and watch the crew raise and lower the sails on these 110-foot boats. Besides the private charters, you can also join one of the public cruises, like this year’s Mother’s Day Appreciation Sail. A word of caution, however: With the current demolition and construction going on at Ports O’Call, give yourself plenty of time to arrive, secure a parking spot, and find the ships at Berth 78 – the location of which is neither intuitive nor sequential, and following the signs will get you horribly lost. As well, since life at sea can be a bit unpredictable, bring layers in case your sail takes longer and returns later than expected.

tall ships
Sandi Hemmerlein 

                                 

tallships
Sandi Hemmerlein 

                         

tall ships
Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. Maritime Museum, San Diego

First of all, if you’re even remotely interested in boats, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is an absolute must-visit. Its gift shop and main entry is located on an 1898 steam ferryboat, The Berkeley, which notoriously carried thousands of San Franciscans to safety during the 1906 earthquake and fires. Among its fleet you’ll also find two submarines (including the Cold War-era Dolphin, which nearly launched a nuclear attack on U.S. forces when discovered off the shores of Cuba) and “the world’s oldest active sailing ship,” the Star of India, one of the earliest ships to be built out of iron instead of wood and in many ways the centerpiece of the museum.

But the real highlight of the Maritime Museum is how you can experience these vessels beyond the static displays – because no less than fiveOn the Water Adventures” offer the opportunity to actually experience one of the ships as a passenger. Whether you’re interested in exploring San Diego’s Naval history aboard the museum’s legendary "swift boat" (a.k.a. Patrol Craft Fast) from the Vietnam era or heading out to sea on the Official Tall Ship of California (aptly named the Californian), these watery excursions are as adventurous as they are historic. And you can take a quick jaunt to try out your sea legs for as little as 45 minutes or embark on a daysail for as long as three or four hours. One of the more unusual offerings is a journey aboard the San Salvador, a 2015 replica of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 16th-century Spanish galleon – something that very few people (living or dead) have ever experienced. Tickets are available now for the second and last Saturdays of the month through the end of June. 

san salvador
San Salvador | Sandi Hemmerlein 
san salvador
San Salvador | Sandi Hemmerlein 
star of india
Star of India | Sandi Hemmerlein 

4. S.S. Lane Victory, San Pedro

At present time, the S.S. Lane Victory is moored at the end of Miner Street near Berth 49 between the East and West Channels of the L.A. Harbor in San Pedro. But while its cruise schedule is currently suspended, you can still explore the historic and heroic vessel while its volunteers can get it back up to code and out on the water again. Originally launched in 1945 and built right in L.A., this National Historic Landmark entered service at the end of World War II but stuck around to serve in the Korean War, when she evacuated more than 7,000 Korean civilians (including one baby born on board). She then served in the Vietnam Conflict from 1966 to 1970.

The S.S. Lane Victory wasn’t just a warship, though – she also served in times of peace as part of the Merchant Marine fleet, transporting goods and services. And, of course, since being permanently relocated to L.A., she’s become somewhat of a Hollywood starlet, having appeared in everything from "Pearl Harbor," "GI Jane," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to "MacGyver," "The X-Files," "Cold Case," and "NCIS: Los Angeles." That’s because her bridge, gun placements, cargo holds, and interior have all been restored – and most of it can be seen on a self-guided tour. However, say hello to the vets and volunteers on board, who’ll gladly show you around, tell you lots of stories, and maybe even open a special door or two just for you. Be sure to bring a dollar for the chance to ring the bell. And the more you can visit and donate now, the quicker she’ll get back on the water!

lane victory
Sandi Hemmerlein 
lane victory
Sandi Hemmerlein 
lane victory
Sandi Hemmerlein 

5. Harbor Cruise, Long Beach

Along the docks near Shoreline Village, next to the Long Beach marina, there are a variety of boats you can take out onto the water, from little powerboats to sailboats, giant yachts, and even a riverboat. Newbies can set sail on one of the relatively brief Harbor Breeze Cruises, which depart at regular intervals from 12 to 3 p.m. both weekdays and weekends. While aboard the 85-foot Kristina or the 62-foot Harbor King, you’ll depart from Dock 2 and head towards the Long Beach Harbor Lighthouse, turning about face to approach the Queen Mary "floating hotel," and out into the open sea. There, you’ll get closer than ever to our sunbathing sea lions and our manmade oil islands. But, of course, the Long Beach harbor is huge – and the Pacific Ocean even huger -- so you’ll only get a short, 45-minute snippet of what it has to offer.

If you’re looking for more than a glimpse of the gantries and a dabble in the derricks, you can also take a free, 90-minute boat tour through the Port of Long Beach (second only to the Port of L.A. as busiest port in the nation) from May through September. Each month’s tours are available by lottery only, registration for which opens on the first Monday of the month prior (so, for July, you can begin to register on June 4). You can take a morning tour on either the first or third Saturday of the month, but the sunset tour on the second and fourth Thursday is a particularly special opportunity to see the freighters, cranes, shipping containers, and Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement project with the sun setting and day giving way to twilight. You can find these free harbor tours departing from Dock 9, next to Parker’s Lighthouse.

long beach harbor
Harbor Breeze Cruises | Sandi Hemmerlein 
long beach harbor
Harbor Breeze Cruises | Sandi Hemmerlein ​
long beach port
Port of Long Beach | Sandi Hemmerlein ​

 

long beach port
Port of Long Beach | Sandi Hemmerlein ​

 

long beach port
Port of Long Beach | Sandi Hemmerlein ​

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