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History Buffs Disagree on Course of Sir Francis Drake's Wake

Explorer: The 16th century seaman's landing point on the West Coast is hotly disputed by hobbyists who love a good maritime mystery. Once, their differences led to fisticuffs.

June 11, 2000|MICHELLE LOCKE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

POINT REYES, Calif. — To reach the spot where the dashing buccaneer Francis Drake is supposed to have visited California, Capt. Raymond Aker looks no farther than Drake's Bay, a sweep of sand and rock curled at the edge of the cold Pacific.

Not Brian Kelleher. He thinks the Englishman landed in Bodega Bay, a foggy stretch of coast about 20 miles to the north.

Nor Bob Ward. He favors Whale Cove, Oregon.

Turns out the road to Drake's landing spot is paved with dissension. History buffs agree his small ship, the Golden Hind, pulled in somewhere on the West Coast on a cold June day in 1579. Just where is the tricky bit.

"It's like an old mystery story or an old jigsaw puzzle, and a lot of the pieces are missing. People are trying to fit in the missing pieces," says Ward.

This much is clear: In 1579, about 16 years before the English made their first, unsuccessful attempt to colonize America at Roanoke, N.C., Drake stopped on the Pacific coast to fix his ship. He and his crew stayed for more than five weeks, met the local Indians, built a fortification, named the region Nova Albion (New England) and put up an engraved metal plate as a monument--more about the plate later.

Loaded with Spanish booty, Drake came home a hero--but a quiet one. His crew was ordered not to talk, and accounts of the voyage are sparse, secondhand and contradictory.

"It's very clear that a lot of documents have gone missing, and they went missing when Queen Elizabeth was still alive," says Anthony Bliss of the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library. "I think the chances of our finding them are pretty slim."

Upon the bare bones of history, Drake enthusiasts have woven a rich tapestry of possibilities. More than a dozen sites from Southern California to Canada have been mooted and refuted in a decades-old fight that has occasioned stinging retorts, a famous fraud and, on one occasion, fisticuffs.

"No one can tell you that this spot or that spot is out of the question," says amateur historian Oliver Seeler, who understands the pull of Drake's wake but doesn't think anyone yet has come up with a watertight theory. "Wherever you happen to be, you can sit there and in your mind's eye you can see the little Golden Hind come puttering in with Drake."

*

On a soft, gray day, Kelleher, a tall, bookish nature lover, strides across Campbell Cove, a dun-colored crescent on the lip of Bodega Bay.

"This is the spot," he says, balancing himself on squarish chunks of gray stone. "This clearly is some sort of stone wall. My theory is that what I am standing on is indeed the remnants of the fort that Drake built 400 years ago."

How did an environmental engineer turn into a Drake detective?

Kelleher blames it on Jules Verne. If he hadn't contracted an interest in all things maritime from reading the visionary Frenchman's books as a youngster, perhaps he wouldn't have been so susceptible when he visited Drake's Bay in 1989 and found out about the controversy.

One thing led to another, and soon he was plunging into the life of Drake, a farmer's son who became the most celebrated seaman of his age. To the Spanish, whose gold he plundered with the tacit approval of his queen, Drake was nothing but a pirate. To the English, who rejoiced in his role trouncing the Spanish armada, he was a patriot who rightfully was knighted by his queen and became Sir Francis Drake.

What is indisputable is that he was only the second man to circumnavigate the world, and unlike the first, Magellan, he made it back alive.

Kelleher's theory, laid out in a handsome, self-published book, "Drake's Bay: Unraveling California's Great Maritime Mystery," is that the most widely accepted Nova Albion latitude of 38 degrees, 30 minutes (30 nautical miles) is correct within a range of 15 miles given the techniques used at the time. Campbell Cove lies at 38 degrees, 19 minutes. Voila!

No way, says Ward. He thinks the official account was faked to confound the Spanish; the truth, he says, lies in handwritten accounts putting the landing at 44 degrees latitude, the mid-Oregon coast.

Wrong and wrong, says Aker: "The other theories really don't have any sound substance to them."

Aker, a retired sea captain, is a leading light in the Drake Navigators Guild, a circle of Drake enthusiasts. He champions the Drake's Bay site about 40 miles north of San Francisco.

He's been following Drake's trail since the 1950s, and says Drake's Bay has it all: location (around 38 degrees latitude) and a backdrop of chiseled cliffs that fit voyage descriptions of white banks and cliffs reminiscent of the English coast.

"There should not be any question about it," Aker says firmly.

*

The Drake dialogue can be a bit peppery.

There are members of the Bancroft Library staff who still remember the fistfight on the library steps some years ago, when "one guy on one side of the landing question literally decked somebody who was on the other side," says Bliss.

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