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The Death Ship Comes Alive

When the crew of the San Diego heard they were finally going home, relief erupted. “They thought they might have a few more days to live,” writes Father Antonio Ascensión, “than if they continued onward.”

Sebastián Vizcaíno’s expedition had come apart. On May 5, 1602, three ships sailed north from Acapulco to explore the upper California coast. By January, one of the worst outbreaks of scurvy ever reported had decimated the crews. The Santo Tomás headed south, and the frigate Tres Reyes disappeared near Cape Mendocino. When it eventually reached Acapulco, only five men had survived.

Vizcaíno held a council off Cape Mendocino on January 7. The San Diego must turn back, all agreed. Only two sailors were hale enough to climb the mast.

If prevailing northwest winds held true, they’d speed south to Acapulco in a month. But on January 13, a fierce southwest wind and slashing, horizontal rain blocked their progress. On the 17th, a heavy swell jolted the San Diego with such ferocity, the ailing crew tumbled from their bunks and slid across the deck. Vizcaíno slammed against wooden boxes and broke two ribs.

The expedition sailed as much by omens as navigation. Miracles — as when brackish water turned fresh — became emblems of approval. But now the signs were confusing. Once the council decided to return home, a contrary wind and powerful current shoved them north. A “trough of sea” leading northward seemed by design. Only one answer made sense: something, some unseen force, must be steering them toward the mythical Strait of Anian.

Since Columbus had proved the world was round, cartographers assumed that the globe’s upper half would resemble the lower. The southern half had the Strait of Magellan. Therefore, the northern half must have a water route — a Northwest Passage — from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. The connecting link became known as the Strait of Anian.

The mysterious current drew the San Diego toward dark forests and snow-covered, volcano-like mountains. “The seas were carrying us rapidly to the entrance,” Vizcaíno declared. If he found the strait, his expedition would rival Columbus’s. The biggest miracle of all would bless Vizcaíno, and his name would live forever.

On January 19, the wind shifted. Now, to reach the entrance, the San Diego would have to battle severe northwest winds. But cold weather made the rigging stiff, and Vizcaíno didn’t have enough sailors. “If on this occasion there had been even 14 sound men,” writes his diarist, “without any doubt we should have ventured to explore and pass through the Strait of Anian, since all were of good courage to do this.”

But only six men could still walk. Instead, Vizcaíno ordered the ship to unfurl the sails and return to Acapulco. If they remained a day longer at that latitude, “the whole crew would die.”

There was no Strait of Anian. But years later, when Ascensión published his account, he advocated two myths: that California was an island; and that a healthy expedition would have sailed the strait and “gone to Spain and their King, by a route never before seen or discovered, making a turn around the world.”

As with Vizcaíno’s overpraising of Monterey as a harbor, writes Michael Mathes, Ascensión’s belief in the strait confused “the cartography of Northwest America for almost two centuries.”

On the voyage north, to avoid unseen rocks, the expedition sailed 20 to 30 miles offshore. On the return, to shorten the trip, the San Diego skirted the coast. But no one saw San Francisco Bay, coming or going. It could be that, most of the year, the narrow inlet was fogged in, or that the able few on deck needed their eyes to watch the rocky coastline, and tried to shut their ears from the agonies below.

Father Ascensión, on his bunk, unable to move, heard scurvy-riddled comrades shouting complaints or “deploring their sins.” Every bone felt broken. Ulcerated mouths and gums swollen “larger than their teeth” prevented them from chewing or swallowing whole food. Teeth loosened and fell out. Those able to move at all fed the ailing with gruel made from rotten provisions. Some died while eating. “To see so many dead,” wrote Ascensión, “to hear such cries and lamentations would move the very stones to compassion and pity.”

On January 25, the San Diego passed Monterey but couldn’t stop. If they lowered the anchors, there weren’t enough strong men to haul them back up. The ship was now in a race with death.

On the voyage north, the chief of the Chumash at Santa Barbara had promised each soldier ten women. As the San Diego sailed through the Santa Barbara Channel, the council ordered Vizcaíno not to stop. “The men were dying at a great rate,” writes Ascensión, “and if what he wished was done, they would all finish here.

“God, our Master, would be offended,” added Ascensión, “in allowing them to die.”

Vizcaíno ordered his chief pilot, Francisco de Bolaños, to bypass Catalina and San Diego Bay and sail straight for Cedros Island, off Baja California. Near the Coronados, the winds died. Since only a few sailors could steer the ship or climb the mainmast, the San Diego lost momentum. It crept past Ensenada so slowly that natives gathering onshore didn’t know what to think: the big canoe — the “whale with wings” — barely moving, muffled cries and shrieks from within, dead bodies heaved over the side. Some of those handling them howled as well.

Onboard, supplies were running out. They must stop for water or perish.

A fresh northwest wind wafted them toward Cedros. On February 6, Vizcaíno dropped a “light anchor,” the ship’s smallest, into the warm water at the island.

Back in October, against the viceroy’s demand not to harm natives, Vizcaíno’s soldiers had shot and killed several at this spot. The natives remembered. Now, when Vizcaíno went ashore with six debilitated sailors to dig a water hole, an angry band appeared with bows and arrows painted blood red. Some played a warlike tune on flutes.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy

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tswartz Dec. 21, 2011 @ 4:30 p.m.

Thanks so much for this great series. I truly enjoyed it!


Prosperina Dec. 26, 2011 @ 11:12 p.m.

wow! what an adventure series! that was one of the most satisfying yet -- thank you!!! Loved the little tidbits like:

As with Vizcaíno’s overpraising of Monterey as a harbor, writes Michael Mathes, Ascensión’s belief in the strait confused “the cartography of Northwest America for almost two centuries.”

who knew that such a journey, such a marathon, such an epic story could be so fun!


Letter to the Editor Sept. 6, 2012 @ 3:27 p.m.

The description of the scurvy victims with their inability to eat because of their ulcerated mouths was visceral and uncomfortable. In other words I was in some part sharing the fate of the crew of the San Diego while reading the story. This is the best kind of writing. In the end, when Viceroy Marquis de Montesclaros chalked the whole expedition up as a nonevent it made me think that events are not so different today. Most often the amazing accomplishments of brave people as seen through the eyes of administrators evoke either hollow words of praise, Dr apathy and dismissal.

Bernard Baldan


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