Friday, October 14, 2016

Lost At Sea

At daybreak on 4 November 1587 the King of Spain’s great Manila galleon, the Santa Ana was in sight of Isla de California. It was a crisp, clear day, without a single cloud in the sky. Tomás de Alzola stood on the prow of his command searching for signs of life on the desert hills. He knew the place was inhabited by Pericú indians. But they were peaceful and kept a low profile. Pirates were his main concern.

The nabobs of the South Sea Admiralty, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to remove his cannons before he left Acapulco in April, and use them to protect the port against pirate raids. "That way you’ll have more room for cargo" they said. Now all he had to protect his ship was blunderbusses and stones.

Alzola took a deep breath. The air, though dry, was saturated with warm fragrances from the coast: mimosa, prickly pear, and sun dried coral. “I can already smell the fresh water of Aguarda Segura,” he sighed, putting a hand on his first mate’s shoulder, “and we’re not even past the cape yet.” 

The arced promontory of Cabo San Lucas was a welcome sight. Awash with surf and sunlight it looked like the hand of Neptune fumbling in the shallows for errant mermaids. 

He reached into his jacket pocket and took out an antique brass navigational instrument, an astrolabe that was a gift from the Archbishop of Seville, Cristóbal Rojas Sandoval, who had died the very same day that he had given it to him. Along with his spyglass, it was one of the captain’s few keepsakes.

"Another 700 miles of this wretched 9,000-mile journey to go," thought Alzola. "After watering at Aguada Segura we should reach Acapulco in ten days." He was delighted to have crossed in such good time, just four months from Manila. For the first time since setting sail, he was happy. 

A turkey vulture circled overhead. The pallor of corpses yet clung to the decks. Nearly half of those who had boarded the Santa Ana in Manila Bay had perished at sea. “La muerte en el mar debe ser esperada, cotidiano incluso, solamente nunca es aceptable,” the captain often said. “Death at sea is to be expected, quotidian even, but it is never acceptable.” 

Sea lions on the cape were barking. “They sound more like sea donkeys,” he laughed. Just then a sailor in the crow’s nest cried, “Vela! Vela!”  Alzola raised his telescope and spotted two small ships on the horizon. “English pirates!”  he cursed. “Pinche cabrón, pendejo!

At Sampeguita, the gated community where my parents live on San Jose del Cabo Bay, every unit has a second-storey master bedroom. The old man hasn’t climbed those stairs in years, but my mother usually sleeps up there. The room has a spectacular view of the bay. 

Lately, when I’ve come to visit, she’s given me this room and moved into the garage. My sister gets the same treatment. We’re spoilt, for sure, but what can we do, she insists. Besides, the garage is where she keeps her workstation and all of her bits and bobs, and it’s air conditioned. 

This past week Cabo has experienced apocalyptic levels of humidity. A new air conditioner was installed in the master bedroom. No wonder I’m spending more time upstairs, sitting at the wooden writing desk, which looks like the poop deck on a Spanish galleon and has multiple hidden drawers and secret compartments. 

In 2012, I wrote the first few chapters of my second novel Pirates at this desk

Then, as now, staying focused was difficult. Sliding glass doors open onto a terra-cotta balcony with a vista that stretches across the bay, from Palmilla to Punta Gorda. Occasionally I go out for a smoke. One hit of that Acapulco Gold and I am spellbound, my face a wide open, pie-eyed target for well placed cannon shot. Mercifully, pirate ships no longer bedevil the Sea of Cortez.

I once saw a killer whale hunting in the littoral waters, a joy to watch through binoculars. But my greatest WTF moment came the morning I stepped out on the balcony to blaze and found a futuristic naval warship cruising up and down the bay, like a dark and menacing cyber-kraken from the future, the most badass ocean craft I’d ever seen. 

Turned out to be USS Independence, a high-speed “littoral combat ship” from the naval base in San Diego. With her trimaran hull she specialized in operations close to shore, and had sailed into Mexican waters to provide extra security for Secretary Clinton’s visit to Cabo; she was attending the first ever meeting of the G-20’s foreign ministers, at Barceló Grand Faro, 250 yards up the beach from where my parents live. 

