In the Wake of Cabrillo


This monograph describes Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery, along with the author’s cruises to visit some of the places Cabrillo discovered. Cabrillo was the first European to explore the west coast of the United States. Little is known about his early years. Even his nationality is disputed, with some biographers claiming he was Portuguese. He first rose to fame as a member of Hernán Cortés’ army of conquest in Mexico, and then later with Pedro de Alvarado in Guatemala. Alvarado directed Cabrillo to build a fleet of ships to explore the unknown area known as Alta California. When Alvarado was killed in a skirmish with Indians, Cabrillo was selected to lead the expedition in his place. He set out from Bahia de Navidad with three ships on June 27, 1542. His flagship, which he had built and owned, was the San Salvador, a galleon of 200 tons. The second ship was La Victoria, 100 tons, and the third was small vessel, perhaps 30 feet long, named the San Miguel.

Three months later, after a challenging sail north against the prevailing currents and adverse weather, Cabrillo discovered San Diego Bay. After some days of exploration and peaceful contact with the local Indians, Cabrillo and his fleet continued northwest, discovering Catalina Island, San Pedro Bay, Santa Monica Bay, and then the Channel Islands. In the area of present-day Ventura and Santa Barbara, they met additional Indians, took on water, food and firewood, and continued north. They undoubtedly reached Monterey Bay, and beyond that, possibly Point Reyes or Drake’s Bay, although the record is unclear. By then it was mid-November, and they were being battered by winter storms, so they turned south to shelter in the Channel Islands. On San Miguel Island, Cabrillo was injured, possibly as a result of a fall during a confrontation with Indians, and later died as a result of his wound.

Command of the expedition then fell to Bartolomé Ferrelo, Cabrillo’s pilot. He first took the expedition to the southwest, looking for other islands, then was blown north by storms, and finally came back south past Monterey and anchored at Santa Cruz Island. Meanwhile, they had been separated from La Victoria and feared she had been lost in the storms. On March 8, 1543, San Salvador sailed south and was rejoined by La Victoria at Cedros Island. By mid-April they reached Bahia de Navidad. Strangely, throughout the narrative, there is no further mention of the San Miguel, so we don’t know what happened to the small vessel.

In summary, Cabrillo did not make long ocean passages, and in a sense made no major discoveries. But what he did was dangerous and required considerable skill, as he explored nearly 2,000 miles of rugged coastline and its offshore islands. In the open ocean, there is the problem of storms and huge seas that has to be overcome. Near land, there is a different challenge—that of avoiding running aground or getting blown onto some hidden reef and wrecked. Contrary winds, fog, and unknown sea bottom conditions require constant vigilance by the coastal sailor. Cabrillo can be remembered as a consummate sailor who ventured into the unknown with no charts or instruments and opened up a new country.

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