little pirates

Yaaaahr, we be pirates mate and we’uns be seekin’ treasure and a flagon of grog to wet our’n whistle. We’uns come off the brig Nancy’s Revenge, Cap’n Flint commanding’ Sor, and’r looking to spend our share of the loot from divers ships we’ve took on the Spanish Main.

Such are the dreams of boys. My grandfather, my uncle Jack and my dad told us stories of pirates gold and the places where it resided here in the Arroyo Grande. Stolen from Spanish Galleons on the run from Manila to Acapulco, the west coast port where it was to be shipped overland to Monterey, Mexico and on to Spain to fill King Phillips coffers. Gold pieces of eight, bars of silver and precious jewels by the handful, stashed in the caves of Mt. Picacho. Protected by the skeletons of the pirate rogues who buried it there. Dead men tell no tales mate. Beware the Black Spot.

When we were little boys, my uncle Jackie took us to this mysterious place on the southwest side of the distinctive hill known as Picacho. Clambering down the side of the hill, he led us to the dimly perceived opening of the pirate cave hidden below an overhang of ancient rock. A very small cave it was, you having to be just boy size in order to crawl back into it. Along the walls and ceiling were names of intrepid explorers who had visited it before us. Carved with jack knives were the names and dates of boys going back long before my father and grandfathers time, each one searching for the long lost treasure of Francis Drake and Hippolyte Bouchard, or perhaps the gold and silver deposited there when the padres were forced to abandon the missions in 1833. Delicious tales to enliven a little boys imagination. Tell me a story Daddy, like you said you would.

Raised on Frank Merriwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hardy Boys, it was no stretch to begin reading adult adventure novels, “The Captain from Castile,” and in the eighth grade discovering on my mothers bookshelf, a book borrowed from Gladys Loomis, “Beat to Quarters,” a Horatio Hornblower story. Then, Joseph Conrad and I was hooked on the sea.

As a lifelong surfer and seaman, I’ve learned many lessons about sea keeping, having been a merchant mariner and long distance sailor. Sad to say the experience has taught me that there never were any pirates hiding treasure along our California coast. Dreams of little boys are mostly dashed by the practicalities of life.

drake golden hinde

Golden Hinde, Length, 102′-Beam, 20′-Draught, 9′-Speed, 8 knots, Burden, 100 Ton.

Sir Francis Drake, El Dragon, sailed the coast of California in 1579 on his way around the world. Sad to say, his logbooks, accounts and maps were burned in a fire at Whitehall in 1698 so the exact sequence of events is mostly unknown. What is difficult to understand is how remote California was at the time. Mexico was still in the process of subjection by the Spanish, it only being 60 years since Cortes landed at Monterrey, Mexico. The destruction of Tenochitlan, the Aztec capitol three years later began the total destruction of the various indigenous tribal empires of central america. In Drake’s time, the spanish were in the midst of a bloody, protracted war with the Chichimeca people in Zacatecas and had not yet settled on the  northern Mexican, Baja or the California coast.

The state of navigation during the 16th century was such that accuracy of position was chancy at best. Most of the time mariners used a compass and a Log* to determine position. This was called Dead, for deduced reckoning, and with a knowledge of currents, or drift and, an Astrolabe,* position could be estimated with a certain degree of accuracy, particularly in measurement of latitude. Latitude was the measurement of position either north or south of the equator. Longitude, or the distance from a fixed point on earth was largely impossible to determine until the invention of extremely accurate chronometers (clocks) that would stand up to a sea voyage. These were not perfected until the late 17th century and weren’t common on ships until the 1820’s, two and one half centuries after Drakes voyage.

Here, where we live, any idea that Drake landed here is so unlikely that it bears no credence. The site at the old Cave landing could hardly be more dangerous to a ship of the type that he sailed. The Golden Hinde was a square rigged ship, which in his time, were largely unable to sail any closer to the wind direction than roughly 50 degrees. This means that if you sail into a north wind, the best they could do was  about 5 degrees off northeast or northwest. Easy to sail in, very difficult to get out.



The 22 mile distance from Point San Luis to Point Sal which comprises San Luis Bay is what is known as an “Open Roadstead,” meaning that there is little or no protection from the prevailing winds, no protected harbor, and has a sea bottom that won’t hold anchor in a storm or heavy sea. Each year, boats anchored in San Luis harbor go on the beach because they drag their anchors in heavy surf and it would have been much worse before the breakwater was built. The Masters Mate, who normally did the navigation in Drakes time would have been extremely reluctant to put in at a place such as Cave Landing. He could certainly sail in but would have been well aware of the difficulty in getting out. From the sea, the central coast is indistinguishable from most of the west coast. There are no outstanding geographical features to be seen from even a few miles out and with the nearly constant Northwest trade winds no sailor would likely come to shore here.

calif map

Map of California, circa 1590

As for Drake’s treasure, what would be the point of landing, and hiding it. It belonged to  Queen Elizabeth I and thats where it ended up. 80 pounds of gold, 20 tonnes of silver, 13 cases of silver coins and divers cases of pearls and gems, it paid off England’s national debt, and made Francis Drake and his crew rich beyond their wildest dreams.drake ship b1

Much the same as the Golden Hinde began its 7,000 mile journey west, across the Pacific to the Philippines, leaving California behind forever, we leave the dreams of our little boys in the secret places they belong. Or maybe not.




Even today, I can look out my studio window and see Picacho in the near distance and I still wonder, what if it was all true?



Log: a piece of wood attached to a line knotted at uniform intervals. A sailor heaved the log from the stern of the ship and let the line pay out freely as the ship pulled away. When the sailor felt the first knot pass through his fingers, he shouted a signal to another sailor, who turned a one-minute glass. The first sailor counted aloud the number of knots that passed until the sand ran out. A timer of one minute (one-sixtieth of an hour), knots spaced one-sixtieth of a nautical mile apart, and simple arithmetic easily gave the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour (“knots”).


Astrolabe: By the Elizabethan era it consisted of a large brass ring fitted with an alidade or sighting rule. The user held the astrolabe by a loop at the top, turned the alidade so that he could sight the star along its length, and read the altitude off the scale engraved on the ring – difficult tasks to perform on the deck of a heaving ship. The consequences of imprecise measurement are serious (a latitude reading just one degree off produces an error in position of 60 nautical miles), so mariners often used the astrolabe in pairs, one to sight along the alidade, the other to steady the instrument and take readings. On shore, however, the astrolabe was easier to use and more accurate.




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