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San Diego Bay: Make your own three-hour tour
A 26-foot Searay, right, is moored alongside rental boats of all sizes - photo by Photo Contributed

WHERE: The San Diego waterfront or “Big Bay” is the stretch of water between downtown San Diego and Coronado Island.

WHAT: Rental boats are available downtown by the Marriott, on Coronado Island and in Mission Bay. You can rent power boats, sailboats and personal watercraft.

WHEN: Year-round. The bay is a little less busy in the winter and the weather is still reasonably warm most of the time.

WHY: It’s a chance to see the San Diego skyline and harbor from a different perspective and, at the same time, experience boating. No licenses or certification is required for any of the boats, although experience is required for the 26-foot cabin cruisers and sailboats.

HOW: For more information on boat rentals in San Diego, go to or phone 888-834-2628. Many renters bring friends or family to split the cost, which ranges from $99 an hour for a 16-foot runabout (four people) to $350 an hour for a cabin cruiser (up to 8 people), two-hour minimum. Reservations are advised for weekends.

If all things nautical hold some fascination for you, the San Diego waterfront offers a special way to get up close and personal with the many maritime activities on this intriguing bay. Just step aboard your rental boat and you’ll be the skipper of your own “three-hour tour.”

Actually you can see the bay in less time than that but, just like Gilligan, you’ll be setting off on an exotic day cruise you won’t soon forget. Unlike Gilligan, there’s not much risk of getting stranded – your rental agreement doesn’t allow you to head for open water.

There really is no need for open water when you have a bay that is frequented by fishermen, Navy ships, tour boats, historic sailing vessels, world-class racing boats and assorted marine life. A cruise on San Diego Bay is like a kaleidoscope of waterfront activity, all savored from your special vantage point right on the water.

We rented our boat from Seaforth Boat Rentals Downtown, which is located on the docks by the Marriott Hotel and just a few yards from the city’s popular Seaport Village. With boating experience, we were able to take out a 26-foot Searay power boat – but no experience at all is required for any of the smaller power boats which are generally between 16 and 21 feet.

Seaforth caters to a lot of families who find these power boats are an easy way to take the kids out on the water to see the San Diego sights. With two other locations in San Diego, the company also offers jet skis and water ski boat rentals on Mission Bay as well as larger power and sailboats at both the downtown and Coronado locations. The sailboats require a brief test of the renter’s knowledge and people who rent the larger sailboats fill out a boating resume. But even those with zero boating experience can rent the smaller power boats and see how well they like being out on the water.

For us, this was no-muss, no-fuss boating. Instead of trailering our boat, launching it, gassing it, putting it on the trailer again and trailering it back home, it was just get in the boat and go. The Seaforth dock attendant did take a few minutes to go over the boat with us to make certain we were familiar with the controls, gauges, engine and other features of the boat – but 15 minutes of that and we were ready to cruise the bay.

And what a bay it is. Just motoring out from the dock, the San Diego skyline all of sudden took on entirely new picture-postcard look. Downtown buildings glistened in the morning sun and the clear blue sky reminded us why we enjoy San Diego so much. Soon we were cruising along the Seaport Village shoreline until we came upon the USS Midway, the famous aircraft carrier that is now a museum on the San Diego waterfront. From our waterfront vantage point, the ship looked even more impressive than it does from the dock.

When you’re in San Diego, be sure to visit the USS Midway – or the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum as it now is officially known. The Midway was the world’s largest warship when it was launched in 1945 and remained so for more than a decade. Named for the famous Battle of Midway, the carrier did not actually see service in that battle, but did serve in combat during the Vietnam War and was one of six carriers sent to fight Iraq during Desert Storm. The ship also played a vital role in many historical achievements – the first rocket fired from a ship was fired from the Midway, and the first jet takeoff from an aircraft carrier was made from this very flight deck.

We found the Midway to offer just the right balance between a structured, orderly display and one that is more individualized to fit each visitor’s particular interests and time available to tour the museum.

Our cruise took us just a little further down the waterfront, where we viewed the historic sailing ships docked at the San Diego Maritime Museum. On this particular day, we were in for a special treat – two old sailing vessels were out in the bay having a mock sea battle – just like in the movies. We enjoyed our front row seats right on the water.

San Diego Bay – also known as the Big Bay – is loaded with these kinds of special attractions that all seem just that much more interesting from the water. Next it was Harbor Island and Shelter Island and, in the same area, America’s Cup Harbor which was home to the America’s Cup from 1988-1995. Adding even more significance to that was the encounter we had later in our voyage with a true racing yacht just like the ones seen vying for the America’s Cup.

Across the bay on Coronado Island are numerous parks as well as some docks where we could put in to take a brief shore walk. The Coronado Ferry Landing has an excellent selection of unique shops, eateries and galleries and is within easy walking distance of downtown Coronado.

We found it fascinating to just stay on the boat and continue to marvel at the sites including the newer nuclear-powered aircraft carriers docked at Naval Station North Island. Military buffs will find San Diego Bay a real treat – naval vessels are always coming and going, and military aircraft take off and land at Coronado all the time. Every once and awhile we were buzzed by a Coast Guard helicopter that seemed to be on some sort of patrol. There’s never a dull moment out on the Big Bay.

Another local landmark that takes on an entirely new look from the water: the Coronado Bay Bridge. Motoring under this massive span brings new appreciation for what it took to build one of San Diego’s most recognizable features.

Sea life is another part of the San Diego Bay cruising experience – try throwing some scraps to the seagulls and you will have hundreds of birds trailing your vessel as if it was one of the many commercial fishing trawlers that you also see on San Diego Bay. Sea lions sun themselves on buoys or rocks or whatever they can find to stretch out on. Dolphins also are seen in the bay.

After about 2 ½ hours, we had seen a good number of the bay’s attractions and were ready to return our boat. The Seaforth dock attendant took a quick look at the boat to make sure everything was in still good condition and we were off the boat even more quickly than we had gotten on.

With a little time left on this bright sunny day, we strolled over to Seaport Village where we enjoyed live music by a flamenco quartet and snacked on ice cream and popcorn as we browsed some of the village shops. Seaport Village is a favorite of both tourists and locals who enjoy the breezy walkways along the shoreline, lively street vendors and a generally festive atmosphere that takes full advantage of San Diego’s weather and waterfront scenery.