The Women Volunteers of the San Salvador

by on February 10, 2014 · 2 comments

in Culture, History, Labor, Ocean Beach, San Diego, The Widder Curry, Women's Rights

Eager volunteers work long hours recreating Cabrillo’s galleon at Spanish Landing


Some of the Women of the San Salvador in a meeting with our own reporter, Judi Curry –
Antonieta, Barbara, Lynne, Sherry, Judi, Summer, Sarah, Kate, Eileen, Irene. (Photo by Jerry Soto)

Editor: We covered the building of the San Salvador by San Diego volunteers back in May of 2012 and posted a photo essay of the wonderful reconstruction of the Spanish galleon.  Here, Judi Curry continues our coverage with a special focus on the women volunteers, the Women of the San Salvador.

By Judi Curry

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is building a $5 million replica of San Salvador, the galleon Cabrillo guided here in 1542 when he became the first European to explore what is today known as San Diego Bay. The museum has dedicated a construction site for the ship which was donated by the San Diego Port District on public land at Spanish Landing, 2 miles from where its main collection of historic vessels are docked on North Harbor Drive.

Thirty-five months have passed since the keel was first laid in March of 2011. This three-masted galleon, totaling 88 feet of beautiful wood will weigh 200,000 tons when completed. Plans call for the ship to open as a paid attraction in 2014, when it joins the museum’s other ships at the nearby embarcadero.

Who is building this large replica of the San Salvador, you ask? There are some ten paid workers, and many volunteers that devote a goodly part of their week to watching history taking place. According to the volunteer coordinator, Eric, there are over 70 volunteers that regularly spend at least one day a week working on the project. (There are other volunteers that work when it fits into their schedule.

Three of the volunteers have devoted over 2000 hours since the building began and there are over 15 that have volunteered over 1000 hours.

judy 3

Glenna (with sunglasses on her head) and Irene. Picture by Jerry Soto

When one thinks of building an 88 foot ship the image of rough and tough men immediately comes to mind. The muscled, mustached and bearded male of the movies, with penetrating blue eyes and blond, shaggy hair has been the stereotype for years.

Well, San Diego is not Hollywood, and you should not be surprised to find out that there are many different people working on this project. Nor should you be surprised to find out that many of these volunteers are women. Beautiful women. Young women; middle age women; even older women. Women with a variety of backgrounds that might even surprise the current sociologists .

I had the great privilege to meet some of these women today. I want to share some of the things they told me; some of the things that may whet your appetite to join them. These women were so tuned in to what they were doing, that even I am thinking about volunteering some of my time to be a part of history in the making.

Let’s talk about Irene, Lynne and Eileen for a minute. These women are not youngsters anymore but the energy that they exhibited made me very jealous. They echoed all of the women at the meeting today when they said that they sweep, sand, paint, sand, paint, sweep, etc. (You get the picture.) But…they also mix epoxy, make plugs, use the sander, the skill saws, the fork lifts, etc. Lynne has close to 900 hours of volunteering on the San Salvador. She also volunteers three days a week on the “Californian” – another ship that is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Eileen lives in Jamul; comes in once a week to volunteer. She also spoke about the wonderful atmosphere volunteering on the ship. She works on all aspects of ship; anything she is asked to do is exciting. She said that all the men are willing to teach her what to do and has never felt any discrimination. Irene has almost 500 hours of volunteering under her belt. She, too, spoke of the “sweeping” but has graduated to using all the equipment available in the building of the ship. She was a scientist before retiring.

Izzy, a newcomer of three weeks, said that she is spending most of her time vacuuming using a special type of vacuum but that she loves it. It is interesting to note that she worked as an Engineer before volunteering on the ship. She said that she appreciates that there is no stress, no jockeying for positions; and for her a perfect working situation.

Then there is Sarah who said she had never held any equipment in her hand larger than a pen until she began volunteering on the ship. Today was her 4th day and she said she feels like she is “sucked in”. She loves coming into the boat yard and knowing that she will be productive before she leaves later in the day.


Izzy, Sherry and Judi Picture by Jerry Soto

Glenna started volunteering on November 13, 2013. She was given the first job everyone is given when they begin – sweeping – but has now graduated to gluing and electric sanding and other jobs as needed. She heard about the San Salvador on a KPBS program narrated by Huell Howser and it piqued her interest. She said she has avoided boats all her life but this experience is so exciting that she has even signed up for the “Training crew” course and expects that she will be sailing around the Bay after the launch. She was a systems analyst before retiring.

Antonieta has been visiting the San Salvador for some time. In December she stopped working officially and has been volunteering ever since. Interesting enough, she was a licensed custom broker before stopping work. She does not want to think of it as “retiring” in that she might go back to work someday. She enjoys rolling oakum and supporting her husband’s photo-taking of the ship. She finds that she does many different jobs in the yard.

