Trip Reports

With God On His Side (15-May-2003-08-00):
8:00 AM local time, Thursday, May 15 (1500 May 15 UTC) 27 41 N 114 53 W. Temp. 64, Humidity 67%, Cloud Cover 0%. At anchor in Bahia de Tortugas (Turtle Bay), Baja California, Mexico.

We are about half way up the coast of Baja, awaiting a weather window to go north. As we speak it's a bit bumpy out there, and as usual for this area we have what one cruiser calls "strong noserlies." There are a few boats who have tried to make it out of here and returned with various problems, and among them is Nordic. These are friends of ours from Santa Cruz that we've been occasionally running into since the Red Sea. Skipper Frank and the Skipper of Delphis, Dennis, and this correspondent were talking in Acapulco about being paranoid that even though we're so close, something might go wrong preventing us from finishing. Since then we have had to have the transmission rebuilt, and now Nordic is now stuck with an engine problem. They've left the boat here at anchor and we don't know where they are.

There being an absence of other hard news, the Captain is reminded of the old saying, often applied to the circumstances of a seagoing vessel, that the devil has work for idle hands. Naval commanders throughout history have learned that if the crew is not given tasks with which to occupy themselves through the long and generally uneventful hours of a passage, fighting, gambling, dancing, singing, fiddling, and frolicking may result. The crew may forget its mission entirely and degenerate into a bunch of louts who are getting jiggy with it. The consequent lowering of the level of discipline and military readiness of the crew is not to be tolerated, and so they are ordered to polish the bronze and holystone the deck and sand and paint and varnish until everything aboard is ship shape and Bristol fashion, and then start over again. Since our readers are not in a geographical location that would make these types of chores on Maverick practical during this slow news period, the Captain has devised an equally onerous task to occupy the recruits in our Navy, which is the reading of what follows. It is our belief that this will effect a return to proper deportment and harden our crew for battle.

Just about a long stone's throw from the Captain's house in Marin County begins a boulevard that bears the name not of a Conquistador, or a President, or one of the founders of California, but of the greatest pirate in all of history. It is named after Francis Drake, a man of humble origins who rose to become the most celebrated seaman of the Elizabethan Age and a favorite of the Queen--or one of the most dreaded villains in the world, depending on your point of view.

Beginning near the California State Prison at San Quentin, his Boulevard heads through Greenbrae and past the College of Marin, then briefly visits the leafy lanes of Ross, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the most affluent country in the world. No doubt there is a parvenu or two like Drake himself in residence there, which is not so much a crime in the Northern California of the twenty-first century as it was in the England of Elizabethan times, and therein lies a thread of the fabric of Drake's life, and a wound he could not heal.

From Ross we cross the bustle of the Hub in the town of San Anselmo, named for the monk who produced one of the most puzzling but enduring proofs for the existence of God. Then on to Fairfax, where hippies shocked the established Italian population in the sixties, and winding up and out of town, we drive over the pass at White's Hill, where the remains of the old railroad tunnel for the train to Marshall can still be found. Through the San Geronimo Valley we pass a Zen retreat, a riding school, and a golf course. If we turn right here we'll wind up in the town of Nicasio, and we may find Bob Brown, the manager of Huey Lewis and Pablo Cruise, who now runs the fabled Rancho Nicasio in the little hamlet of Nicasio. At its best the Rancho still elicits the frisson reminiscent of the glory days when Marin was still in the thrall of the Love Generation. A slightly less star-studded fact about this quiet valley is that in the late nineteenth century, a legend was found to exist among the Indians dwelling there that some were descended from white men on a ship, and one hundred years earlier two different Catholic missionaries to the area reported that some among the Indians were, tall, fair in complexion and hair, and bearded. From the across the Atlantic Ocean in England, one of our sources says that after anchoring offshore, Drake's crew ventured inland and found, among other things, "many blessings fit for the use of man."

