Cabrillo’s Catalina Cruise

Just a mere 475 years ago, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo became the first European to stumble onto the North American continent. There is no doubt he was an extraordinary man - and in many ways the quintessential Californian.  From its earliest times this golden land seems to have attracted the daring, the visionary and the inventive among us.

Like so many others who came after, Cabrillo bet on the come, pushed his limits and dredged up the spirit he needed despite daunting odds. He set out from what is now Jalisco, Mexico on June 16, 1542, with a fleet of three ships: a galleon named San Salvador, another leak-laden rattletrap (the Victoria) and a weird lateen-rigged, twenty-six-oared frigate christened San Miguel. It’s certain that any of these vessels today would fail the Harbor Patrol safety code and be immediately confined to port. No sonar sounding devices or computer modeling systems were on board. Satellite mapping? Heck, he didn’t even have a sextant. Life jackets? Not effective when wearing 60 pounds of armor.

Nonetheless within three months he had made his way up the rugged “New World” coast into what is now San Diego Bay. The grand Cabrillo Monument overlooks the entrance to this beautiful harbor today, but Juan named the bay "San Miguel" to honor the scurvy-ridden Portuguese sailors on his smallest sailing craft. He also passed along land grant promises. It’s an effective device still used by start-up entrepreneurs today:  if you can’t pay well for risky work, at least cut the crew in on the stock options, right?

A week after leaving San Diego, Cabrillo reached Santa Catalina Island. He named it "San Salvador”, after his flagship. When the crew tried to take a small boat on shore there, a large, seemingly hostile crowd of armed local natives appeared. No need for radar warnings, Juan booked it east towards the Pendleton coast as quick as his bloated 200-ton galleon could wobble and roll.

With sheer determination and typical “left coast” ingenuity, Cabrillo pulled into San Pedro Bay less than a month later, which he named "Baya de los Fumos" (English translation: Smoke Bay) after the thick clouds of smoke, coming from the thousands of native campfires. The inversion layer in the Los Angeles basin was creating smog back before it had a name. It didn’t take years of computerized pollution tests for Juan to get the picture – he was way ahead of his time on that one.
Continuing up the coast, Cabrillo wrote glowing reports of the opportunity here, christening it California for the fabled golden land ruled by Califia, a mythical queen.  The crew was constantly on the lookout for her tribe of beautiful women who were said to be larger than life in every way. Things haven’t changed much there.  “Wish they all could be California girls”!

Development didn’t move ahead however, until some savvy venture capitalists (i.e. the Catholic Church) underwrote Father Junipero Serra to come sweating his way up the Baja Peninsula. Around the same year rowdy Bostonians were chucking tea chests off British vessels on the other side of the continent, Serra surveyed the same coast Cabrillo had first explored more than two centuries earlier. Followed by oxcarts, he founded the San Diego de Alcala Mission, and continued northward; building the mission in San Juan Capistrano the same year Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. Each outpost was about 25 miles apart – a long day’s walk.  Interstate 5 had not been envisioned quite yet.

Cabrillo’s efforts were certainly useful, nevertheless. He spent another few months exploring much of the rest of the California seaboard and his ground-breaking journey paved the way for the California we know today – a region of continuing endless possibilities. In an unfortunate accident Cabrillo broke his leg off the coast of Santa Barbara. Without medical treatment, infection appeared; Cabrillo died of gangrene - less than year after he had first set sail. 

Although many still refer to Cabrillo as the “discoverer of California,” it would have surprised the several hundred thousand native people who’d been living in the region for over 9,000 years. The Chumash and Ajachemen tribes had been sailing to Catalina for centuries, and (ironically) had medicinal knowledge that probably would have saved Juan’s limb and subsequently his life.  The savvy of some indigenous cures could rival Big Pharma on many days.

Words by Jim Kempton.