For the native Pericú indians watching from shore that November day in 1587, the kerfuffle off Cabo must have been quite the WTF moment. Three galleons flying two different colors were sizing each other up. Two ships had cannons, the other blunderbusses and stones. They hurled insults, too, at each other, in Spanish (“Pinche cabrón, pendejo! No sea gorgojos idos!”) and in English (“God’s teeth, I bite my thumb at you, you half-faced, onion-eyed, huggermugger!”). 

These were not the first galleons the Pericú had seen sailing their waters. Elaborate boats helmed by elaborate boatmen had been dropping anchor off Cabo for fifty years. They came for what the Pericú called Añuiti (place full of reeds) and the Spanish Aguada Segura (safe spring), the only reliable source of fresh water within hundreds of miles. 

Being one of a few tribes on the California coasts to have mastered watercraft, the Pericú were open-minded to the arrival of big boats from across the sea. But seeing them engage in hostilities was a first, indeed terrifying for those out fishing at the time.

The Spanish galleon was nearly four times the size of the two English galleons put together, yet she had no cannons to fire back at them. After one of the English ships came alongside, sailors began boarding but were quickly driven back, some into the sea. The English then pulled back, to pursue their prize with the full force of their guns, firing everything they had at her. 

After the Spanish galleon began to sink the raiders again boarded, were again met with dogged resistance by her crew, but finally took control of the ship. They sailed her to a bay enclosing the mouth of the freshwater river so prized by the Spanish, where they anchored, removed the surviving crew and passengers to shore, then started pumping out seawater. They needed to keep her afloat long enough to unload her cargo.

The Pericú indians, who by then had gathered in large numbers on the beach to watch the spectacle offshore, could not have known that this single act of piracy would spell their doom.

Writing pirate yarns distracts me from the phantasmagoric image of my old man laying on his everlasting death bed. I feel guilty for not spending more time at his bedside, for not being able to do much for him, and for ignoring him. 

“What’s that brownie got in it?” he asks, as chocolate crumbs tumble down his chest. He’s noticed something different in the mix. “Marijuana?”

“That’s right, dad. Remember, we talked about this. Gerry got the weed, mom paid for it, and Bobby cooked it up in a batch of chocolate brownies.” 

“Oh,” he says. Later he complains of a belly ache. 

“So you don’t like the brownies?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “I like the brownies. The brownies don’t like me.”

"Did it have any effect on you?"



"Yeah, I was dancing with the fairies." 

Trudging back upstairs to my cave I take refuge behind a thicket of words. It’s my very own stairway to heaven. Dad, I think, needs a stairlift. 

We departed out of Plymouth on Thursday, the 21 of July, 1586, with 3 sails, to wit, the Desire, a ship of 120 tons, the Content, of 60 tons, and the Hugh Gallant, a bark of 40 tons: in which small fleet were 123 persons of all sorts, with all kind of furniture and victuals sufficient for the space of two years.”- Francis Pretty, man-at-arms on the Desire

The circumstances surrounding the sacking of the Santa Ana were serendipitous. The Manila galleon just happened to be carrying more than the usual rewards on that particular sea voyage. England was at war with Spain. And Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, an English privateer who had been given license by Elizabeth I to lay to waste every beslubbering Spanish outpost and galleon he found on his sea voyages, just happened to be in the neighborhood.

For six months he had been sailing up the South Sea, raiding ports, sinking ships, and burning churches in the Americas. He then heard from a Spaniard he had captured that the Santa Ana, a 700 ton galleon stripped of her cannons was sailing solo from Manila to Acupulco with a large cargo worth hundreds of thousands of pesos, and was due to arrive soon at Aguada Segura.

Cavendish knew that after a such a long sea voyage crew and passengers would be gagging for fresh water, and in no condition to resist an attack, especially without proper weapons. He must have been smiling to himself as they set sail for Cabo, swaggering on the sun bleached poop deck of his beloved Desire, gob smackingly amazed by the cunningness of own brilliant plan. 

Francis Pretty, his man-at-arms, describes the bay they sailed into:

The 14 of October we fell with the Cape of St Lucar, which cape is very like the Needles at the Isle of Wight ; and within the said cape is a great bay called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura: into which bay falleth a fair fresh river, about which many Indians use to keep. We watered in the river, and lay off and on from the said Cape of St Lucar until the fourth of November, and had the winds hanging still westerly.

From my writing desk I can see the same “great bay” where the privateers dropped anchor four centuries ago. Now there’s a highway through it and piles of waterfront condos, but essentially it’s still the same desert oasis on the bay: Añuiti, Aguada Segura, San Jose del Cabo.

For three weeks they waited, foraying onto shore from time to time to barter with the Pericú for fresh water. Anything metal was of great value to them. A soup ladle fetched six barrels of water. 

The natives, who had never known galleons to stay for so long, had no idea what they were up to nor did they make any trouble for them. Too busy gathering roots and shoots for the next shamanistic ritual, which they hoped would keep the danger they could smell at bay, they paid them no mind.


Without so much as a breath, Pretty recounts the events as they unfolded from the moment the Santa Ana rounded the cape:

The 4 of November the Desire and the Content, wherein were the number of Englishmen only living, beating up and down upon the headland of California, which standeth in 23 degrees and face to the northward, between seven and 8 of the clock in the morning one of the company of our Admiral, which was the trumpeter of the ship, going up into the top, espied a sail bearing in from the sea with the cape. Whereupon he cried out, with no small joy to himself and the whole company, "A sail ! a sail !" With which cheerful word the master of the ship and divers others of the company went also up into the maintop. Who, perceiving the speech to be very true, gave information unto our General of these happy news, who was no less glad than the cause required : whereupon he gave in charge presently unto the whole company to put all things in readiness. Which being performed we gave them chase some 3 or 4 hours, standing with our best advantage and working for the wind. In the afternoon we gat up unto them, giving them the broadside with our great ordnance and a volley of small shot, and presently laid the ship aboard, whereof the king of Spain was owner, which was Admiral of the South Sea, called the St Anna, and thought to be 700 tons in burthen. Now, as we were ready on their ship's side to enter her, being not past 50 or 60 men at the uttermost in our ship, we perceived that the captain of the said ship had made fights fore and after, and laid their sails close on their poop, their midship, with their forecastle, and having not one man to be seen, stood close under their fights, with lances, javelins, rapiers, and targets, and an innumerable sort of great stones, which they threw overboard upon our heads and into our ship so fast, and being so many of them, that they put us off the ship again, with the loss of 2 of our men which were slain, and with the hurting of 4 or 5. But for all this we new trimmed our sails, and fitted his furniture, and gave them a fresh encounter with our great ordnance and also with our small shot, raking them through and through, to the killing and maiming of many of their men. Their captain still, like a valiant man, with his company, stood very stoutly unto his close fights, not yielding as yet. Our General, encouraging his men afresh with the whole noise of trumpets, gave them the third encounter with our great ordnance and all our small shot, to the great discomforting of our enemies, raking them through in divers places, killing and spoiling many of their men. They being thus discomforted and spoiled, and their ship being in hazard of sinking by reason of the great shot which were made, whereof some were under water, within 5 or 6 hours' fight set out a flag of truce and parleyed for mercy, desiring our General to save their lives and to take their goods, and that they would presently yield. Our General of his goodness promised them mercy, and willed them to strike their sails, and to hoise out their boat and to come aboard. Which news they were full glad to hear of, and presently struck their sails, hoised their boat out, and one of their chief merchants came aboard unto our General, and falling down upon his knees, offered to have kissed our General's feet, and craved mercy. Our General most graciously pardoned both him and the rest upon promise of their true dealing with him and his company concerning such riches as were in the ship : and sent for the captain and their pilot, who at their coming used the hke duty and reverence as the former did. The General, of his great mercy and humanity, promised their lives and good usage. The said captain and pilot presently certified the General what goods they had within board, to wit, an hundred and 22 thousand pesos of gold : and the rest of the riches that the ship was laden with, was in silks, satins, damasks, with musk and divers other merchandise, and great store of all manner of victuals, with the choice of many conserves of all sorts for to eat, and of sundry sorts of very good wines. These things being made known to the General by the aforesaid captain and pilot, they were commanded to stay aboard the Desire, and on the 6 day of November following we went into a harbour which is called by the Spaniards Aguada Segura, or Puerto Seguro. 