Continuing out Sir Francis Drake Boulevard--"Sir" because he was knighted for his activities--we pass the communities of Lagunitas and Forest Knolls and enter Samuel P. Taylor Park. Taylor was a logger who denuded the surrounding hillsides but was prevented from cutting the timber from around his house by his wife, and eventually this property came into the possession of the State of California. Leaving the park and zooming over hill and dale, we come to the small town of Olema that was made semi-famous in a song that attempted to joust with Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee," with pallid results. Merle's song was the better one, which is ironic because, like the "Hippie from Olema" but unlike the character he portrays in his song, the real Merle may have been at the time, according to my sources, a dope-smoker.

At Olema we take a short jog to the right on Highway One and then make a left back onto the Boulevard of our hero. We pass through Inverness, a town named after its forebear in Scotland because an early settler felt Tomales Bay resembled a loch. Surmounting the ridge we arrive at the dairy farms and the remote and isolated feel of the Point Reyes Peninsula proper, and after a long drive we come to the lighthouse at the end of the land. This lighthouse, viewed from sea, remains one of the most lonely and romantic visions of all the seascapes we have seen in our travels.

Looking back towards the coast from a vantage point above Chimney Rock, if the fog has lifted we can view the dramatic shoreline leading up from San Francisco, and across the way, we can see the long beach at Limantour. Just to the left of the beach we see Drake's Estero, and the large body of water beneath us and enclosed by the headlands, where the crew of Maverick has many times set the anchor just about as Drake would have, is the Bay that bears his name.

Drake's ventures as a young seaman involved piracy and plunder under the guidance of some elder relatives in the nearby Hawkins family. His career from the start involved controversy, not so much from the questionable legality of his pursuits, as because of his character. Physically courageous to the point of recklessness, he could be at turns generous, ruthless, sensitive, violent, charming, greedy, vindictive, courtly, and devious. His best qualities were shared with the common seamen at his command, and those defeated foes to whom he was magnanimous in victory, especially the rich ones. His worst qualities seem to have been exacerbated, in record if not in fact, by three factors: 1) His education was poor, and yet he came to have power over refined gentlemen who were jealous of a man who, born to inferior circumstances and lacking in polish, nevertheless had the better of them. They could write more effectively, and not a few sources of our information on Drake are from these sorts of men. But this won't suffice to answer all the questions about his character. 2) Drake's insecurities about his low-born status made him hypersensitive to just these kinds of rivalries and fueled his obsession to dominate those who harbored the least resentment of him. He magnified their treachery and punished them, if necessary by violence with a patina of legality. 3) He practiced a violent profession in a violent era.

Queen Elizabeth, one of the few regents in history to have an age named in her honor, was a powerful, cunning, and enigmatic character who liked Drake and, while keeping a close watch on him, tolerated and surreptitiously encouraged his exploits. At the time the line between state business and personal business was considerably more indistinct than it is today. The Queen would often personally invest in questionable private undertakings which served the purposes of England and at the same time enriched herself and others involved, while publicly deploring the activities of "privateers" who raided her enemy's towns and ships. Likewise, private citizens would lend their ships and money to missions undertaken for the interests of the Crown, with the understanding that they would share in whatever booty may be captured. On further thought, maybe it's not so different from today. England's enemy was the Spain of Philip II, who had imperial ambitions and was clever and hardworking enough to achieve them. He had a worthy rival in Elizabeth.

Following Columbus' discovery of the New World, Spain wasted no time in exploiting the "Indyes," along with Central and South America. The great pre-Columbian civilizations quickly fell to Spanish might, and Spain became wealthy bringing their gold and silver back home. Columbus had been an Italian sailing for Spain. Another import, Magellan, who was Portuguese, also sailed under the Spanish flag and, hoping like Columbus to find a westabout route to the Orient, in 1520 discovered for his adopted country the Strait that bears his name at the tip of South America. This allowed the Spanish to expand their domain to the ports of the west coasts of Central and South America during the first part of the sixteenth century.