Barbara greeted me when I arrived at the boat yard. She was very friendly, and we had a nice discussion before the interviews began. She is a librarian; currently still working as well as volunteering. She is enjoying learning how a ship is built, from the keel up. She talked about the camaraderie amongst the volunteers, both male and female. She said she has always felt very welcomed by everyone; the commonality of goals makes the working place a happy one. She gave an example of friends that are working on the Ph.D’s that have told her that what she is doing is much more intensive than what they are doing. They know what is necessary to obtain their degrees; she is learning something new every day. There was almost an enviousness coming from her friends.

Summer has been volunteering for a few months. She is a vet tech at an animal hospital in Pacific Beach and one of the younger volunteers. So much of what she is learning at the boat yard is new to her. She loves it. While everyone was feasting on the wonderful lunch that was provided for the workers today, she was sitting in a chair all by herself rolling oakum. She said she enjoyed it so much she just didn’t want to put it down.

San Salvador, February 7th 2014. Picture by Jerry Soto

San Salvador, February 7th
2014. Picture by Jerry Soto

Lynne talked about the physical that all the volunteers must be able to pass before they can work on the ship. It consists of pulling a bucket of rocks that weighs 70# straight up on a pulley – hand over hand – and bringing it down again without smashing it through the deck! She passed – and the entire crew buzzed about her feat. She is very petite, yet able to handle her own in any situation. The happiness that she was able to pass the “test” is proof of the camaraderie throughout the entire yard.

The women spoke about how many of the men appreciate their being there because of being of a smaller size they can do things that bigger men cannot do. Traditionally the ladies have smaller hands and can reach into small areas that are difficult for a male to access; likewise, because some of the women are small enough to get into spaces that the men cannot get into, the help they give is appreciated by all.

Sherry, who sat next to me during the interview, was a font of information. A former junior high school teacher, she was aware of backgrounds of most of the women I interviewed. Through her hasty whisperings, I found out that Irene was a member of the ski patrol; Lynne was a life guard, and I missed finding out about Barbara and the “hobbit.” Besides volunteering for the Maritime Museum, Sherry has done a lot of volunteering in Old Town. (Have you ever seen the characters that “freeze” in a position and you cannot tell if it is a live person or a dummy? Sherry was one of those people that kept you guessing.)

To a woman, they all expressed thanks to their volunteer leader Eric for making them feel so much as home. They said that none of them ever had to do something they did not think they were capable of performing, and performing well. Eric understands what their fears are and works around them without pressure.

The feeling that this is “an outdoor classroom” was prevalent among all of the ladies. Sherry said that she has learned that there are different tools for every job and how they are used depends on the job.

Nancy in one of those "hard to reach" spaces on the ship.

Nancy in one of those “hard to reach” spaces on the ship.

Nancy was not able to attend our meeting but she sent a note re: her feelings about her experiences with the San Salvador. She has volunteered over 500 hours! She says, “ . . . I was showing the ship’s progress to my mother, when Eric, one of the workers, suggested I volunteer. With no skills I thought I could paint and sweep sawdust. I was elated when on the first day I was invited by Brian, one of the ship wrights to work on the ship, helping him install a wooden platform on a water tank.”

She has had the experience of helping in pulling up 1000 pound blocks of lead for ballast, using an engine lift. After a few months she was in the bilge chiseling a mortise for a tenon she realized just how much she had learned. Early on she thought of the ship as “my tree house.” Because she was thin and agile, she could retrieve tools dropped by the ship wrights. Now she enjoys “spelunking” through various openings.”

Like the other women, she stated how much she appreciated that the guys don’t coddle the women and let everyone work to their capabilities and interest. When taught how to use a circular saw she was pleasantly surprised when the “sound” changed and three workers were instantly by her side making sure that everything was ok.

She has been taught how to roll oakum, and how to pound cotton and oakum into the deck. She has been taught how to make custom bolts. After driving the forklift a bit, the museum had her take a forklift safety training class when she obtained a license, good through 2016. Sometimes she even has her own “volunteers” working with her.

Perhaps she best sums up the experiences all the women by stating, “I started out working with strangers and now have life long friends. I expected just to paint, and learned how to drive a forklift. It has been a wonderful experience. My ship will always be the San Salvador.”

It is hard to not be enthusiastic about this endeavor. The goal for everyone is the same; It is seldom in a life-time that one is put in a perfect setting. This might just be one of those situations. Go check it out – tours are available. Who knows? – You may find yourself with a broom in your hand.

Photos (except Nancy) by Jerry Soto

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

BDH February 10, 2014 at 9:44 am

Great article! Thanks. Everyone that helps finish the ship is building a classroom for the future, celebrating the past. Well done to all!

You may want to downsize the part about the size of the vessel. Two aircraft carriers weigh about 200,000 tons. I think this one is a bit lighter. Maybe 100 tons or 200,000 pounds.


judi curry February 10, 2014 at 11:40 am

You are right about the weight. I got carried away with the zero’s. It is 200 tons.

And one other correction – Lynne is the science person and Irene is the IT person.


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