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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.”

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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