July 24, 2021

Photo Essay: Paying Tribute Aboard A Restored Navy Swift Boat, the Only Vietnam Memorial You Can Ride

With no plans with family or friends on Memorial Day Weekend this year, I jumped at the chance to drive down to San Diego and take the annual Swift Boat Naval History tour of the Bay with the Maritime Museum

The "Swift Boat"—a.k.a. Patrol Craft, Fast (PCF-816)—is the only active Navy "fast boat" of its kind currently carrying passengers. Although it resides at the museum, it's currently owned by the Swift Boat Sailor Association, a conglomerate of vets who manned or otherwise supported the swift boats assigned to Coastal Squadron One at the United States Amphibious Base in Coronado, California during the Vietnam Conflict (1965-1973).

This 50-foot aluminum craft was manufactured in 1968 and used in the San Diego Bay from 1968-9 to train sailors about to be deployed to Vietnam, where this same type of boat was being used to patrol the surrounding waters. It relocated to Mare Island near the San Francisco Bay for that same purpose in 1969.

In 1971, the U.S. Navy donated this swift boat to the Maritime Squadron of our allies, the Republic of Malta—where it guarded that country's coast for 40 years until its retirement. That's when Malta’s Minister of Defense donated it to be used as a historical exhibit at the museum—and that's why it flies the flag of Malta alongside the American flag.  

The swift boat, added to the National Register in 2018, was once armed with a grenade launcher, M16 rifles, and M60 machine guns, plus twin 50-caliber machine guns. 

Powered by twin 12-cylinder 2-stroke Detroit Diesel engines (each operating at 480 horsepower), it can go as fast as 30 knots (about 35 mph) on smooth water—but the South China Sea was reportedly never smooth, especially in winter. 

Today, the swift boat takes you on a 75-minute cruise, starting from the Maritime Museum in the North San Diego Bay, past the cruise ship terminal and the Broadway Pier ferry terminal. 

It travels south past the USS Midway Museum, Tuna Harbor Park...

...and the G Street Pier, where commercial fishing boats (including tuna vessels) are docked. 

The hotels and towers rise up behind where tuna processing plants once stood. 

Past South Embarcadero Park and the Hilton—at the narrowest water passage between the mainland and Coronado Island—is a Dole Food Co. cargo ship. 

Dole brings its bananas and pineapples to the West Coast via the Port of San Diego's 10th Avenue Marine Terminal. 

The swift boat then speeds under the Coronado Bridge (a.k.a. the Bay Bridge, which hopefully I'll be crossing on foot in the 2022 Navy Bay Bridge Run/Walk)...

...and heads into still-active Naval base territory, past the Bae Systems shipyard (used mostly for ship repair)...

...and some of the ships of the Pacific Fleet, including the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), a new guided missile destroyer...

...and the amphibious assault ships USS Comstock (LSD-45, commissioned in 1990)... 

...the USS Anchorage (LPD-23, first deployed in 2015)...

...and the USS Essex (LHD-2, first deployed in 1994). 

This is also where they've moored the United States Naval Ship (USNS) Mercy—the hospital ship that had been deployed to the Los Angeles Harbor at San Pedro during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic

The swift boat then turns around and goes back the way it came—now with the Naval Base San Diego on the right (starboard) and the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado on the left (port). 

But the real highlight of the trip is the swift boat itself—and the Vietnam vets on board who talk about their experience being part of a six-person crew during active duty. 

The San Diego Bay is nothing like the waters that the swift boats eventually found themselves in—Vietnamese rivers, swamps, and canals in and around the Mekong Delta ("brown water navies"), rather than coastal waters ("blue water navies")—which means they can go pretty fast and get pretty splashy, especially at the end of the tour. 

There were approximately 3000-3500 swift boat crew members and support personnel during Vietnam—50 of whom lost their lives (or, as the Swift Boat Sailors say, are "still on patrol"). 

And this swift boat is now considered "the only mobile Vietnam memorial."

You can take a ride any weekend—not just Memorial Day—by booking through the Maritime Museum. 


  1. Just discovered your site when I found your post Photo Essay: The Island Where the Buffalo Roam. I love your posts. I live in San Diego half the time and never knew of this tour. Planning to go on one of their upcoming events soon!

  2. Thanks to your post, Patty and I did this a coupla months ago with one of her childhood friends and her ex-Navy husband. The Vietnam vet narrator for the tour did a great job and had interesting stories to tell. Thank you for the tip, Sandi!