Phantom Ship of the Gran Desierto
by Harvey Gray, April 1974 – Desert Magazine
It had been several years since I’d seen my old friend, Michael Brewster, not since he was a mining engineer down in Bolivia. Mike was a character, one of the most likable sort. I waited while he settled himself into an easy chair and stoked up his old pipe, I think the same one he’d had the last time we were together shooting ducks on Lake Titicaca, and then I asked the inevitable question, “What have you been up to lately, Mike?” His deep tan showed he hadn’t been spending much time indoors, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the story he came up with.
We, my three partners and me, have been lookin’ for a sunken ship, full of Spanish treasures – we hope,” was his opener.
“I’ve read where quite a few people have been doing that sort of thing down along the Florida coast and Keys and in the Caribbean, and finding some old Spanish treasure ships, too. Is that where you’ve been?”
“Nope, we’ve been a long way from there. This ship is different, it’s English.”
“I thought you said a Spanish treasure ship.”
“Not quite what I said,” he replied. “It’s a Spanish treasure, but it’s an English ship.”
“I see, I think. When did you take up scuba diving? Is it in the Atlantic or the Pacific?”
“I didn’t, and it’s neither one. In fact, it isn’t even very wet where it lays a few feet below the surface.” Mike was up to his old tricks. He had a tantalizing way of saying things without coming right out and saying them.
“Yes, it’s a shipwreck, all right, an old sailing ship, and it’s buried beneath a big sand dune about 12 miles north of the Gulf of California.”
I must have look nonplused; it took a few moments for me to visualize that kind of shipwreck. “Now, how in the devil could a ship get that far out of water? She must have been making knots to skid so far after hitting the beach.”
“That weren’t quite the way it happened. But I’ll have to start at the beginning to convince you it’s no tall tale – of which you seem convinced already. You was always a skeptic.” Funny thing, though, most of Mike’s tall yarns in the past had turned out to be more fact than fancy. He was a pretty factual sort of an individual.
I loaded my pipe and sat back, preparing for the long session it was sure to be. Mike puffed on his pipe for a minute without saying anything, collecting his thoughts by all appearance. Finally, he began: “It’s hard to believe this weather-beaten old ghost could have haunted the Gran Desierto of Sonora for more than 300 years, jumpin’ up on rare occasions then fadin’ away like a puff of dust in the wind. It’s downright spooky!”
He continued, “It isn’t more’n 100 miles from Yuma, but it’s only been seen a few times by Indians over the centuries – accordin’ to their legends – and the last time was over 100 years ago.”
I thought maybe he was stretching a point there. “You mean it’s within 100 miles of a city the size of Yuma all that time and no one has come across it? Trail bikes and dune buggies are getting all over the desert these days.”
Mike wasn’t impressed by my comment. “Not this desert, they ain’t. In the first place, it’s in Mexico, and in the second place, you’d have to see it in the first place. Sand dunes up to 300 feet high in places, not a livin’ soul around for miles and miles, the place is lousy with rattlers and scorpions – there’s a lot of them, too,” he added as an afterthought – “and it’s a lot of miles to the nearest water hole, when there’s water in it. The Indians have steered clean of the whole area for the past century on account of there’s nothin’ to attract them any more. It’s no place for anyone primarily interested in survival. Only reason we went there was ‘cause it’s the only place the ship was – then, too, maybe we’d had a mite too much sun.”
“Now, that last remark isn’t too hard to believe,” I needled him.
He gave me a dirty look, “I’ll ignore that dumb crack. The old ghost appears in the form of a three-masted barkentine. It’s one that battled the seas for a time, battled the Spanish on occasion, and the elements for centuries. Its broken hulk carries the scars of all them battles, but mainly the last one when she came out second best.”
I said, “Such a ghost I’d like to see.”
He went on as though he hadn’t hear me. “We finally assembled all the known facts, threw in a bit of logic and calculations, then pieced it out with a mite of imagination and came up with the spot where it ended up, too. We know its name, where it sailed from and when, what it did, what it carried, when, why and how it arrived at its not-so-watery grave, and soon as we find it can probably tell you who was aboard.”