Magellan continued his voyage and gained credit in the history books for being the first man to sail all the way around the world. But he didn't. He died in the Philippines and Juan SebastiŠn de Elcano, the master of one of the other ships in Magellan's fleet and a person who had earlier been involved in a mutiny against Magellan, completed the voyage in September 1522 with only one out of the original five ships. I suppose Elcano, and not Magellan, deserves the credit for being the first one, but he wasn't the originator of the venture nor its original captain. You'd think that once it was done, the rush would be on for others to match the feat, but the next circumnavigation didn't happen for nearly sixty years, and then it was done by an Englishman.

Thanks in part to Magellan's new Strait, the Spanish had gotten the jump on the English and others in South America, but they had barely enough time to settle a few of their people and "pacify" the native populations--converting them to Catholicism--before another plan to exploit the New World was conceived by Drake's direct mentors, the Hawkins family mentioned above of Plymouth, England. Sailing with them as a young man, Drake learned a faster and cheaper way to wealth. Why bother to conquer native peoples and manage gold mines? Just take the stuff from them's that does it. For a quarter of a century, Drake and Hawkins, with others, plundered the Spanish Main with scant opposition until Phillip finally was able to come up with some ways of defending his colonies from their depredations. By then, Drake was a very rich man.

It served the national interest to have Spain weakened, and it served the interests of the investors and pirates to enrich themselves with the spoils of plunder. In addition, it served the political interests of the Queen to promote the Protestant faith that was in direct opposition to the Pope and his power, and to Catholic Spain. Elizabeth's father was Henry VIII who had split with Rome over the business of his separation from Catherine of Aragon, to marry Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. The details of this story are interesting in themselves, of course, but the point is that Henry's defiance of the Pope had less to do with theology than with power. By the time Elizabeth, who was third in line for the throne, was crowned, the official faith had gone from Henry's defiance to his son Edward's Protestant faith to his daughter Mary I ("Bloody Mary") and her zealous Roman Catholicism. Mary was also married to Elizabeth's later rival, Phillip II. The fact that Elizabeth survived during a shifting period when one's faith could mean the difference between having a head or not having one speaks volumes about her ability to, at a very young age, negotiate intricate and dangerous waters. It also meant that when she assumed the throne as a Protestant, she was accomplished in the art of playing her religious cards carefully, to her best advantage. Maybe she was devout, also. It's possible.

Some of the same can be said of Drake, who, throughout his career, practiced the trappings of protestant religious ritual aboard ship with gusto, and when politically necessary could be conciliatory to the other side. But neither Queen nor pirate scrupled to use religion to foment and support a virulent hatred of both the Irish and the Spanish papists. The Catholic Church for its part made a willing whipping boy by supporting the Inquisition, a tool which had the effect of controlling both political and religious foes, and by declaring that followers of the True Faith owed no allegiance to heretical monarchs like Elizabeth. This justified Elizabeth's executing persons suspected of treason by virtue of their confessed Roman Catholicism--not to mention their real antipathy for Elizabeth--like Elizabeth's' cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.

For Drake the stage was set to use God, Queen, and Country to provide himself with a metaphysical foundation and justification for actions that, in the absence of these high values, cannot be distinguished from vicious, rapacious, and profitable raids on defenseless Spanish towns and vessels at sea. In his mind, what he did was not at all criminal and he bridled when the word "pirate" was used to describe him. The Queen for her part pretended outrage and promised to pay retribution to the aggrieved parties, which retribution always seemed slow in coming. Aside from his religious war against the "antichrist," Drake had the Queen's wink and nod, and the Queen's money. He had a license to kill. He was the Oliver North of the sixteenth century.

Few criticize Drake as a sailor. He sailed without any of the modern tools of navigation, as had Columbus at the end of the previous century. There had been essentially no progress since then in navigation, with the exception of the fact that the Spanish had begun to chart the New World. Unlike Columbus and Magellan, Drake did not fancy the idea of sailing off to some uncharted never-never land. Since English seamen had never sailed to most of South America, and the Spanish guarded their charts and sailing directions ("derroteros") as though they were nuclear secrets, he therefore had a problem. But he solved it by use of the tools most familiar to him, of which he was now master. He simply captured a Spanish ship, imprisoned her pilot, confiscated his navigational papers, and pleaded, bribed, cajoled, or threatened him until he agreed to act as Drake's pilot for the specified waters. Maybe some torture was utilized. Problem solved.

Drake's fleet of ships, including his flagship which was not at the time called the "Golden Hinde" but the slightly more prosaic "Pelican," left Plymouth November 15, 1577 on a voyage that would cement his place in history. It would have been scant surprise to the crew to find they had enlisted for a mission of piratical raids. Only the most naÔve would not have known Drake's methods, yet later many gentlemen on the trip testified in court that they had no idea this sort of thing was in Drake's plans. However, word was given out that this time they were headed for Alexandria in the Mediterranean. When they found themselves on a course for the Strait of Magellan, a destination that the Queen, with Drake's complicity, had kept secret, there were some people among those aboard who didn't feel they had been well used. There were rumblings of mutiny and a gentleman captain of one of the other vessels in the fleet, and by gentleman we mean someone to the manner born, was executed in an incident which many consider a black mark in his biography. Yet Magellan had had similar problems and also authorized an execution on his voyage of discovery. The Captain of Maverick has yet to resort to like methods to maintain discipline aboard, and it is widely thought that this bespeaks his effectiveness as a leader of men.

The real purpose of Drake's voyage was kept secret from almost everyone, and even after it was complete, where he went and what he did was never fully disclosed. As of today there is very little clarity on some parts of it. Certainly the main specific mission was to distress and despoil any and all holdings of the King of Spain, and there is little doubt that this was accomplished. But it seems that the Queen and Drake conspired to keep the Spanish guessing at what else he might have done. They already regarded Drake with awe and terror, viewing him as having almost supernatural powers. Why not keep them in the dark about what he was up to, or whether he intended to establish a colony? Sharing his potential discoveries with the enemy would not serve, and how better to intimidate Philip II than by intimating that Drake may have found a northern passage to the west coast of North America, or some other thing of great import?

The Spanish holdings on the west coasts of South and Central America were undefended, since it was thought that no one had the nautical or navigational ability to sail in those waters except the Spanish themselves. After he emerged from the Magellan's Strait and gained the Pacific, the first Englishman to do so, Drake plundered at will and came away with an untold fortune.

As he sailed north from South America, however, details become increasingly vague, and no firsthand accounts of this part of the voyage have survived. Many materials and drawings have been lost, and what remains is often contradictory. Some reports seem to have been borrowed from accounts of other voyages to the New World and are not even relevant to Drake's. Unquestionably, much of this vacuum of information was by design. We know he stopped at Huatulco in Mexico where Maverick waited out a Tehuantepecker, but no mention of high winds there is made in the materials we have. He left Huatulco in April, and he seems to have reached his highest latitude, whatever it was, in June of 1578. On the way he undoubtedly stopped at Cabo to party and ride the jet-skis, and did the Baja Bash himself. Earlier Spanish explorers had trouble with it just like today's sailors; Francisco de Ulloa in 1540 spent 65 days tacking between Isla Cedros and the Baja mainland without being able to make any northing, which must be some kind of record.

One source claims that Drake reached 48 degrees north, almost at the Juan de Fuca Strait. It is more commonly believed that Drake made it to about Mendocino, then careened his boat, which possibly had been by now renamed the "Golden Hinde," in what came to be known as Drake's Bay. (It may however be the case that the ship was only renamed after the voyage; "Pelican" was a name dear to Elizabeth and the politician in Drake would have been unlikely to have seen the advantages of changing it.) At this bay he named the land "Nova Albion," or New England, "in respect of the white bankes and cliffes, which ly towards the sea," that reminded him of the white cliffs of Dover. The quote, one of the most telling pieces of the scarce evidence of his stay at Drake's Bay, is from a book published 75 years after his return. He reportedly emplaced a metal sign on a post at this place, but modern metallurgical evidence has not tended to confirm that the one "discovered" later, and to my knowledge still kept at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, is genuine. There is no evidence that he found San Francisco Bay.

The white banks and cliffs of Drake's Bay are striking and we will be looking, on our way north, for any other cliffs which fit the description. In Drake's Bay the cliffs are of the sedimentary rocks sandstone and limestone, and in Dover they are chalk, which is the same chemical composition as limestone. Those at Dover are from the Cretaceous, while the ones in Drake's bay were deposited later, in the Tertiary. The bedrock of the Point Reyes Peninsula is granite, which is believed to have originally been, about 30 million years ago, a southern spur of the Sierra Nevada. When the Pacific Plate ceased moving west against the North American Plate and headed north, creating the rift which became the Sea of Cortez and the San Andreas fault to the north, the section containing the modern Point Reyes Peninsula found itself on the western side of the split. The San Andreas fault runs up through California and out to sea just north of San Francisco. It comes ashore again at Bolinas Lagoon and then heads through the Olema Valley and through the town of Olema mentioned above, where it crosses Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and then becomes Tomales Bay. He probably didn't know this.

Over the last 30 million years the Point Reyes Peninsula has moved northward from its original position near LA on the western side of the fault, and as it did, the movements associated with its northward course also caused vertical changes, with the result that for long periods of time the part we now hike on was submerged. It was during these periods that the original Sierra granite received the coating of light-colored marine depositions of sandstone, limestone, and other sediments, now elevated above the sea, that make up the "white cliffs" Drake saw from his anchorage in the bay.

At the point he careened his boat here, Drake probably did not know which way he would go home, although there is some evidence that he considered a circumnavigation from the start. He most likely intended to make some attempt to find a northern route across present day Canada, at the time a sort of holy grail of navigation, but when that failed he had three options. He could go back the way he came, but this presented the unhappy potential of trouble, as this time the Spanish would be well warned of his arrival and disposition. He could abandon the Golden Hinde in Panama and make the trek with his men and booty overland across the isthmus to the Atlantic, where he could capture a vessel to take him back to England. As amazing as that sounds, it was the type of thing that would not intimidate the indomitable Drake. He was fully capable of forcing his will on local resources and meeting formidable challenges of this sort. His third option, if successful, would however bring worldwide fame, would allow him to preserve the fortune he had acquired, and would hold the promise of further prizes. This was to head west to Asia and from there around the Cape of Good Hope to home. Once he reached the islands of the western Pacific, navigation routes were fairly well established by the Portuguese, although Drake would have to rely on his standard methods to acquire pilots and charts. This course, the boldest of the three very difficult options, was Drake's choice.

He arrived back in Plymouth in September of 1580. After his return he was hailed as a hero, but the Crown's disinformation campaign circulated conflicting and confusing accounts of what he'd done. What is certain is that the trip, even taking time to explore unfamiliar seas, plunder, pillage, despoil countless villages and ships, and make necessary repairs, had taken less than three years. And that Drake had become the first man to plan, command, and sail a voyage all the way around the world.


Latitude 38 recently published an impressive list of sailing records, which are pretty neat to contemplate. But thinking about Ulloa's beat of 65 days in Baja brings to mind some other sailing records that may never be broken. Unlike The Jules Verne competition, and others financed by billionaires and raced by rock stars, these records were often accidental. What's the longest trip in an open boat? Does Bligh still hold the record? The longest trip in an open boat in the Southern Ocean? Shackleton? What square rigger took the longest to round Cape Horn? I don't know, but it's almost as impressive to me as the shortest time between New York and San Francisco around the Horn, because of the refusal to accept defeat. The longest time survived at sea in a life raft? There are also some humble records like the smallest boat to circumnavigate, the oldest circumnavigator, etc., that were planned but are projects on an individual scale. All of these are at least as representative as the high-speed records of human will and determination.

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