Fifty years after Columbus first set sail, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo discovered “a sheltered port and a very good one” on the California coast. Guarded by a steep promontory, dark green with vegetation, a channel doglegged gently into a large bay. Cabrillo saw “good land” in the foreground, high mountains behind.
On September 28, 1542, Cabrillo named the bay Puerto de San Miguel for the saint — whose feast day was September 29 — and for the smallest of his three ships, a ramshackle frigate that always needed repairs.
Naming the finest natural harbor he found for the San Miguel prompted “some grumbling among the crew members,” writes Harry Kelsey. They “evidently demanded a similar honor, so the next important discoveries were named after the other two ships, San Salvador and La Victoria.”
Cabrillo estimated the latitude at 34 degrees, 20 minutes. No one’s certain how he determined this figure, whether he used a cross-staff or an astrolabe or just the altitude of the sun. What is certain: his measurements were off by two degrees — approximately 120 miles.
No one followed up on the discovery for 60 years.
On Sunday, November 10, 1602, the explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno came to a bay much like the one Cabrillo described: “secure from all winds” with good anchorage and “very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds.” Vizcaíno ’s diarist proclaimed it “the best to be found in all the South Seas.” But it couldn’t have been San Miguel. This bay stood at latitude 33 1/3.
Even though the viceroy of New Spain ordered him not to rename Cabrillo’s sites, Vizcaíno disobeyed. This was his bay, certainly, not Cabrillo’s. So he named it for his flagship and the saint’s feast day (November 12): San Diego de Alcalá.
Vizcaíno ’s reckonings were off as well. The tip of Point Loma is near latitude 32 degrees, 40 minutes. But instead of San Miguel — which by rights is what it should have been named — the bay is called “San Diego.”
When Vizcaíno’s three ships lay off Point Loma, they didn’t just sail into the bay. Kelp beds thick as broccoli clotted the surface. Another potential hazard: a partly submerged, mile-long shoal — the zuniga — jutting from an “island of sand” (North Island) on the right. The channel was reasonably wide, but the currents made it clear that ships should steer a good half-mile from the green promontory to the left.
Father Ascensión, who kept an account of the voyage, says the fleet entered at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 10. That would have been in darkness. More likely, launches rowed in earlier that day. They tested currents and searched for submerged rocks — and found none, a promising surprise. They determined the safest course and reported back. The larger ships waited for a favorable flood tide to make the move: the small frigate, Tres Reyes, first, then the flagship, San Diego, and the worm-eaten galleon, Santo Tomás.
They anchored, most likely, behind today’s Ballast Point, a low spit of land Vizcaíno named Punta de Guijarros (“cobblestone point”).
The expedition left Acapulco on May 5. It took the fleet five months to reach “San Diego.” Because they had taken so long and encountered many hazards, Vizcaíno decided to survey potential ports in detail on the return voyage. Even though San Diego’s natural harbor had an abundance of water, firewood, and game, he ordered basic tasks executed as quickly as possible. The ships, soldiers, and crew, however, needed a rest.
Especially the old Santo Tomás. It demanded a thorough scouring and caulking. Hundreds of snails had attached themselves to the bottom. And oakum had come loose between the joints. “The spewing of oakum,” Sir Thomas Gates wrote in 1609, is “a casualty more desperate than any other” at sea. “Weeping leaks” can split a seam, erupt into floods, and sink ships — a thought that “turned” a mariner’s “blood.”
Many on the expedition were as ailing as the old galleon. “A very severe sickness,” writes Ascensión, “had seized them.” Symptoms had begun several weeks before: aching legs and fatigue. Reddish-blue bruises appeared on the skin. Gums became spongy. Teeth loosened. By the time the expedition reached San Diego, many had anemia, swollen joints, and trouble seeing. Some had died. They received last rites and a seafarer’s burial: cast overboard.
Ascensión offered the standard explanation. Whenever a Manila galleon reached the California coast, usually near Cape Mendocino, the “severe sickness” would appear. “Scarcely a man escapes from suffering greatly from it.” In some instances, there was “hardly a person left to manage the sails or bring them to the port of destination.”
The cause, Ascensión believed, was the weather along the coast: “A very sharp, subtle, and cold wind blows, which passes through thin men. It must carry with it much pestilence.”
Instead of an airborne plague, the crews were coming down with scurvy. Many had “purple spots larger than mustard seeds” below the waist. Their legs became so stiff they couldn’t walk. Then bodies became “sore as a boil.”
Accounts of Cabrillo’s voyage make no mention of scurvy. From San Diego onward, Vizcaíno’s chroniclers speak of it more and more, and, finally, of little else.
Captains Alarcón and Peguero, and Father Ascensión, along with eight armed soldiers, rowed ashore to the beach below Point Loma. They climbed the “little mountain” that sheltered the bay from the north wind and found, writes Ascensión, “many live oaks, junipers, and other trees such as rock-rose, heather, and one very similar to the rosemary.”
Ascensión speaks of trees on the leeward side of Point Loma, and later, of snow on the ridges of Big Sur. Though Ascensión is accurate elsewhere, many historians have doubted these observations. But the climate in 1602 was quite different from today. Between 1550 and 1850 CE, the world was experiencing a “Little Ice Age.” Temperatures in the Northern Hemispheres were much colder. Vegetation had to be hardier.
From the top of the hill, an expansive bay spread out before them: “good, large, and safe, as it was protected from all winds.” The hills were shades of beige and yellow, spotted by clusters of green shrubs. “Fine meadows” lay beneath them, “very fertile and level.”
Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation