They also agreed, writes Herbert Eugene Bolton, that “in order to avoid trouble with the natives, no landing must be made of less than 30 armed men; Indians must not be ill treated, nor presents received except by the commander of the landing party; orders must be obeyed on pain of death.”
The waters along Baja, and winds above, are cold, made so by the California current. For people accustomed to 95-degree heat and high humidity, weather in the 60s felt like winter. So the leaders distributed warm clothing. The ever-suspicious Vizcaíno added an edict: “No one should gamble or sell” the heavy coats and other items “under pain of death.”
The voyage began with a longboat. But the council declared it unfit to sail heavy seas, and a nuisance to tow or carry on board. They filled it with sand and buried it in a small lake. They’d retrieve it on the return voyage.
At 4:00 p.m., June 19, the San Diego unfurled its sails and headed to sea on an outgoing tide. The Santo Tomás and Tres Reyes followed.
Just a few leagues from the bay, the northwest wind came up and almost snatched the vessels from the water. The Tres Reyes, a light frigate, froze, its flat, lateen sails flapping. The captain had to turn back. To keep the group together, the other ships returned as well.
During the next few days, the fleet made several more attempts to round the point and sail beyond the sight of the land. Each time the wind drove them back, as if by design. “The sea ran so high,” writes Ascensión, “it seemed as if it was going to bury the land and swallow the ships.”
From the tip of Baja, all the way up the coast, northwest winds prevail. Manila galleons heading south along the California coast had the wind at their stern. They “sailed downhill” to Acapulco, writes Richard Pourade. Ships heading north from Cabo would be “sailing uphill.” They encountered not only roving mountains of air but whirlpools, caused by the intersection of warm Gulf and cold Pacific currents.
Father Ascensión blamed a different culprit: “The Devil caused it all to hinder the voyage and [keep his] lordship over the souls of the natives of that great kingdom.”
On July 5, the fleet made its fifth attempt. A land breeze favored them until they reached the high seas. Once again, the northwest howl hammered them.
From the San Diego, Vizcaíno signaled the other ships to keep tacking out to sea. The Santo Tomás followed. Two leagues beyond where they’d turned around before, headwinds calmed a little. Still both ships had to sail “on the bowline,” as close as possible into the wind. The San Diego and Santo Tomás ploughed into oncoming waves, causing great bursts of foam, then skidded down the backsides. Masts tilted backward, righted themselves, tilted forward, like someone shaking an angry finger.
But the smaller Tres Reyes was forced to turn around. As it reached the rocky promontory, conditions changed. It sailed north, this time hugging the coast.
Thinking the frigate was still behind them, the San Diego and Santo Tomás continued onward, both captains surprised by the force of even mild winds.
On July 8, unable to see the Tres Reyes, Vizcaíno decided to sail within sight of land. As the San Diego neared some high mountains, the winds died. So, strangely, did the current. It was as if nature’s forces had shut down. For eight days neither ship could advance a single league.
“The currents stopped,” writes Ascensión, “and when the wind began to blow, they began to run. The secret could never be made out. [Only] God knows the cause.”
To commemorate this nautical limbo, Vizcaíno named the ridgeline Sierras del Enfado (“mountains of vexation”).
On July 16, to free the expedition from the doldrums, the three friars prayed to the statue of Señora del Carmen, under a mantel at the bow of the San Diego.
As they chanted a litany, writes Ascensión, “a fresh, soft, and pleasant wind came up with which they escaped from such a tiresome place.” The word milagro — miracle — made excited rounds among the crew.
As they neared Magdalena Bay, a fog came up thicker than the one at San José de Cabo. Though he couldn’t make out anyone seven paces away, Vizcaíno ordered his pilot to steer the San Diego into the “black fog.” He wanted to see if the Tres Reyes lay anchored there.
Not wanting to repeat the near disaster at Cabo, the Santo Tomás stayed outside.
Vizcaíno entered the bay. Beyond the point, five fathoms deep, he found a large sand bar, several ports and anchorages — but no Tres Reyes. He ordered ensign Juan Francisco to take four soldiers to a high hill near the northern entry. Send smoke signals to the Santo Tomás. Tell them the San Diego was safe.
The soldiers saw the Santo Tomás far offshore and built a bonfire. One signaled Vizcaíno, who ordered Bolaños, his pilot, to sail the launch out to the galleon. But the wind freshened, and Bolaños had to turn back.
The crew of the Santo Tomás saw the signals, writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, but “they did not understand them.” The galleon set sail for Cedros Island, the next known destination.
Three ships, who knew how many leagues apart: one anchored, one hugging the coast, the third heading out at sea.
Maybe what had happened at Cabo wasn’t a miracle after all.■
Next: Water Everywhere
- Vizcaíno’s diarist (often repeated): “Because of our great need of water, and because to go forward without finding it would risk our dying of thirst,” the expedition went ashore as often as possible.
- W. Michael Mathes (on those who say Vizcaíno was no sailor): “This criticism is based upon a lack of practical knowledge of winds and currents at the cape.”
- Mathes: I “have been aboard light sailing vessels with auxiliary engines which have required ten to twelve hours to clear the cape, sailing from its lee.”
- Bolton, Herbert Eugene, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706, New York, 1930.
- Chapman, Charles E., A History of California: The Spanish Period, New York, 1949.
- Denis, Alberta Johnston, Spanish Alta California, New York, 1927.
- Mathes, W. Michael, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean, 1580–1630, San Francisco, 1968.
- Pourade, Richard, The History of San Diego: The Explorers, San Diego, 1960.
- Myers, Paul A., North to California: The Spanish Voyages of Discovery, 1533–1603, Coral Springs, 2004.
- Wagner, Henry R., Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century, San Francisco, 1929.
Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation