By Kai Oliver-Kurtin
With humble beginnings as a small ferry company 100 years ago, Flagship Cruises & Events is now one of San Diego’s largest cruise companies. Still offering ferry services today between Downtown San Diego and Coronado, they have since expanded to include harbor tours, whale watching excursions, brunch and dinner cruises, and turbo-charged jet boat rides.
To celebrate this milestone, a free centennial anniversary party will be held on May 2 from 2 – 6 p.m. aboard the Flagship fleet, docked along the Embarcadero at 990 N. Harbor Drive. Guests can enjoy free Patriot jet boat rides throughout the afternoon, live music, commemorative photos, light food, and samples from craft breweries and wineries.
A limited number of party guests will be able to sign up for a free harbor cruise on the Quiet Heart yacht that evening. A children’s activity area will also offer face painting, balloon making and a magician.
“The party is basically an open house to introduce our fleet to San Diego,” said Brad Engel, Flagship’s vice president. “All the boats will be open for the public to check out, and all rides are on a first come, first served basis that day.”
Engel’s father David purchased the fleet in 1986 — then called the Star & Crescent Boat Company — with his brothers Herb and Art, who remains CEO today. The company changed its name in 1990 to San Diego Harbor Excursion, and then to its current name in 2011.
“They thought the company was a good business opportunity,” Engel said. “There was lots of potential and they were already doing dinner cruises, but that’s where the expansion was — into evening cruises and corporate events, in addition to harbor and ferry cruises.”
The Engel family established a shipyard in San Diego in the 1970s, and owned and operated several shipyards in major West Coast ports. They sold their ship repair business in 1997 and moved from large ships to boats. Today they’re still in the boatyard business and own two local facilities.
Flagship’s history touches several aspects of the waterfront including shipbuilding, tugboat operations, salvage, shipping, sport fishing and, of course, ferry and cruise services.
“The ferry has been a big portion of the company,” Engel said. “We stopped service after the Coronado Bridge was complete [in 1969] because they were required to pay off the bridge before ferry service could continue. Once it was paid off [in 1987] and the toll was removed, we started up again.”
In 1915, the Star Boat Company — the operator of San Diego’s first harbor excursion vessel — merged with its main competitor, Crescent Boat Company, becoming the Star & Crescent Boat Company. The combined fleet included 16 ships that traveled to Roseville and Imperial Beach, California; Fort Rosecrans; Tijuana, Mexico; and the Coronado Islands, and offered harbor tours and water taxis.
Ferry service to North Island began in 1918 at the price of five cents per ride, referred to as the “nickel-snatcher.” Later in 1935, popular attractions included warships, tuna clippers, and log rafts known as Benson Rafts that provided lumber.
In 1949, commercial hunting of gray whales was banned. Six years later, the first whale watching tours began in San Diego and for just $1, passengers could take boat excursions to get up-close views of whales. In 1958, the City Council granted Star & Crescent a license for dining and dancing while cruising the bay, thus the first nighttime harbor tours were launched.
Today, the dinner and brunch cruises are the most popular among the dining cruises, and the Patriot jet boat, the newest vessel in the Flagship fleet, has been a crowd-pleaser among thrill seekers. The high-speed jet boat is the only one of its kind in San Diego.
Out of them all, the ferry rides carry the largest number of passengers, followed by harbor tours. On average, Flagship carries over 600,000 ferry passengers annually. For the first time last year, they carried over 1 million passengers across the entire fleet. Their guests are a fairly even split between locals and tourists.
“Since my family took over, we’ve updated the fleet with new boats and moved into markets we weren’t previously in, including private charters, corporate charters and weddings,” Engel said.
Flagship is one of San Diego’s largest cruise companies, and the only one locally- and family-owned. Their facility has always been located along Harbor Drive near Broadway Pier but has grown with the development of the harbor, and was remodeled two years ago to add new state-of-the-art docks.
“We’re always looking at new sources and products and continue to freshen our fleet,” Engel said. “That’s always a priority.”
For more information about the anniversary party or Flagship’s many cruise and ferry options, visit flagshipsd.com.
—Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a local freelance writer who enjoys covering events, restaurant news, culture and entertainment. Contact her at email@example.com.