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Getting Drake's Home Shipshape : Fund-Raiser Fishes for Aid in State That Hosted 1579 Visit

November 18, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

British sea dog Sir Simon Cassels may have a tougher voyage to row than did British sea dog Sir Francis Drake.

Drake faced only mast-snapping storms, Spanish cannon and cutlasses, scurvy, rival freebooters, a mutiny, uncharted oceans and nervous Indians on his trip to California in 1579.

Cassels is here asking for money.

And for no closer cause than the renovation of Drake's home, square-faced Buckland Abbey that is 700-years weary, 6,000 miles from Los Angeles and even further from the minds (and pockets) of Californians who have yet to scrape up enough bucks to repair Mack Sennett's old studio. Or build a Vietnam veteran's memorial. Or rebuild the Santa Monica Pier.

Zounds. Didn't El Draque grab enough gold for England when he clobbered Santo Domingo, St. Augustine and assorted treasure towns in the Americas?

Explorer in California

"You're absolutely right," said Cassels, 40 years a sailor, recently retired admiral, and now head of the campaign to redo Drake's modest manse in Plymouth, England. "My line, if you like, has gone something like this: If Drake had not had the good fortune to find a safe haven in California in which to refit the Golden Hinde before he sailed across the Pacific . . . chances are he wouldn't have made it back to England and the course of history would have been very different."

Up to that point in history, said Cassels, 59, Britain's foreign policy had centered heavily on voyages of exploration. They formed, in essence, a continuing and serious attempt to improve British cooking and a winter diet of pigeon, salt pork and salt beef.

Heartburn was the blight of Blighty.

One solution rested with finding a shortcut through or around the Americas "to China and the Spice Islands . . . therefore cloves and peppers or anything like that to make dinner very much more palatable."

However, John Cabot and Martin Frobisher failed to find the Northwest Passage. Richard Chancellor was unable to blaze a Northeast Passage but found land and wound up in Moscow. Relief, it was realized, was several centuries away.

"After 1580, there is a marked change (from the previous tradition of long, exploratory voyages)," Cassels said. "There was the establishment for a short period of the colony at Roanoke and then along came Jamestown and Virginia and indeed, rather later, Plymouth, Mass.

"I contend that it is because Drake went home and said 'The natives are friendly. This is a super place,' there was this change of policy."

Visiting the Bay

So, Cassels said, the building of the United States began not in 1620 with Plymouth Rock but 40 years earlier at what was a "faire and good Baye" somewhere near what would become San Francisco.

"This is my cause celebre , if you like, for trying to interest Californians," Cassels said.

Last week, Cassels celebrated his cause with presentations before audiences from the Drake Navigator's Guild in San Francisco through an English class at UC Santa Barbara to a seminar on the Spanish Armada at UC Berkeley.

And the money is coming in "between $500 and $1,000 a day . . . from interested people who read an article in a paper, to a company which has interests in England."

Sadly, a reality of overseas fund raising is that in foreign exchange, few currencies are created equal. Cassels came here in search of $1.4 million. Then came Black Monday and a pallid dollar. "So I've had to up the appeal to $1.5 million in the last fortnight," he said.

Historians, it must be noted, are in general disagreement about where Drake paused for California R&R during his 3-year circumnavigation.

Most claim he rested and repaired his 75-foot Golden Hinde at Point Reyes in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Others claim Point San Quentin in San Francisco Bay proper. Write-in candidates are a cow pasture at Bolinas Lagoon between the bay and the point, Goleta Slough near Santa Barbara, and Ano Nuevo about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Clues and Red Herrings

The clues--a brass plate recovered here, five cannon found there, an Elizabethan sixpence in one spot, pottery shards in another--continue to be counted. Also discounted.

Cassels, claiming no scholarship, prefers not to be drawn into the controversy beyond noting that the debate and its attendant publicity are remarkably good for fund raising.

"Far be it for me to pontificate," said Cassels, gentleman, diplomat and knight. "What I would prefer to say is that in the absence of any really hard facts, the weight of evidence, until further notice, tends to favor Drake's Bay."

On the other hand, he agreed, one of the weightiest pieces of evidence for Drake's Bay could well rank in reliability with the Piltdown Man and Clifford Irving's biography of Howard Hughes.

Brass Plaque Found

It's a brass plaque found at Drake's Bay. It claims the area in the name of Drake and Queen Elizabeth I and bears an engraved date of 1579. But the plate has been tested and a metallurgist has stated that it is not much older than 1929.

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