A fortnight passed. As a full moon rose up from the sea, every person of importance in the Pericú community was seated around the sacred fire. From atop their desert hill they had a favorable view of the valley where Añuiti flowed into the bay, and where the three ships that had been there since the half moon were now floating in moonbeams.

The light hanging over the hills behind them, against which the souls of their ancestors were silhouetted, was the color of a prickly pear. Scattered around them were the tools of the tribe: stone grinding basins, spears, lark's-head netting, and coiled basketry.

A shaman singing incantations, his face painted red with ochre, passed around a palm-bark vessel containing a liquid that had been simmering on the fire. Each person respectfully drank from it. An hour passed, taken up only by incantations. The sky was full of stars. Then the red-faced shaman climbed to the top of a sacred rock above them to call down supernatural forces.

For a moment the sky was empty. Suddenly, from the heavens above the bay came a flaming dragon that lit up the ships below with the glow of its tongue. The Pericú gasped, threw up their hands. Then came another fire demon over the bay, this one shaped like a palm tree, then more palm trees, a hefty flaming forest of palm trees. Never before had the shaman conjured up such mind-blowing sorcery. It helped that the psychoactive drugs were just kicking in. Still, WTF…

Three hundred and forty five years and a day later my father was born.

“Oh, Edmund, it's wonderful! But what about Melchy and Raleigh? You must have brought something for them as well. [Edmund clears his throat trying to think of something] - Nursie's got her beard, I've got my stick; what about the two boys?” - Queen, Blackadder II ‘The Potato’

“God bless the Queen,” roared Thomas “The Navigator” Cavendish, raising a glass to England’s sovereign of 30 years, “and long may she reign.” The Spanish captain also raised a glass, though not in triumph. 

It was the night of 17 November, Coronation Day and Tomás de Alzola and a handful more people from the Santa Ana had been invited on board the Desire to celebrate with the English. It was as bizarre a situation as he had ever been in, toasting his enemy's monarch while his own king's property lay run-aground in the bay, looted of all her riches. 

The English captain’s toast was the cue for the master gunner to start the fireworks display. The Desire and the Content also made their salutes by firing fireworks from their cannons. They lit up the bay with a pyrotechnic spectacle the likes of which Alzola and his men had never seen before. 

“Impressive, hey?” said Cavendish putting an arm around the Spaniard who stood awestruck, his eyes fixed to the sky. “I was given a dozen barrels of water just for telling the native warlock we’d be having a firework display this evensong. Ha ha…” He then reached into his coat and produced a brass instrument, the very same one the Spanish captain had been holding when he was captured. 

“An ancient astrolabe?” said Cavendish, brandishing the object so the others could see it. “Were you planning on traveling back in time?” His officers roared with laughter.

“May I have it back,” asked Alzola, reaching out. “It was a gift from…” He stopped short, knowing how Cavendish felt about Catholics. The week before The Navigator had had a friar hung by the neck from the Santa Ana’s yardarm just for making the sign of the cross.

“No, you may not,” snapped Cavendish, who then threw the object into the sea. “By the way, could I get you to sign this bill of sale for the cargo we’re purloining?”

It took the privateers two weeks to offload the Manila galleon of her most precious cargoes. For want of stowage on their own two small vessels, they were forced to leave a few things behind, much of which had already been tossed overboard into the sea. 

Before departing, in an uncharacteristic show of empathy, Cavendish gave weapons, provisions, and the Santa Ana’s sails for shelter to the seafarers marooned in the bay. He then set fire to their ship. She was still ablaze when Desire and Content set a course for the Philippines, with the booty split between the two sails. 

The 19 day of November aforesaid, about 3 of the clock in the afternoon, our General caused the king's ship to be set on fire, which, having to the quantity of 500 tons of goods in her, we saw burnt unto the water, and then gave them a piece of ordnance and set sail joyfully homewards towards England with a fair wind, which by this time was come about to east-north-east. And night growing near, we left the Content astern of us, which was not as yet come out of the road. And here, thinking she would have overtaken us, we lost her company and never saw her after. 

