(The Not Yet) Sir Francis Drake by Captain Ray Wichmann

This article was originally publish in the June 2008 edition of Bay Crossings.

June, 2008 marks the 429th anniversary of the not-yet Sir Francis Drake’s visit to California.  While there is still some question as to exactly where he sailed (or more to the point, where he anchored) there is no doubt that more than 40 years before the Mayflower deposited the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, Francis Drake was in California.

Drake’s Golden Hind was the first English ship into the Pacific Ocean and the Spanish were not prepared for his arrival.  After entering the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan near the southern tip of South America, he pillaged and plundered his way north.  Within six months, he was off Oaxaca, Mexico with his ship’s hold filled with tons of Spanish gold and silver!

What now?  The Spanish, to say the least, were not happy; referring to Drake as “el Draque” (the dragon) and the “master thief of the unknown world”.  The Golden Hind was in great need of repair and el Draque was in great need of a place to hide while he made those repairs.  With the Spanish waiting for him to try to get back around Cape Horn, Drake sailed north until the cold and fog of the Oregon coast forced him south again.  On 17JUN1579 he found the refuge he was seeking.  He remained for five weeks, careened the Golden Hind on the beach, completed the necessary repairs, refloated her, and crossed the Pacific to the Philippines.  There he made repairs yet again in preparation for the final leg of the voyage home, east around Africa and then north to England.

He arrived home on 26SEP1580.  Everyone associated with the voyage became rich according to his station in society, Drake was knighted, Elizabeth did not have to marry Phillip of Spain, England remained Protestant, and the history of Europe was changed.  Drake was 29 years old.

Where Drake spent those five weeks during the summer of 1579 is a question historians and geographers have been trying to answer ever since.  Many locations have been proposed, but the three main contenders are Drakes Bay, Bolinas Bay, and San Quentin Cove, within San Francisco Bay.  This controversy certainly will not be settled here, but I’d like to add a few points to the debate from a sailor’s perspective.  (For a detailed discussion of all the issues, I recommend the book Lost Harbor by Warren L. Hanna.)

First, Drakes Bay (25 miles northwest of the Golden Gate) provides better protection from typically strong northwest summer winds than Bolinas Bay (approximately ten miles to the southeast).  Drake was about to careen his vessel on the beach – protection from wind and waves surely would have been a high priority in his mind.  He described his chosen refuge as a ‘faire and good Baye’ with “white bancks and cliffs, which lie toward the sea”.  If you’ve anchored in Drakes Bay (or even if you’ve only visited by land), you know how well this description matches the location.  Considering that the Spanish wanted their gold back and were on the lookout for Drake, I don’t think he would have passed up the good protection offered by Drakes Bay in the hope of finding something even better farther south (and ever closer to Spanish settlements). It also seems unlikely that he would have entered San Francisco Bay for, if discovered, the narrow entrance would have made it very easy for the Spanish to trap the Golden Hind inside.

But a most telling piece of evidence, from this sailor’s perspective, is the fact that after completing the needed repairs, his next stop was the Farallon Islands.  He named them The Isles of St. James, a name still carried by one of the smaller rocks out there.  Even in a modern sailboat, it is hard to lay the Farallones from the Golden Gate in northwesterly winds of summer. In the square-rigged Golden Hind, it would have been virtually impossible.

Offering just a few thoughts on an old controversy…


Ray Wichmann is a US SAILING certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty.  He holds a 100 Ton Masters License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Greece.  He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC SAILING in the Berkeley Marina.