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Three ships nodded with the tide in Acapulco Bay. The San Diego, Santo Tomás, and Tres Reyes were light draft vessels, able to anchor in shallow waters. Each had been careened — flopped on its side like a beached whale — and inspected for leaks and shipworms; each caulked, scrubbed, and made seaworthy for Sebastián Vizcaíno’s historic voyage up the California coast in 1602.

The 200-ton flagship San Diego came from Guatemala. Its topsail had no decorations, a recent trend away from warlike emblems stitched to the canvas. The San Diego was longer and heavier than Cabrillo’s San Salvador, which had made the voyage 60 years earlier.

Francisco de Bolaños, chief pilot, knew the route. He was boatswain when a storm hurled the San Augustin onto the rocks near Drake’s Bay — north of San Francisco Bay — in 1595. An estimated 150 tons of treasure vanished in the whitewater. Bolaños and others made the 2000-mile trek home in an open plank boat cobbled from the wreckage.

Spanish galleon

Spanish galleon

Toribio Gómez de Corban captained the Santo Tomás. Bought at the last minute, the old Peruvian galleon looked like the other ships’ ancient ancestor; even an untrained eye could see it wouldn’t maneuver well. Plus, it creaked like aching bones — “nail sickness.” Iron spikes secure planking. After years at sea, spikes distress and bend; seams pop. The Santo Tomás required twice as much refitting as the others.

The Tres Reyes (“three kings”) was a frigate with Sebastián Melendez in command. Built specifically for the voyage, it had three masts and no deck. The smaller size allowed it to enter bays and coves. Out at sea, this strength became a weakness. Storms yanked it around like a marker buoy.

The expedition also had a long boat with a single mast and benches for six to eight rowers. This boat transported shore parties or messengers ship-to-ship. The San Diego would either tow it, or, in heavy winds, hoist it on board. Rowing the long boat ranked among the voyage’s worst duties. Rowers were either slaves or punished soldiers.

For six weeks, skiff-like launches had ferried 11 months’ worth of supplies to the ships: dried beans, salted meat, hard bread and biscuits, olive oil, wine. The expedition would be forced to fish and hunt and, most importantly, refill barrels and over 200 bottles with fresh water. The ships had no built-in tanks.

Officers brought their own food and stored it in the sterncastle. They ate better meals apart from the others. This explains why, when scurvy attacked a crew, officers seemed immune.

Supplying the ships took six weeks; gaining royal approval for the mission, six years.

Along with the natural hazards of a six- or seven-month voyage at sea, treasure-laden galleons from Manila faced added dangers when they reached the California coast: British and Dutch pirates freely attacked the bloated vessel. The most notorious was Thomas Cavendish, the British privateer who had captured the Santa Ana near Cabo de San José in 1596; the galleon was so weighed down with treasure, Cavendish had to discard tons. (According to most accounts, though not all, Vizcaíno was on board the Santa Ana and helped guide the patched-up ship to the mainland.)

“There is news of the enemy everywhere,” wrote captain Hernando de Lugones, “but they are like phantoms. They appear in many places, whereas we find them in none.”

The wreck of the San Augustin also underlined the need for a “midway harbor” on the California coast. Such a way station would serve many purposes. Along with a place for Manila galleons to careen and resupply, they could discover if the seas were safe to the south or join up with armed escorts. “The worst of it,” writes Charles E. Chapman, “was that a mere handful of men seemed capable of upsetting Spain’s security in the Pacific.”

When Vizcaíno tried to establish a colony on Baja in 1596, many in his initial crew deserted. Nineteen soldiers drowned. Colonists threatened rebellion, and sailors sabotaged his vessel. He also managed to infuriate natives from San José del Cabo to north of La Paz. Nonetheless, when talk began of a second expedition — of the Gulf of California and the coast — Vizcaíno demanded to lead it.

Many questioned his competence. He had been a soldier and a successful merchant, but few considered him a “blue water” mariner. In 1597, Vizcaíno wrote a letter to King Philip II of Spain, asking to explore the gulf and take possession of “seaports, heads of departments, and cities” for the crown. He also mentioned gold. Aware that his shaky reputation may have preceded the letter, Vizcaíno promised to perform his tasks “all in a most quiet way, and without working any wrong to the natives.”

