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But, says Paul A. Myers, “this belief indicated a lack of insight” because “the galleons turned to the southeast while still hundreds of miles away from the Northern California coast.”

Vizcaíno may have had another reason for naming his exaggerated bay for the viceroy: his expedition was falling apart. At least 16 sailors had already died from scurvy. Forty-five others had major symptoms, including helmsmen too rigid to steer the ship.

On December 18, Vizcaíno called a council of captains and pilots: “the most solemn of all,” writes the diarist. As each man spoke, the factors piled up, including the Santo Tomás. It was leaking again and didn’t have enough healthy crewmen to bail out the bilge.

The council decided to send the Santo Tomás back to Acapulco as an “advice” ship. It would take the sickest sailors and copies of all maps and documents (in case those who remained behind “should be wrecked or die on the voyage”). In a letter, Vizcaíno would urge the viceroy to send men and supplies to Cabo San Lucas, where Vizcaíno would meet them in May. The other ships, the San Diego and the Tres Reyes, would continue north, at least to Cape Mendocino.

Even though the Santo Tomás was as infirm as its crew, with favoring winds and currents, it could complete the “downhill” run south. The Cabrillo voyage took 70 days to reach Monterey from La Navidad, just north of Acapulco — and only 20, in the favoring conditions, to return.

The expedition had been gone 188 days. On December 29, after they redistributed the crews, lightened the load, and put most of the provisions on the other ships, the Santo Tomás sailed from Monterey “with orders to make haste” — and no stops along the way.

When the Santo Tomás anchored at Acapulco three weeks later, 25 had died. Father Tomás de Aquino also had scurvy. Since he could barely stand, during the voyage he had to prop himself against a mast to administer last rites.

“To see the condition in which the sick reached there was pitiful,” writes Ascensión. “They had suffered many hardships, as the sound men aboard her fell sick.” At Acapulco, only three still had their health. Others, including Father Tomás, took months to recover.

On January 1, ten able members of Vizcaíno’s crew went ashore at Monterey to take on wood and water. The snow-covered mountains reminded them of Popocatépetl, the volcano of Mexico. “Extreme cold,” writes the diarist, froze their freshwater hole “to more than a palm in thickness.” Water in the bottles also froze: “Even when turned upside-down, not a drop ran out.” They encountered no natives “because of the great cold they were living in [in] the interior.”

At midnight on January 3, 1603, a northeast wind came up and the San Diego and Tres Reyes set sail for Cape Mendocino. They made ten leagues by dawn. On January 7, winds shifted to the northwest. Assuming the ships were still together, Vizcaíno put up no signal lantern. When he stopped to inspect a bay, the Tres Reyes continued northward. The ships separated and remained apart for the rest of the voyage.

With a crippled crew, the Tres Reyes may have sailed all the way to Crescent City. But bitter cold and scurvy took many lives, including Commander Aguilar and pilot Antonio Flores. Estevan Lopez, the boatswain, became captain of the frigate. He turned it south to find the San Diego.

The ships may have sailed within sight of each other, but neither had enough healthy sailors to climb to the crow’s nest and keep a regular watch.

The Tres Reyes raced south. When it arrived at Navidad on February 26, only Lopez and five of his crew were still alive.

On January 12, a gale blasted the San Diego near Cape Mendocino. The tempest became so furious that Vizcaíno and his captain couldn’t decide “whether to go forward or to turn back, for it was as dark in the daytime as at night.”

By then, the flagship was, writes the diarist, “a floating hospital.” Sailors took the helm who had never steered before. First-timers climbed slippery rigging to the masthead. Those barely able to move made mush in the galley, since the sick couldn’t open their mouths to eat the available hard foods: rotting jerked beef and chick peas infested with weevils.

“There were not more than six men on board who were well and up,” writes Ascensión. “The rest of the soldiers, sailors, cabin boys, and ship boys were sick in bed,” Ascensión among them. Along with fainting spells, he kept blacking out. Sometimes the moans of others woke him up. Everyone, he writes, feared of “losing their lives in such a place without any human remedy and without any expectation of finding one.”

If the storm grew worse, winds would slam the San Diego onto the rocky coast. All they could do was furl the sails, point the bow west, and hope.

On January 13, Vizcaíno called a council. All agreed they could no longer sail north. “There were no men for it,” writes the diarist. “It was very cold, the rains were increasing and winter coming on all at once, and if we were to go on, we should all perish.”

The viceroy had ordered the expedition to reach Cape Mendocino, latitude 41 degrees. They’d achieved this objective, said Vizcaíno. It was time to head back.

The next day the winds suddenly stopped, and the sun made blue skies bright — an omen of confirmation?

Later that afternoon, black clouds bulged to the southeast. Another storm usurped the sky, bitter cold and determined, the crew became convinced, to prevent a safe voyage home. ■

Next: The Death Ship Comes Alive


  1. Chapman, Charles E.: “Nearly all [Vizcaíno’s reports] had to say was true, save for the yarn about the excellence of Monterey as a sheltered port; but it was precisely this departure from strict accuracy that had the most effect: the legend of the port of Monterey became one of the moving factors for a century and a half in Spanish expansion to the northwest.”
  2. Father Ascensión (in Wagner): “All men in the fleet, well or sick, had to confess and take communion.”
  3. Vizcaíno’s diarist: “All the men had fallen sick, so that there were only two sailors who could climb to the main-topsail.”

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 9: Salvation

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Prosperina Dec. 19, 2011 @ 8:43 p.m.

I've stopped reading books while this series is in the Reader. This was a marathon chapter!


Twister Dec. 20, 2011 @ 9:24 a.m.

And all because of food prejudice . . .


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