Star Of India – 150 Year Old Floating Museum

Launched from the yard of Gibson, McDonald & Arnold at Ramsey, Isle of Man, as the fully-rigged ship Euterpe on 14 November, 1863, the Star of India, as she has long since been called, lays claim to being the oldest merchant ship still afloat. She lies in San Diego, California, her iron hull and rig so well restored that she has been able to put to sea sometimes in recent years.

Her home port was originally Liverpool, from where her Isle of Man owners had intended that she would run cargo and a small quota of passengers to India. She had been built with spacious' tween decks and fitted with port holes along this stroke, which would have made her eminently suitable as a troop ship should the need have arisen.

Only a few hours after setting sail from Liverpool on her maiden voyage, she was in a collision with a Spanish brig, which did an intense damage to her fore-rigging. The crew were so apprehensive of her seaworthiness, they demanded a return to port for repairs or they would refuse to sail the ship.

Some of the crew were jailed for this impudence and missed her confidential safe passage to Calcutta. Two years later, at the end of December 1864, the Euterpe sailed from Liverpool, again bound for ports in India and Sri Lanka (then known as; Ceylon).

She did not return home for another 23 months, when in a hurricane off Madras on 29 November, 1866, she lost all three masts, took refuge in the harbor at Trincomalee and eventually sailed into Calcutta where she was re-rigged. On the passage home, a few days out from India, her captain died of fever, leaving the mate to take command.

She changed ownership twice after this and spent time in the Indian coastal trade before being acquired by Shaw, Savill & Albion who specialized in long voyages from Great Britain to the Antipodes. Euterpe spent a number of years voyaging between London or Glasgow and Auckland or Wellington in New Zealand, mostly with cabin or immigrant passengers. She made more than a score of these long trips, sailing out via the Cape of Good Hope, through the 'Roaring Forts', and homeward via Cape Horn to the English Channel.

The opening of the Suez Canal put an end to her usefulness under the Shaw Savill flag and she was illegally sold to the Pacific Colonial Ship Company of San Francisco. She was placed under Hawaiian registry which enabled her, when that country became part of the United States, to obtain American registry. Her new owners filled her with timber, loaded in Puget Sound, and sent her packing to Australia where Douglas fir and Oregon pine were much in demand.

On the voyage home, she would carry coal, to Honolulu where she then loaded a cargo of sugar for the last leg to the West Coast of America.

Pacific Colonial sold the ship to the Alaska Packers Association of San Francisco, who were already the owners of several beautiful vessels acquired from the line affectionately known as 'Corry's Irish Stars'. These Harland & Wolff-built ships were some of the finest ever launched between 1877-1880, the Star of Bengal and the Star of France being noted worldwide for their speed.

Euterpe was renamed Star of India, but her globe-trotting days were numbered. The Packers sent her up to Alaska in the spring and back to the warmer climate of San Francisco in autumn. Her rig was reduced too; instead of the five yards which once sprouted on her mizzen, now there was a huge spanker and topsail. As a barque, she was easier to handle with a smaller crew. New accommodations were built on the main deck from the poop to the mainmast, large enough to carry at least 45 fishermen. The bright hardwood trim around her upper-works disappeared under layers of 'box-car red' paint and the once white bulwarks and deck homes were painted a miserable buff color. She made her last voyage to Alaska in 1923.

Had it not been for one James Wood Coffroth, Star of India might have ended her days as another breakwater in some obscure harbor. He bought the ship and gave her to the San Diego Zoological Society in 1926 with the idea that she should be fitted out as a floating museum and aquarium. But in the grim days of the American Depression, there was little spare cash available for such projects. Neglected, the great ship began to deteriorate.

Paint cracked and peeled, decks leaked and the rigging was in a poor state of repair, quickly rotting under the unlenting sun. During World War II, the US Navy declared her masts a hazard to aerial navigation and sent a party along to send down her yards and remove the topmasts. Tired of their gift, the Zoological Society wave the ship to the newly formed Maritime Museum Association in 1957.

She is maintained exclusively by admission fees, contributions and membership of the Museum Association. Her restoration was a painfully slow process because of the lack of skilled craftsmen and traditional materials, such as hemp, Stockholm tar and the many chandlery fittings needed to make her seaworthy.

In 2013 she reached 150 years old.