In a cover letter, Viceroy Zuniga, the count of Monterrey, endorsed Vizcaíno. Although he’d had severe reservations in the past, Zuniga believed that no one knew the coast better. Because Vizcaíno had only “moderate talent,” Zuniga advised a battery of counselors help him make decisions.

The king filed the letters away. After he died in 1598, his son, Philip III, approved. He added that, if it went far enough, the expedition might discover the Strait of Anian, the “northwest passage” that allegedly connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The second expedition was solely “for the purpose of ascertaining definitely what is there,” the viceroy declared. On March 18, 1602, he wrote strict orders: chart and make soundings of the California coast as far as weather permitted; do not explore the Gulf of California (where the previous mission had failed); establish no settlements; “take great pains to avoid conflicts with the Indians”; stick to Cabrillo’s route; and, change none of Cabrillo’s place names.

Whoever disobeyed any order, the viceroy added, would “incur the death penalty.”

May 5, 1602. Booming cannons and rows of cracking muskets heralded a procession through the sun-baked streets of Acapulco. Townspeople waved and hollered as the captains, pilots, and Vizcaíno, clad in gilded finery, paraded to the beach. Ahead of them, three barefooted Carmelite friars, in brown wool robes, carried a statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Carmen, patroness of the expedition. Roses, symbolizing the souls she protected, peered out from her white mantel.

Like the other friars, Father Antonio de la Ascensión was “discalced” — vowed never to wear shoes. Educated at the University of Salamanca, he had experience as a pilot and cosmographer. Though ordered to avoid the natives, Ascensión relished the chance to “make war on the devil” by converting them.

Before the parade began, he asked everyone, “large and small, to confess and receive Holy Communion, so that the voyage might be made…in the grace and good favor of God, Our Master.”

A launch rowed the icon out to the San Diego. It stood near the bow the entire voyage, covered by an awning.

By four o’clock, all 200 passengers were on board — 150 soldier-sailors and crew, many with families, servants, and slaves. Vizcaíno ordered a single cannon blast. As reverberations rimmed the harbor, he shouted, “Weigh anchor!” The three ships and the longboat spread their sails and headed to sea in a light breeze.

Around six miles out, the long boat lagged behind. It had to catch up so the San Diego could tow it. When it finally came alongside, a wave tilted the small craft toward the flagship. The mast caught the topsail’s yardarm. They hooked in a tangle of ropes, spars, and fluttering canvas.

The longboat filled with water and capsized. Dragged beside the San Diego, the little craft hammered the flagship. Foam spurted from each collision. Crewmen, not wanting to be trapped between two hulls, jumped overboard.

Vizcaíno “was put to great pains in giving directions,” writes his diarist. Soaking wet from the swim, crewmen labored to undo the slippery ropes and dripping sails. They righted the battered longboat “with no little trouble.”

In an age where simple facts could expand into crucial signs and omens — of divine approval or condemnation — the sudden, chaotic travail with the longboat did not bode well. The crew, especially the friars, went on alert for positive omens about the voyage ahead.

Ascensión saw the first. As they sailed up the coast of New Spain, a strong northwest wind forced them to tack on the bowline, a tight, difficult fanning to left and right. “An insufferable labor,” writes Ascensión.

In the face of such a “contrary” wind, if the currents aren’t favorable, “instead of going ahead you lose what you have gained.” But, “Our Lord was pleased that the currents should be favorable and against the wind.”

The fleet anchored at Navidad — in Jalisco,

Mexico — on May 19. They took on fresh water and wood, and added stones to ballast the San Diego, which, says Ascensión, was “very crank and rolled a great deal.” They also plugged the leak in an auger-hole.

The next day, Vizcaíno called the first of many councils with his captains and advisors. All agreed they should follow the coast to the islands of Mazatlán, then cross the Vermilion Sea (the Gulf of California so named because of its reddish coloring) 50 leagues to Cabo de San José, leeward of Cabo San Lucas.