Two years and fifty days after his departure from Plymouth, Thomas Cavendish sailed back into the same harbour. The Desire was only the third ship to circumnavigate the globe, after the Victoria of Ferdinand Magellan (journey completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano) and the Golden Hind of Francis Drake. 

Cavendish invited Queen Elizabeth to a dinner aboard the Desire. She was suitably impressed by his haul of gold, silver, silks, ivory, spices, and porcelain. Thereafter he was knighted and joyfully celebrated across the realm. He was 28.

Although a scoundrel and a scalawag, he does deserve kudos for his audacity. In the 250 years that Manila galleons sailed the trade route between the Philippines and Mexico, no greater prize was ever looted from a “nao de China” than Cavendish's haul from the Santa Ana. Three years later he had already squandered his fortune. He died at sea at the age of 31.

By the time I was 21 I had circumnavigated the globe five times. I have my parents to thank for that fanfaronade. They took me everywhere, from continent to continent, ocean to ocean. In time, like a satellite that’s reached critical orbit, I could not be stopped. The world is a blur to me now. 

At 54 I move continents on average every six and a half years. That’s a pirate’s life for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Can’t say the same for my parents. Retiring to Cabo twenty five years ago was meant to ensure the good times never ended, that they could both continue to enjoy their singular lifestyles up until the day they each shook off that mortal coil.

But my father is trapped in a body that will neither let him rise from his deathbed nor let him die in it. And my mother is trapped in a situation that requires more strength and presence of mind than an octogenarian can always muster. Sadly, there’s no way around it.

The saddest thing is how little my dad remembers of his own accomplishments: building 'comfort stations' in the slums of Ibadan, revitalizing the safari circuit in northern Tanzania, overhauling Air Lanka in Sri Lanka, finding a million jobs for Indonesians, and advising the Singapore government on how not to be dicks. Even the highlights are gone, no longer there to comfort him in his moment of reflection: scuba diving in the Maldives, skiing in Syria, building a waterfront dream home in San Jose del Cabo.

These days, the English and Spanish no longer visit Cabo, nor does Hillary Clinton. The Pericú indians are no longer here either. Two hundred years ago, war and disease carried over by conquistadors and missionaries, who had been sent by Spain to secure the California coast against future pirate raids, killed off the Pericú indians. Nothing of their culture and language remains. 

Occasionally there’ll be a firework display in San Jose del Cabo Bay, over near Palmilla, or out in front of Barceló Grand Faro, but no one’s quite sure why. You can take a cruise aboard an authentic galleon, sail around Cabo San Lucas on a “family-friendly pirate-themed adventure” while drinking tequila and keeping a bleary eye out for whales. Yup, the pirate theme prevails, in a plethora of colourful tourist attractions. True pirates, though, are lost at sea.

Tomás de Alzola is the hero of this pirate yarn. His heroism emerges in the final chapter. For as soon as those privateers had sailed over the horizon, leaving the Spanish galleon ablaze, Alzola and his seafarers swam out to the ship and put out the fire. They then set about rebuilding her, fixing her hull, raising her sails, and setting her adrift again on the Sea of Cortez. 

On 6 January 1588, seven months after leaving the Philippines, the Santa Ana limped into Acapulco, minus her cargo. On board, as well as Captain Alzola and the survivors, were two Pericú indians, husband and wife.

I have a recurring dream about my father struggling out of his bed and into his wheelchair, wheeling himself out onto the beach, and then down to the edge of the surf where a boat is waiting. He drags himself onto the boat, then pushes off and drifts out into the bay. 

The sea, mirroring a billion brilliant stars under a moonless sky, is as calm as a millpond, not a ripple. Leaning over the bow he sees his reflection in the water. “There,” he whispers, “what’s that?” A league beneath the surface, glimmering in the starlight is an object resting in the sand, a brass instrument. “It’s an astrolabe,” dad says, then closes his eyes and passes away.