• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Lost and Found

Onboard the flagship San Diego, Sebastían Vizcaíno hadn’t seen the Santo Tomás in 41 days. Before his expedition left Acapulco to chart the California coast in 1602, the old Santo Tomás had required an extensive careening: leaks plugged, much of the hull reboarded, heavy caulking. Many still questioned its seaworthiness. The top-heavy Peruvian galleon could barely maneuver. Vizcaíno feared that the ship, which disappeared off Magdalena Bay, had been lost at sea.

On September 1, writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “God deigned” that the ships would reunite at Cedros Island. Amid his jubilation, the diarist noted for the first time that “the men were becoming worn out and ill.”

In an age that measured time by sundials and hourglasses, people thought in blocks of weeks and months. Onboard ship, off a sterile coastline, the expedition had a daily need for fresh food and water. By the time they reached Cedros, their diet of fish, biscuits, and brackish “green” water — but no perishable vegetables and no Vitamin C — began to take its toll.

Sailors became lethargic. Reddish-blue bruises began appearing on the skin, first single dots, then expanding into clusters. Veteran seamen recognized the early symptoms of scurvy.

Adding to the burden, soldiers used quarter pipes to pump drinking water from underground wells. At Cedros, the brittle pipes, made from worm-eaten staves, began to decay. “When we thought we had water,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “we were without it.”

On September 9, the fleet sailed north-northwest. The San Diego, the Santo Tomás, and the Tres Reyes must keep together, Vizcaíno ordered: if a storm came up, they should return to the sheltered bay at Cedros. Given favoring southwest winds, they would continue north to Cenzias Island and wait 12 days.

On September 18, a northwest gale blew so hard, writes Father Ascensión, “the waves reached the heavens with an abyss between them.” Incessant currents of air had pounded the expedition all the way up the coast. But nothing compared to these invisible battering rams bent on demolishing the fleet. The sea roared like a waterfall blown sideways.

On the San Diego, Vizcaíno refused to give ground. “Furl the sails and lay to,” he shouted. The ship plowed into the waves and frantic gusts of air.

Not stout enough to forge straight ahead, the Santo Tomás unfurled the lower fore- and spirit-sails and scudded out to sea.

The monster gale blew 24 hours. When it died at nightfall, as abruptly as it arose, an iron-gray fog cloaked the growing darkness. The murky mist became palpable, more like smoke than moisture. Captains couldn’t see the other ships’ signal lanterns. Then they couldn’t see their own crews.

The fleet rejoined the next day, only to face a second assault: brutal northwest winds and another dark fog “so thick that a man could not see another in the waist of the ship,” writes Ascensión. Broad daylight became dusk.

Once again, the Santo Tomás had headed west. This time, “to the great sorrow of all,” it vanished. Once again Vizcaíno feared the worst: merciless waves would splinter the tired old galleon, and the crew would drown.

When the skies finally cleared, not seeing the other ships, Captain Corbon of the Santo Tomás assumed that Vizcaíno had sailed back to Cedros. But when the galleon reached the island’s lee side, the fleet was not there. So Corbon sailed west.

Many days later, near a large, unnamed island, winds came up. Rows of waves the size of houses rolled into the Santo Tomás. The bow made a sudden crack.

The timbers — the ship’s wooden support frames — shivered. Sailors feared that the trembling, like a quaking ribcage, was a sign that the end was near.

Water seeped through a fissure on the ship’s nose. The main timber had begun to splinter. The trickle became a steady stream of brine. Excess water-weight up front tilted the Santo Tomás forward. Then it pitched. Ascensión thought it could “open up and founder.”

“To the mainland,” shouted Captain Corbon. His reasoning: if the ship fractured, the crew might be close enough to swim to shore.

They sailed toward land, writes Ascensión, to “see if perchance Our Lord, Jesus Christ, would grant them the favor of finding” the San Diego.

Days later, as they approached today’s San Quintín Bay (about 100 miles south of Ensenada), the ships rejoined. They’d been apart 28 days.