What if high winds or “wild waves” separated the ships? The captains arranged signals: if a ship foundered, put torches on the prow and stern during the day and lanterns on the crow’s nest at night.

At Mazatlán, where they anchored on June 2, only Vizcaíno went ashore. He found so many pelicans they appeared like “flocks of sheep,” and tasty little apples the natives called jocoystles. But no fresh water.

“The explorer who puts to sea in the faith that there will always be a wind to carry him where he listeth,” writes Alfred W. Crosby, “will find that the wind will carry him where it listeth.” Seafarers during the 15th and 16th centuries played a brand of “blind man’s bluff.”

On June 2, the fleet began the crossing. Westerly headwinds forced them to tack. They gained and lost distance and often lost sight of each other. After five days, impeded by towing the long boat, the San Diego was still 12 leagues off the coast. A fogbank cloaked the shore. To find the port they sought, the ships had to enter a cloud “so thick and dark,” writes Ascensión, “the ships became separated.”

For a day and a half the three vessels searched for the promised haven — and each other. The gloom muffled shouts. Even musket-fire failed to make contact.

Pirates called the port, 20 miles east of Cabo San Lucas, “Safe Harbor.” This was where Thomas Cavendish lay in wait for the Santa Ana. Vizcaíno knew from experience that jutting reefs and rocky promontories guarded the coastline.

At 7:00 a.m., on June 11, the old Santo Tomás drifted near the shore in darkness. Suddenly the fog lifted. A reef lay 50 paces from the vessel.

“Put the helm to the side!” shouted Captain Corban. Somehow, the bulky Santo Tomás wheeled its bow to sea and got away. The fog astern spilled back down like a waterfall.

Two hours later, under clearer skies, the San Diego and Santo Tomás joined up. They sailed into “Safe Harbor,” where the Tres Reyes lay at anchor. Because June 11 was the feast day of San Bernabé, Vizcaíno broke the viceroy’s order and renamed the bay after the disciple.

Everyone proclaimed the narrow escape “a recognized miracle of God,” writes Ascensión. Two miracles, if you counted how the old galleon maneuvered so deftly.

“By this it was understood how much our Lord would be served with the voyage, and how the Devil attempted to prevent it.” ■

Next: God Blessed and the Devil Cursed Vizcaino’s Crews


  1. Harry Kelsey: “In port, the food was fresh and hot. Under sail it was likely to be salted, hard, and cold.”
  2. Michael Mathes: “No one then had any clear concept of the shape of the Pacific basin or the great distances involved. It was generally assumed that North America was either an extension of the Asian mainland or very close to it.”
  3. Father Ascensión (on rumors of gold): “God created [them] for the service of man as lures…so that the king might send his vassals to discover…them, and in their company friars and ministers…to undertake the conversion of those natives.”


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.

Crosby, Alfred W., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, Cambridge, 1986.

Davidson, George, “Early Spanish Voyages of Discovery on the Coast of California,” California Academy of Sciences, Bulletin 6.

Harlow, Neal, Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego, 1602–1874, Los Angeles, 1987.

Kelsey, Harry, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, San Marino, 1998.

Mathes, W. Michael, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean, 1580–1630, San Francisco, 1968.

Richman, Irving Berdine, California Under Spain and Mexico, 1535–1847, New York, 1965.

Wagner, Henry R,, Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century, San Francisco, 1929.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 4: Vizcaino’s Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

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Andy Boyd Sept. 15, 2011 @ 2:56 p.m.

Just want to say: Thanks for citing sources. Not enough of that these days.


Twister Sept. 15, 2011 @ 6:57 p.m.

So, was California named after the gulf, or the other way 'round?


Jeff Smith Sept. 16, 2011 @ 10:56 a.m.

Other way around. Cortes and the other early explorers thought "California" - from Baja north - was an island. Cortes even believed that Amazons inhabited much of it, with not a male in sight (a great way to motivate lonesome sailors).

Good book on the subject (another one for ReaderAndy's list): Dora Beale Polk, The Island of California: A History of the Myth.


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