“This beings to sound intriguing,” I said, as he drew a heavy envelope from his pocket.
“Intriguin’ it is, amigo. But to give you the whole story, without missin’ some important details, better let me read my notes.”
He took a couple of pulls on his pipe and cleared his throat as though launching into a profound oration, and started reading:
“On July 31st of the year 1586, the small privateer fleet of Thomas Cavendish sailed from the port of Plymouth, England. The barkentines were the “Desire” of 120 tones, the “Content” of 60 tons, and a smaller bark, the “Hugh Gallant,” all heavily armed and carrying a total complement of 123 men.
Depending on whether it’s the Spanish or the English archives, Cavendish was either a pirate or a privateer. His mission was one of legitimate warfare, sailing under a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth to harass and destroy any Spanish ships in American waters and sack their port towns.
His voyage down the west coast of Africa, across the south Atlantic, through the Straits of Magellan and on up the west coast was not an easy one. Scurvy had depleted his crews to the point where, off the coast of Ecuador, he scuttled the High Gallant in order to fill out the crews to 60 on the Desire, and 40 on the Content. They had raided the coastal towns of Chile and Peru as they worked their way north, obtaining little of value but causing much destruction.
By July 11th, 1587, they were off the coast of Central America making slow progress. On the 19th, they captured a Spanish ship of 120 tons off the port of Acajutla, on the coast of El Salvador. The ship was in ballast, carrying nothing of value. But one of the Manila pilots was aboard, a Frenchman who went under the Spanish name of Miguel Sanchez. He was taken prisoner and the ship burned. The English crew tortured the Frenchman until he revealed that two Manila galleons were due to arrive in Acapulco from the Orient within a month or so. Another Spanish ship was captured shortly after leaving Acajutla and given the same treatment as the first. This had proven a good hunting ground for the privateers, but word of the impending arrival of the Manila galleons, prizes well worth taking, sent them on to the northward.
The paused along the way long enough to capture and destroy the port of Guatulco on the southern coast of Mexico, and gathered enough silver and other valuables to make the raid worthwhile. They also took as prisoner the alcalde mayor, one Juan de Rengifo.
Leaving Guatulco on August 12th, they passed up Acapulco even though it was the destination of the galleons, and continued on to the port of Navidad, headquarters for the pearling ships that plied the Gulf of California. They gave it the same treatment Guatulco had received, except this time all the men were taken prisoners and then ransomed back to the women for food and supplies. They stopped at one of the islands north of Mazatlan long enough to careen and trim the ships before continuing on across the Gulf to San Lucas Bay at the southern tip of Baja California.
There they awaited the arrival of the galleons, one ship constantly patrolling off the coast, and the other keeping a lookout posted on the high ground maintaining a constant vigil.
The galleon Santa Ana was over five months out of Manila and nearing the American shores after plodding her cumbersome way across the Pacific. It was on November 14th when her lookout saw sails on the horizon. Captain Tomas de Alzola believed them to be Spanish pearlers bound for Mazatlan. On the following morning, he was startled to see two ships closing in on the Santa Ana, and recognized them as enemies.”
Mike looked up from his notes and said, “Now, here’s a fine study in futility. Alzola began preparing for battle. With his cannon useless below the waterline behind caulked ports, if indeed there were cannon aboard, the Captain issued small arms, lances, cutlass’, harquebusses and even stones to the crew and passengers, more than 300 in all. Barricades were hastily improvised from the deck cargo. It was a ship poorly prepared to battle an enemy as well armed as the privateers.
The Desire opened fire with a barrage from its heavy cannon and small arms. It came along the starboard side of the Santa Ana and a boarding party of 40 men swarmed over the railing amidships. In the melee that followed, two Englishmen were killed and several wounded, casualties among those of the Santa Ana heavy before the boarding party was forced to retreat.
The initial attack was followed by two more, inflicting heavy damage on the galleon, even though a second boarding party was repulsed. Cavendish then changed his tactics. Realizing he was outmanned by the Santa Ana, he stood off out of small arms range and bombarded the galleon with his heavy cannon, inflicting great damage. The masts and rigging were down on the decks and there were a number of holes on her waterline. Many more Spanish casualties were inflicted. Alzola, having no powder left and a near derelict on his hands, had no choice but to surrender, his position was untenable.”
“I wonder why Cavendish didn’t use his heavy cannon more in the first place?” I commented.
Mike didn’t even look up as he said, “I don’t know. Ask him if you ever run across him,” and went on reading.
“It took the Desire, with the aid of the Content, until the following afternoon to tow their prize into San Lucas Bay. There, they put the 190 survivors ashore with limited supplies and sail cloth for shelters, then went about taking inventory of the cargo. It consisted of the usual Chinese goods, ivory carvings, silks, perfumes, spices, wines, brandies, chinaware and provisions. Much to the delight of young Cavendish and his crew, they found a small fortune in the strong box; 120,000 pesos in gold and a quantity of fine black pearls.”
Mike paused for a moment to moisten his vocal cords and said, “Now, we’re gettin’ down to the interestin’ part, where the old ghost of the desert begins shapin’ up.”
“There was discontent among the crews, especially that of the Content, over the division of spoils and an incipient mutiny developed. Cavendish believed he had the matter settled when he divided the booty into three equal parts, one for himself, one part for the Queen, and the third to be divided equally among the crews.
Having thus smoothed over the unrest among the men – he thought – they proceeded to unmast and set fire to the Santa Ana, including some 500 tons of her cargo; taking with them 200 tons of the most valuable items aboard the Desire and Content, all they could carry.
On November 29th, 1587, the English privateers sailed from San Lucas Bay after firing a final salvo into the Santa Ana. The Content followed the wake of the Desire out into the Gulf.” Mike barely looked up as he said, “Now get this! She was seen to lag behind and after a time swing off to the north, as the Desire, under full sail, turned to the south to pick up the galleon route to the Orient and on around South Africa to England. They arrived in Plymouth on September 20th, 1588, with their treasures intact. Cavendish was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
No such happy ending awaited the Content. She was never heard from, disappearing from the face of the earth as though some monster of the sea had seized her – as subsequent events seem to have proven.”
Mike folded up his notes. “All this early history of the Content we dug up from such sources as Gerhard and Martinez, both good reliable historians. Then we found some old archives here and there that confirmed what they’d written. Anyhow, it convinced us. Later, we picked up an old Papago Indian legend of a ship one of their ancestors had found partly protrudin’ from the sand there in the desert. He’d crawled through a hole in the hull and brought out some artifacts.
So far, that didn’t prove the ship was the Content but the things he took from the wreck just happened to be items from the Santa Ana loot. In the meantime, while we was rootin’ around down there, we found some Indian artifacts in a small cave not too far from where we think the Content lies. Among them were some items, such as a piece of sail cloth, a metal wash basin of antique construction, a part of a hoop from a wine or water cask, and some other stuff that had most probably come off a ship. No tellin’ how old they were but they’d been in that cave for a long time.”
“Pretty good circumstantial evidence,” I said, “but is it proof that ship is the Content?”
“Wait ‘til I tell you the rest!” Mike’s patience was always short when one of his yarns was questioned. “Now was when the real head-scratchin’ began. Just how did that ship get from San Lucas Bay to a place 12 miles north of the Gulf?
We figured that mutiny did take place on the Content just after she got under way and cleared the Bay. Why else would she turn north up the Gulf instead of followin’ the Desire like she’d been doin’ for over a year? Chances are the Captain and Mate went over the side with slit throats or a belly full of lead. The mutineers knew Cavendish would have them swingin’ from a yardarm if he ever laid hands on them, just like he’d done to that Padre he’d taken from the Santa Ana. As long as the Desire was goin’ south, they had an overwhelmin’ desire to go north.
Well, we figure one of the first things the top dogs did after takin’ over the ship was to start rummagin’ the Captain’s cabin. There they found his chart laid out on the table, just where he’d left it when the ruckus started. If you’ve ever seen any of the maps from them days, you’ll know cartography weren’t what you’d call an exact science – but they sure had an imagination for fillin’ in the blank spaces. This chart of the Captain’s showed Baja as a big island, with a broad channel out to the Pacific at the north end. That’s what I call a downright vivid imagination.”
While he stopped to fire up his pipe again, I got an atlas so I could follow his story better. He continued, “How they ever got from one end of the Gulf to the other I’ll never know. Only pure luck got them past all the islands, bars and reefs – couldn’t have been because they was livin’ right! With all that free-flowin’ brandy from the Santa Ana aboard, there must have been some dandy grudges comin’ out in the open and plenty of first class brawls resultin’. I imagine some of them got scratched and scraped a bit maybe. I’d sure like to have seen it all from some quiet corner.”
“Mike, your imagination is doing right well, almost sounds like logic. What happened after that? I shifted to a more comfortable position; this was getting good.
“Well, they finally got up to there they could see the north end of the Gulf and started lookin’ around for that wide channel out to the Pacific. Far as they could see ahead was a big flood plain with dunes beyond, back of them was mountains and more mountains with a high peak to the northeast. But between the surf and the mountains to the northeast, they spotted a break in the shoreline. They was probably sayin’ “Egad and gadzooks, we got ‘er made!’ or however they talked in them days. They headed for the break in the shore, but when they got close enough for a good look there was some first class cussin’ went on, I’ll bet. It was a muddy old river – a big one – but with all the sandbars that was showin’ up, they couldn’t have got the Content upstream with a shoe horn.
There was a mean lookin’ lava reef runnin’ out from the shore ahead, too. They figured if they could see one there must be plenty more around they couldn’t see. On account of they couldn’t think of nothin’ better to do, they dropped the bow anchor, figurin’ the best thing to do was a little drinkin’ and thinkin’. After a few dollops, they decided to stay put until high tide in the mornin’, whenever that would be, then head back south. Cavendish was now about 10 days ahead of ‘em, so they wouldn’t see him again.
With their leavin’ San Lucas Bay on November 29th, it would have been about the night of December 4th they was ridin’ there at anchor. We figured back in astronomical years and found out there was a full moon on that night of 1587. Now you know the full moon and maximum high tides goes hand in hand. As them tides come rollin’ up the Gulf, they was squeezed in between the taperin’ shorelines. The Gulf stretches about 45 miles wider at the north than it did in them days. So as the shores got closer and closer, the only place that tidewater could go was up and it got deeper and deeper, or higher and higher – dependin’ on whether you’re a fish or a duck. Tidal bores better’s 20 feet high, same as a tidal wave, are a matter of record in them days.
Now, as we figure it, the Content was layin’ there, fat, dumb and happy, like an old houn’ dog stretched out in front of a campfire. She was probably ridin’ on her bow anchor and swingin’ into a westerly wind when the tidal bore slapped her broadside. She rolled over on her beam ends, maybe all the way over, and righted herself as she floated back to the surface; draggin’ her bow anchor as the bore carried her along. Then like an old seagull droppin’ a clam on a rock, the bore plunked the Content down on the lava reef. She’s still sittin’ right there today, with a big hole in her bottom and a big sand dune on her top.”
I said, “Mike, you should have been a detective, the way you handle the clues.”
“Maybe so, but you’re about 40 years too late with your suggestion.”
He sat there for a few moments with a pensive look on his face, as though dwelling in the past. “you know something,” he said, “it seems to me the whole world turned its back on them cutthroats. The Gulf slowly crept away to the south and the river moved its delta miles to the west as the tidal sands gradually filled in the shoreline and choked off the river channels. The old ghost stays put there on its rock bier, but its spirit is still restless. Every once in a while she comes up for all the world to see – and nobody’s lookin’.”
By this time, both of us were having visions of ghost ships sailing across the billowing sands. “We’re goin’ back this fall when the weather cools off a bit and this time I’ll bet we find her if we get half a break from the wind uncoverin’ a bit of her poop deck cabin.”
“You’ve convinced me, Mike. How about signing on for your next expedition?”
He wasn’t paying any attention. My wife had just announced dinner and the old chow hound remembered her good cooking. He had something on his mind more important than ghost ships and Spanish treasures.