“A plain miracle,” declared Ascensión. “When one ship was arriving in such need, the other should meet her and console those who had lost all hope of rescue.”

Possibly to commemorate the site of the reunion, Vizcaíno’s diarist declared the area to have the best climate “in the world, for the night dews last until 10:00 in the forenoon.”

Cabrillo had originally called the shallow, placid bay — where cinder cones loom like sentinels — San Quintín. Vizcaíno, as was his wont, renamed it “the Bay of Eleven Thousand Virgins.” In 500 A.D., when Ursula, a virtuous Roman maiden, refused to marry the leader of the German Huns, he ordered her killed, along with her 11 ladies in waiting. (Someone added the three zeros later.)

On October 28, seeking shelter from another storm, the fleet anchored in Bahia de San Simon y Judas (today’s Colnett Bay, 50 miles south of Ensenada). A mountain on the north shore, sheared down to the beach, provided ample protection from the elements.

In desperate need of water, especially for the Santo Tomás, Vizcaíno sent Captain Peguero and ensign Juan Francisco ashore with 20 armed soldiers. Several accounts say Vizcaíno told them to “treat well the Indians, especially when embarking and disembarking.” Given what followed — and since the viceroy had ordered the death penalty for anyone mistreating natives — accounts may have added “treat well” after the fact.

At sunset, the party dug a well in the sand and found fresh water. As they inserted the decaying pipes and began to fill barrels, more than 100 natives drew near with bows and clubs. They were “very insolent,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “to the extent of drawing their bows and picking up stones to throw at us.”

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

An eBook version of this story is available from:


Twister Nov. 3, 2011 @ 11:30 a.m.

I hope the Reader realizes that the reason we, the rabble, don't post here include that fact that these articles are so well-written that we are left with nothing to ask.

Thanks to the Reader for casting such pearls before us.


Jeff Smith Nov. 3, 2011 @ 11:53 a.m.

The rabble? Damn, Twister. Say it ain't so! My philosophy of life comes from an old Firesign Theatre album: "We're all bozos on this bus."


Fred Williams Nov. 3, 2011 @ 10:43 p.m.

Mr. Smith, as a certified member of the rabble and coincidentally a long time bozo in good standing, I concur with my colleague Twister.

I'm ravenous for pearls you provide. I squeal and grunt in satisfaction, wallowing in my enjoyment as I gobble every delicious word.

We're unworthy, and all the more grateful. Though unwashed, and more than a bit rank, the masses of history geeks, bozos, rising rabblers, and curmudgeonly commenters all unite to sing a cacophonous chorus to you.

"We want more, More, MORE!"


Fred Williams


Twister Nov. 4, 2011 @ 9:06 a.m.

Yeah, for example, a series of pieces on trails, especially the literal and figurative and forgotten ones that endlessly "Paso por aqui!"

(Reader geeks--we need punctuation and at least italic capability! ?Por que no?


Jeff Smith Nov. 4, 2011 @ 11:29 a.m.

Fred you crack me up! I was thinking about showering but naw - I prefer to stay unwashed!


Prosperina Nov. 6, 2011 @ 3:13 p.m.

as a member of the Rabble, I have to agree - these stories say it ALL and then some! -- Seriously, I've been following this series with such intense fervor that I was nearly in tears when I read "... the day of "Cuatro Coronados" .... what a great way to end the episode. This has been one my all time favorites in the 'Unforgettable' articles - since their inception! Fabulous move on the Reader's part - thank you Jeff Smith!


Twister Nov. 8, 2011 @ 4:03 p.m.

It's all incredibly credible that so many of those times died so needlessly of scurvy, when cures were all around them. Food prejudice, like other prejudices, can be ultimately fatal to the practitioner. Olmsted, for example, in the early 19th century, found settlers starving in the Ohio wilderness for want of salt pork and hardtack.

It persists. Now it's vitamin D, which outdoor people don't tend to lack unless they are too religious with the application of "protectants."


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!